The infamous George Carlin routine about “soft language,” particularly his explanation of how the condition first called shell shock has come to be known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, has more than its fair share of merits. Its strongest point is that medical language, like other specialized language used in small circles of the broader public, tends to obfuscate and depersonalize the serious problems that the words represent. Shell shock may have an additional meaning for those of us who grew up on early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but its immediacy does a far better job of conveying the overwhelming stresses of the condition than its modern name, even when that name is abbreviated to PTSD in most circles.
Unfortunately, some observers have read a different meaning into Carlin’s comedy, implying that Carlin meant to attack the broadening of PTSD to include traumas that arise from non-battle situations, a hypothesis that isn’t particularly confirmed in any of the rest of Carlin’s words on the subject. The people who make this implication, unsurprisingly, are often those who are most concerned with downplaying the traumas of other conditions, such as those of being a rape survivor or a survivor of a hate crime. This can be seen in how these people don’t use the same execrable “snowflake” rhetoric to describe veterans with “Please don’t light fireworks near here” signs outside their houses in July that they use, for example, to describe college students who protest the speech codes on their campuses. No reasonable person would suggest that a war-ravaged veteran is deserving of ridicule for wanting to avoid loud explosions, and I’d like to think that no reasonable person would suggest a woman was worthy of contempt for not wanting to be needlessly reminded of the time/s she was raped. Unfortunately, as the last few years have proven, this country is full of unreasonable people.
If there is a debate to be had over how to measure the seriousness of certain kinds of trauma — and I don’t think there is — then I’m certainly not to be the one making it. All I can say, both from my personal experience and my years of professional teaching (and non-professional personal counseling), is that trauma exists in all manner of ways, and that even if there’s an argument to be made that some kinds of trauma are more powerful than others, that doesn’t mean other kinds of trauma can’t have seriously debilitating effects on the people who suffer them, especially if those people haven’t been afforded the opportunity to learn appropriate coping mechanisms for dealing with tragic life circumstances. The more that American culture exalts this “survival of the fittest, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, blaming anyone but yourself for your problems is an intolerable sign of weakness” ethos that’s so pervasive among both the major political parties of this country, the more we should expect that an increasing number of people just don’t know how to deal with trauma of any kind.
As much scorn as the term “microaggression” has gotten in recent years, it still points to the reality that many people face in this country, where behaviours that can seem normalized are, in fact, slowly wearing away at people have to endure them on a near-constant basis. When people are expected to tolerate a non-zero level of personal attacks and similar vitriol in the name of some hopelessly-abstracted concept of “freedom” or whatever, particularly when they can clearly see that this is a burden than not every person around them is expected to shoulder (let alone shoulder equally), then it only follows that without the proper coping mechanisms, let alone an opportunity to address these attacks, the collective stress created by microaggressions can have serious effects on people.
I first became aware of the term racial battle fatigue about a year or so ago, and I’ve been studying it more intensely as I’ve done research for my next book these past few months. (Again, please join my Patreon for more news about that research.) When I first heard the term, though, I fixated on its last two words, because I remembered hearing them coming out of George Carlin’s mouth; battle fatigue was one of the terms for the condition we now call PTSD, used between shell shock and the current terminology. My first concern when I heard the phrase racial battle fatigue used was that some people (the same cretins I mentioned earlier) would fix on the “battle” part and insist that being a person of color in America wasn’t analogous to fighting in an active war zone. I’m white, so I know full well that I’ll never have any real idea of what it’s like to be a person of color, but even given the secondhand accounts I’ve heard from friends and students over the years, the analogy certainly seems apt to me, and as I’ve studied the conditions of people of color in American education these past few months, that conviction has only grown stronger for me.
It’s kind of hard to separate the challenges of the pandemic with the challenges of the upcoming election, but as the months have worn on here, I’ve certainly found myself growing more and more tired of pandemic life, and I should be one of the people most amenable to its restrictions; I’m a very solitary person to start with, my job is one of the easier ones to transfer over to an online environment (even if those challenges are sometimes quite difficult), and my research has consumed so much of my life these past few months that I just haven’t had opportunities to do things other than teach and research and play the odd video game every once in a while. Despite that, though, I still find myself growing increasingly weary of the pandemic, so I can only assume that the more social and traveling of you are in much worse straits than I am in that regard.
That raises the question now of if we’re all, in some small or not-so-small degree, suffering from a form of PTSD as we claw our ways through the end of the first year of this pandemic. It’s hard to quantify our own reactions to something when everyone around us is suffering from the same root source of our problems, and the isolation of the pandemic has made it harder for us to gauge in-person human reactions; even for those of us who are active on social media, gauging our friends’ emotional and mental states is often much harder to do through Twitter and Facebook posts than it is over a cup of coffee. I haven’t heard anyone discuss this possibility yet, but I’ve also been so deep in my research and grading student work that maybe experts on these matters have been talking about this, and it’s all just slipped my attention so far.
All those people I talked about earlier won’t believe the experts, though; they’ll cling to the same demented dogmas they’ve been trumpeting ad nauseum these past few years, if not longer. For many of them, in fact, their bloviations began with an event quite traumatic in its own right: The September 11 attacks. I don’t think anyone who lived through that day would dare to question how those events could have traumatized others; they certainly traumatized me, and even if I’ve (arguably) moved on from that trauma, I can see why others would have a more difficult time doing so. We may reach 300,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 — over a hundred times more people who died worldwide from the events of 2001.09.11 — before the end of the year, but we keep getting told to “suck it up” and get over it. We shouldn’t, and more to the point for many of us, we can’t. I don’t know exactly what George Carlin would say to the people who claim that the death toll of the pandemic isn’t anything to get worked up about, but I’d like to think it would include lots of four-letter words, and not just PTSD.