Practicing Ethical Academia When Talking About Trauma

(Audrey Jang • The Student Life)

This article contains references to rape and violence.

In my first few weeks in Claremont, I have read nonfiction accounts of rape, torture, murder, and massacre. I cannot help but notice the ubiquity of traumatic stories among 5C syllabi. Conceptually, I understand this. 5C students are consistently investigating structures of oppression, imperialism, and exploitation, and these investigations will naturally lead students to narratives of suffering.

However, while traumatic stories frequently appear in our academic spaces, discussion of how 5C students ought to interact with them are much less common.

One part of this discussion examines how stories of suffering affect their audience. This discourse is vital, as it includes content warnings, strategies for self-awareness, and mental health resources that ensure student well-being. In many classes, these topics are glossed over.

The second part of the discussion examines the relationship between 5C students and the subjects of the narratives we engage with. We never address the question: do students owe recipients of systemic oppression, whose stories we read and learn from, an ethical interaction?

Some might claim the written word is a one-way street. The reader’s actions have no effect on the subjects of traumatic narratives: thus, they owe them no ethical reading.

This line of thinking is shortsighted.   

Some of our positions as relatively sheltered Claremont Colleges students relative to survivors of traumatic narratives can reinforce an injustice. Academia’s intellectual profits from narratives of oppression reinforces this injustice.

In one of my classes, I profited from the story of a massacre in Gaza. I was intellectually stimulated; I used this narrative to muse on the shortcomings of objective truth in journalism. I wrote an essay on the story, honed my critical reasoning against it, and made some pithy points in class. However, my position as a white, American male meant that I could not comprehend the extent of the survivors’ pain. My intellectual contributions remained inaccessible and inconsequential to the subjects of trauma they referred to.

My experience is not unusual. In fact, 5C academics relies on the intellectual profits gleaned from stories of suffering. In reading trauma narratives, academia requires students to distill and compartmentalize their ideas to maintain distance from the distressing event.

In discussing trauma narratives, academia emphasizes theory over practice.

For example, the plight of Rohingya Muslim population of Burma gets lost in semantic arguments about what constitutes ethnic cleansing and the supposedly unreliable testimony of Rohingya survivors. The subjects of these narratives – the Rohingya Muslims – do not directly benefit from this discourse.

Our academic discussion of the Rohingya must include activism as a means of validating traumatic narratives. It is not enough to merely stay informed. We must read to fundraise, to raise awareness, and to challenge the narratives that invalidate their suffering. In this way, activism becomes a duty and not a charity – one that rectifies the inherent injustice of their relationship with trauma survivors.

From higher education’s ivory tower, is it at all possible to ethically engage with narratives of extreme suffering?

While this may seem like an impossible task, we can help academia become a space wherein students can more ethically engage with narratives of oppression.

First, we must challenge the notion that all aspects of narratives of suffering can be synthesized, extrapolated from, or fully understood. Students have differing degrees of privilege that widen or shrink the distance between themselves and the survivors they read about. Students who are survivors of trauma themselves may have relationships with trauma narratives that are completely different from mine.

When discussing these stories, students should be cognizant of their positionality and the amount of space they take up.

Second, our classes should teach us how to recognize suffering, affirm its existence, and assure victims know they are not wrong or culpable. In doing so, we can  prioritize the validation of traumatic narratives over isolated understanding.

Students must change their perception of their relationship with narratives of trauma. Ultimately, this will make the 5Cs a slightly more equitable place.  

Peter Heckendorn PO ’21 is a first-year at Pomona College. He plays soccer and enjoys hiking and cooking.