Each of the terms in the title are words in the modern lexicon of dialogue. They mean something in context that is different than the literal meaning of the words. They are short-hand forms of speech used by many people, especially young people, when they are having intimate conversations with people they know well. This diary is a defense of modern vernacular and why we use it with people we care about.
Two diaries included STFU! in their titles this week. The second was a rebuttal of the first. The power of the vernacular term STFU! is apparent in the way both diaries express an urgent desire for more authentic connection.
The first diary is ironic because in choosing a provocative title, the author deliberately invited attacks on himself and his desire to discuss male complicity in sexual violence. That is a man, doing some very heavy lifting, in terrain where angels fear to tread. It is an urgent call to men to practice being present, as a witness, to embrace the unspoken along with the spoken as women tell their personal stories.
The second diary is also ironic because the author's admissions include an implicit willingness to be vulnerable. He may be willing to hear the direct experience of another human being but he's not sure because vernacular like STFU! shuts him down. For him, and many others who recommended the diary, STFU! is a trigger that impedes their ability to engage. It's a trigger that takes them out of the present and shifts their internal focus to ugly memories of the past, when someone in authority made them sit there and be quiet while being lectured. It might recall to mind the relative helplessness of a child or a teen verbally battered by a parent or teacher who uses violence in their words and demeanor to berate and humiliate them. Those wounds are on the inside. Harsh words don't leave a bruise on the body, but they can leave a mark on the soul.
For the second author, STFU in the title was so repulsive, he didn't even bother to R-T-F-D. Yet, he wrote a compelling rebuttal. Both authors received hundreds of recommends and vigorous participation in the comment threads.
The actual meaning of these words and phrases depends heavily on context. Let’s begin with the urban dictionary.
Get Out!In some contexts and in formal speech, “get out” usually means "leave this space immediately!" But in modern vernacular it can be an expression of joy. The context changes the meaning entirely.
Expression of disbelief, usually over something too good to be true. A phrase containing 'get out' usually ends with an exclamation point.
Bruno: And so all of the digits matched! That's 2.5 million right there, dude!
Ed: Get out! That's awesome!
An important aspect of context is the level of intimacy between the parties to the conversation. Most of us drop many rules of formal conversation when we are speaking to people we care about, when we are speaking to intimates. Many conversations this past week about sexual violence and misogyny involved very personal disclosures. IMO, many of the derailments involved an obvious desire to avoid frank disclosure of intimate violence. Some of those objecting, diverting, changing the subject, were deliberately and persistently attempting to shut the conversation down. They constitute an implicit rejection of the right to have such intimate conversations on the internet.
The most versatile word in the English language
Consider various uses of “fuck” listed in the urban dictionary. Many people still object to its use, as profanity, because for hundreds of years speaking directly about sex was considered profane.
fuckThe F-word adds context-dependent richness to informal expressions of emotional experience. Compare, "That's so ridiculous I can hardly believe it!" with "WTF?!" The short-hand acronym is much easier to say and to type. In contrast, as used down below in the diary, "WTF is a trigger?" is used simultaneously to a) liven up a technical explanation, b) to soften emotional tone, and c) to signal tacit recognition that some readers may need a patient teacher to help them grasp the unfamiliar concepts. In that context, WTF is used as an informal invitation to learn, along the lines of, "Are you skeptical about this term? Don't worry! You're not alone. I won't diss you or make fun of your ignorance. If you engage here and read this, I will help you. I'll break it down for you." The context transforms the meaning of WTF? from shock and ridicule or outrage to a welcoming invitation to engage. Written expressions of WTF and STFU have diverse meanings that depend on the informal nature of the author-reader relationship.
1. The universally recognized "F word"
2. N. Implying complete and utter confusion
3. N. a really stupid person
4. V. To procreate
5. adj. Can be used to modify any word for more passion
6. Int. Expresses disgust
7. Int. Expresses complete suprise and joy (sic)
8. adv. Can be used to make a command more urgent
In 2014 the vast majority of the time, when people include the word fuck in their expressions, they mean something far removed from fornication. To reject its many forms in modern vernacular is essentially a demand that formal language be used as a threshold for conversation.
The effect is to limit speech because it declares “out of bounds” many ways that people speak to each other in casual conversations they have with people they know well. A rejection of informal speech often amounts to a dismissal of “the other” as unworthy of serious attention. In many contexts a rejection of vernacular includes an implicit assertion of superiority. In our context, in diaries and comment threads over the past week, a rejection of the expression STFU! was often an assertion that intimate conversation about violence against women can be interrupted and dismissed without consequence.
The title Dear men, STFU! conveys a deep desire for less belligerence and bluster. It includes an implicit invitation to men to set aside everything they thought they already knew about sexual violence and focus on someone telling their story. To be present as if you could actually walk in someone else's shoes for awhile. Dear men, STFU! is an invitation to become more authentic, more intimate, to keep listening even when you don't understand. The diary models for men how common habits interfere with what many men and women want, the experience of being heard. It is an invitation to stop debating, stop problem solving, stop asking "How did this happen?" It's an invitation specifically to men, to practice, here at Daily Kos, listening to someone important, a wife, a daughter, a partner, a friend as they tell their stories, in their own vernacular and on their own terms, rather than demanding that they first conform to yours before you'll even "let them" begin.
