Isn’t it time to empower young people?

May 26




Helen Whitten

Posted In


Isn’t it time to empower young people?

What are we doing, colluding with those who insist that we put trigger warnings on everything from books, to films, to theatre and even before a lecture that people may or may not have to go to or listen to? Aren’t we giving people, young people in particular, the message that they are fragile little things that have to be protected from ideas or events that might upset them in some way? Aren’t we giving them the message that they do not have the resilience and resourcefulness required even to attend a lecture should the subject be one with which they disagree?  What if Putin did invade or some catastrophe did occur, what then?

Personally I am somewhat fed up with the inevitable “there may be scenes or discussions in this programme that might upset you”. Surely part of personal development is to be upset occasionally and therefore to learn how to manage people or situations if we can’t avoid them? Or open our minds to new perspectives? How else do we build resilience?

In cognitive-behavioural approaches and other therapies exposure theory is used extensively to help someone who has a phobia of lifts, or spiders, or public speaking.  It is pretty obvious to most of us that the more we do something the less we worry about it, the more we feel confident that it won’t harm us. But in today’s world the message seems to be that we should never be upset, never harmed, that we should always feel not just physically safe but also emotionally safe.  But this isn’t life.  In giving the message that the majority of the population require trigger warnings and should not be upset we are not preparing people for life.

For life is tough. We all experience slights, indignities, loss, alienation, jealousy, resentment, fear, anger, sadness and more. Sometimes an event or situation can be traumatic – think of those children growing up in Bakhmut right now with bombs falling around them – but as we know from others in warfare, there are some who will suffer post-traumatic stress and others who will go on to live normal lives relatively unimpeded by their horrific experiences.

I am impressed and moved when I hear of people who have been the innocent victims of an IRA bomb yet talk with acceptance of their wounds. Or Hari Budha Maga, the double amputee who lost his legs in Afghanistan who has just climbed Mount Everest. Or people managing a chronic condition with equanimity and stoicism. Just this week Tina Turner died, having turned her life around from poverty and domestic abuse to become, as they call her, the Queen of Rock. She has been a lesson for many young women and her secret, when asked? “Endurance.”

The Epictetus quotation that I and many have mentioned before gives the lesson we all need to remember “it is not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters”. This gives us the choice of whether we decide to find within us the resource we need to overcome difficulty or whether we forget that we have this choice.

And don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we always have to be strong. Sometimes it can be strong to be vulnerable, to give way to grief for a period, to ask for help, to go for therapy. There is always a place for this. But I don’t believe it is helpful to treat a whole population as if they are infants who need protection, too fragile to read of unpleasant human behaviour in Jane Austen or William Shakespeare.

After all, at the same time, statistics would show that numerous people are watching horror films, or pornography, or playing horrifically violent video games. Let’s get some perspective on this. Let’s not programme people to be victims for that does them no good and nor does it do the rest of us any good as victims point fingers of blame at everyone else and learn to respond like a helpless child. In fact I fear that there is a trend in this direction as the role of victim is a very powerful one. After all they can sit there looking innocent and make everyone feel guilty about something they may or may not have done.  But this is playground stuff, calling people names, blaming others, talking about kindness when they are not necessarily taking responsibility for their own response or, perhaps, for not being kind themselves.

The trouble is the focus is on frailty and not on the extraordinary and wonderful resilience of the human being. The messages given by governments, media, academia surely need to seek to remind young people that humans have, in our history, suffered and yet learnt and survived. And, indeed, thrived. If they are to tackle the major challenges we have in the world today we need to remind them that they have the capacity to do so, not protect them from every little scene in a book or film that might be upsetting. Or make them believe they can’t listen to a lecturer who has a different opinion to them for much of our innovation has derived from different perspectives, from the model of thesis, antithesis then synthesis.

We can get stronger through testing our metal, through exposing ourselves to difficult situations, putting ourselves in the firing line of someone who disagrees with us. Honestly, if we don’t encourage our young, bright and creative people to do this then what would happen if war broke out? Would we all be sunk, or would we discover, as so many people have done through the centuries, that we are far more resilient than some people might imagine? I suspect, and certainly hope, it would be the latter!

Further reading: The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt or Future Directions, a book I wrote with Diane Carrington aimed at helping young people develop confidence and emotional intelligence.


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