Dear men, STFU! is an invitation to bear witness.
In the second diary the author took offense to the title and admits he is rebutting a diary that he didn't read. He states clearly why STFU! is a barrier to engagement, for him. It stands in his way. He doesn't get why other people saw the same term, STFU! as an invitation to engage more deeply. There is some merit to his rant and many Kossacks agreed. He calls us to be more aware of how violence creeps into our vernacular where it doesn't belong.
On the other hand, if someone can't be bothered to read the diary, and then posts a rebuttal anyway, are they even ready to listen? Isn't that just having an argument with their own imagination? Did he want active dialogue? It's not clear. He honestly admits to a significant laziness about the topic of sexual violence, and for that, many readers dismissed his point of view. But wait. That means an author took time to articulate his outrage against what he imagines about a topic he admits he doesn't understand, a topic he can't be bothered to read about. The experience has been so bad for him that it makes Daily Kos seem like a worthless place to be. To his credit he didn't just leave. He invited witnesses to the conversation he’s been having in his head up to now. I stand in awe of such courage.
STFU! Really? is an invitation to bear witness to the way violence in language interferes with intimacy.
In a sketch on Euphemisms, George Carlin mocks the way that language has changed, “squeezing all the humanity” out of a term that needs to describe a state of extreme pain and distress. “Shell shock” became “battle fatigue” became “Operational exhaustion” became Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Shell shock referred to an altered state of being in people who were exposed to violence. They were exhausted beyond their capacity to resolve their conditioned fear response and their nervous systems were stuck in a state of alarm long after real danger had passed. The conditioned fear response occurs in all animals and is an essential mechanism within our survival-based evolutionary learning system. A simple example of conditioned fear is teaching children not to touch the stove by bringing their hand close enough to feel pain.
When we are calm and rational our nervous system is in balance. The parasympathetic nervous system (restorative brain chemistry) is balanced with our sympathetic nervous system (threat response and survival brain chemistry). PTSD occurs when a person's normal resilience to violence or threat of violence is disrupted and their nervous system is unable to resolve their survival response, (Freeze, Fight, or Flight), and return their body/mind to a state of calm readiness. This is important and bears repeating. We are calm and alert, and able to think clearly, when the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system is in balance with the sympathetic branch.
WTF is a trigger?
Many triggers help us all to stay alive. They are part of our evolutionary response to survival threats. They activate our sympathetic nervous system and flood our bodies with stress hormones. That's why they work. They compel us to focus and change our immediate behavior in ways that increase the survival or our species.
Effective triggers are impossible to ignore. The horn of a fire engine alerts us to an emergency. In traffic the fire engine horn is so repulsive it motivates people to change their behavior, to stand back or get out of the way. It is essential communication that helps first responders go quickly through crowded streets to the persons in distress.
After danger has passed and the triggering stimuli turns off our parasympathetic nervous system can bring us back into balance. Studies of breath and breathing have shown that when we inhale our sympathetic system is dominant, and when we exhale our parasympathetic nervous system is dominant. When you take long slow breaths and consciously slow down your breathing rate your brain gets the message that danger has passed. That's the neurochemistry behind the phrase, "Take a deep breath." That is why meditation works. It's why coherent breathing works. With training, it is possible to interrupt an anxiety attack in 3-5 breaths simply by lengthening your exhale.
Any stimulus associated with a traumatic event can become a trigger.
In PTSD a trigger is like a loose switch that can initiate a freeze, fight, or flight response associated with a prior traumatic or terrifying event. Some people have disturbed sleep after watching a violent movie. During sleep our brains can't distinguish images of the movie from actual threats in real life and in real time. Loose triggers are why people have nightmares. Those memories and images can activate a biochemical response, releasing adrenaline and other stress hormones, even during REM sleep. When awake, a loose trigger activates a neurochemical switch that can take someone's awareness out of the present moment, and refocus their attention back to an earlier event in their life. In that sense being triggered is like having one foot in the present and one foot in the past. Being easily startled, or being triggered by trauma-related cues, is one symptom of PTSD. The resulting disorientation in the time dimension interferes with focus on the task at hand and can be debilitating.
WTF is a trigger warning?
In her beautiful diary, Green Mother sorted through some common misperceptions about PTSD. She explained what triggers are and why trigger warnings matter.
Putting that trigger warning out is a mindful step, that tells the world we are intelligent enough to comprehend the depths of trauma, and strong enough to care for those who have been affected by it.Trigger warnings help vulnerable people get on with their lives. An ace bandage on a sprained elbow prevents further injury during the time a vulnerable joint needs to heal. In the same way, trigger warnings help people avoid further injury while they heal from prior exposure to violence. They help vulnerable people navigate their way around content that can reinforce past trauma. It's the reason the Nickel Mines and Sandy Hook Elementary Schools were torn down. Forcing young children to go to school where there classmates had been murdered could trigger them and interfere with their recovery.
Trigger warnings might not be possible
People learn to cope ahead. If a trigger is truly unavoidable they learn to manage what happens afterward. I have an unavoidable trigger associated with fire engines. It maps to September 11, 2001, when I lived across the street from a hospital emergency room. Living there for many years, I was accustomed to the ordinary sounds of traffic and the comings and goings of that ER department. My earliest awareness that morning, that something was terribly wrong, was the sound of multiple emergency vehicles arriving one after the other, in rapid succession.
The horn of a fire truck became a trigger. It's a very specific trigger. Not an ambulance. Not a police car. Not any other kind of horn or siren. A firetruck. It is my only remaining trigger to that horrible day. If I'm on the street and a fire horn blares nearby behind me, I usually get triggered. My heart will race, my breathing will become rapid and shallow, I'll burst into tears or feel an overwhelming urge to run. Sometimes, even 12 years later, I lose awareness of my surroundings. It can take me an hour or more to calm down and focus on anything else. Being triggered means awareness and experience of the immediate present is overwhelmed because some stimuli has activated a compelling internal focus on the past.
But if a fire truck blares their horn anywhere in front of me, within my visual field, there is no neurochemical trigger to disturbing memories of that day, there are no tears, and there is no urge to immediately run away.
Why does my visual field matter?
First and foremost, triggers are a neurochemical survival response. The information flooding in through my eyes is more important than what I hear, and it anchors my awareness in the present moment. My eyes automatically map the emergency signal as external distress. My brain learns from the visual cortex that there is no immediate threat to my own life. My mind quickly understands that an attack like 9/11 is not beginning again.
But wait. I wasn't in the buildings that fell and I didn't have to run anywhere that day.
A skeptic might think I'm making this up, that I'm just adding drama to enhance a story, that I just over-react. They would be wrong. So where does the urge to flee come from? Triggers can be subtle and complex and mapping their origins can take a long time. This is one trigger that is straight foward and easy to understand. The urge to flee is one form of conditioned fear response. It's real human biology doing what has kept us all alive long enough to reproduce. Bursting into tears is autonomic nervous system overload, signaling a need for help. It's so primal it's the same biochemical cascade that causes an infant to cry in response to the sound of other babies crying. It's a mechanism that amplifies a survival signal. It helps to ensure that babies in distress receive necessary attention from adults nearby.
In this example, the urge to run is a neurochemically-triggered behavioral response to an internal perception of imminent danger. The trigger flips a switch in my brain that activates my freeze, fight, or flight survival mechanism, even in the absence of an imminent threat to my own life. The medical term is dysregulation of a fear response. The danger is in my imagination, but the biochemistry has very real effects.
Listening to the silence between the words
George Carlin made an important point about the way euphemisms dilute and diminish our ability to describe a state of extreme pain and distress. In recent weeks, I’ve read posts by Kossacks I respect that show they have little or no comprehension of trauma. There was a diary about trigger warnings in which some Kossacks said they think people who talk about triggers are ginning up faux outrage. The ignorance on display was alarming.
I felt embarrassed for them and very disappointed. How could my progressive brethren be so clueless? I suppressed an urge to reply that they should STFU.
As disappointing as it was to read those comments, they weren’t hijacking the diary. They weren’t posting the same assertions again and again across multiple diaries with no respect for the topic of the diary. They were participating in a discussion and they honestly didn’t know that their flat rejection of the entire concept could be hurtful to those who cope with PTSD every fucking day. Their honesty exposed a vulnerability and their courage. They were willing to expose their internal dialogue to public scrutiny. They were earnest enough to say, “Looks like BS to me. I don’t get it.” I cherish and respect that willingness to engage the topic.
I raise my hat to all the women who have shared their stories here and in the #YesAllWomen Twitter campaign. I thank all those who stood with them and supported them. The two diaries I'm defending both deal with the language of violence and the hidden way that violence creeping into our vernacular shuts down authentic dialogue. This is why I read Daily Kos. It's why I blog about gun law here. And it's why we'll listen to your story even when you don't R-T-F-D.
The way to peace is through more of this, not less.
Thanks for reading.
7:13 PM PT: h/t to 2thanks for a Twitter notice.
Stop using #YesAllWomen. Now use #EachEveryWoman. I do not tweet, but I understand the originator of the tweet was getting death threats.
... Not sure how changing the hashtag could fix this.
by 2thanks on Sat May 31, 2014 at 04:46:55 PM PDT
Sun Jun 01, 2014 at 3:10 AM PT: Edited typos and expanded the first paragraph of section titled "The most versatile word in the English language" and added 2 sentences about verbal abuse to the Intro.