Gyeongju Love Castle (NSFW)

Having heard a lot about Love Land sex park on Jeju Island, I was pleased to discover there are a few of these in South Korea. So I took the opportunity to visit one in Gyeongju in the southwest.

I was doubly intrigued about the park because Korean attitudes towards sexuality can seem schizophrenic. Pornography is forbidden, and there’s a more-than-residual Confucian puritanism that hides public discussion of sexuality. In the west, being a virgin in your teens is a sign of social maladjustment; in Korea it’s the opposite. Plus, since most Koreans live with their parents until marriage, many young people have no space to have sex or just hang out. Frank discussion of sexual problems and attitudes that have existed in western media since the 1960s are only a couple of years old here. Yet love motels, where couples with no private space of their own can rent a room for an hour or a night, abound in every neighbourhood, and cheaper room cafes provide the same service for teenagers. Massage parlours are every half-block and bikini bars, where men are served drinks by young women, are visible near some universities.

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This ‘doesn’t exist/exists everywhere’ dichotomy reaches its climax in the Love Castle, because it appears that, once you accept the warnings and enter a sex-positive space, then all coyness disappears. However, the stultifying repression that shapes Korean patriarchy does not, and you end up with a heterogeneous – emphasis on the hetero – mishmash of statues, paintings and interactive displays alternately inspired by art students or someone’s creepy uncle. From the official tourist write-up:

For those much more adult, there is also the Gyeongju “Love Castle” near Blue One Water Park. Not for the faint of heart or anyone under the age of 19, this offers a taste of the infamous “Jeju Love Land” right in Gyeongsangbuk-do with its plethora of erotic statuary and art.

Being more adult, over 19 and stout of heart, I gave it a shot. It was a cold night, so please excuse the shaky camera work – my fingers kept freezing. The Love Castle is on a main road, opposite a number of fancy restaurants. The front gate opens up into a statue park:

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Clearly, a lot of thought had been put into this place. The displays are well-made, well-lit and the path wends inside and outside up a hill. Having captured my attention with the statues, the first room began with displays of historical sexual iconography:
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I have no idea about its origin or veracity. A few times I thought someone had either recreated historical artwork or just imagined it:
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Were there really wooden dildos? Maybe. The paintings, at least, seemed authentic:

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From there I moved to cartoon figurines of – fantasies? Slice of life reporting? Social criticism?
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Back outside to more statues – some were cute, and some seemed almost like art:
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But then there were also asses:
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And a series of ‘caught looking’ tableaus that gave me an otaku vibe:
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This one’s caption reads “After you next”. Who will the dog choose?

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I could see this working in an 80s porn flick.

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I’m seeing Indian, Greek, Korean…

Back inside (thank god, I was freezing), to a room of assorted small statues. This was my favourite of the Castle, due to the androgyny and because it’s probably not authorized by Disney:
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I guess Koreans are capable of bucktooth Asian stereotypes too.

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These look like the gift that the Cuban priest gives Father Ted – maybe that’s the original source?

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Nearby, there was also a large glass box in which, after you pressed a button, a wooden man ejaculated water on the glass with the pressure of a firehose.

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She looks like she’s enjoying herself.

Back outside, there was a genuinely funny giant statue that sprayed flumes of water meters into the air – so much so that nearby trees were coated in ice:
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And then I exited through the gift shop. It had a range of sex toys, condoms, lube – the kind of thing that’s quite hard to find in Korea, at least in shops. No pictures were allowed, as the polite young woman behind the counter made clear.

The displays veered from kitsch to porn to art, with genuine touches of humour and a lot of material that owed more to Benny Hill than Tom of Finland. Queerness is just beginning to be talked about openly in Korea, and that hadn’t trickled down to the Love Castle. The Love Castle is marketed to straight couples – at least, that’s who I saw there (and not many, on a cold weeknight). To the extent that the displays were 100% male gaze-y, it’s sexist. But if you can turn off your critical thinking skills, it’s worth a visit.

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The latest in Korean fashion

To lighten up a little, here are some fashion trends I’ve observed over the past year:

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The camera don’t lie, only abandoned I’m no longer impressed by Konglish unless it’s profound, and this seems somehow profound.

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They were too bored to even finish the sentence.

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We have yet to see a broadshoulder male pull off the look.

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Wasting away in Jimmy Buffett’s.

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SMRT! I mean SMART!

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Elizabeth the narcissist.

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Uh… no comment.

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I was impressed at the hammer and sickle.

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The marketing never stops, and I’m powerless to not want these.

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Remember that.

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A gendered idea for a couple shirt. Young Korean couples often wear the same or similarly branded clothing. I’m proud to say I do the same, though not with these.

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Andy Warhol is incredibly popular here. No word on whether Wahrol is as well.

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From Style Nanda‘s flagship store in Hongdae.

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Not fashion, just a ‘children’s letters to soldiers’ display next to the American military base. Nice to see the indoctrination of children continuing apace. Tanks shoot rainbows, don’t you know.

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To be fair, this doesn’t mean caucasian, precisely. Being pale in Korea (and China, I understand) is about staying out of the sun. I believe it has its roots in the feudal aristocracy who didn’t have to work outside in the sun, unlike commoners. So it’s definitely classist, but not necessarily racist. Many Koreans are far lighter than I am.

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Enter at your own risk.

Work it

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“So isn’t that what we’re all asking in our own lives — ‘where’s my elephant?’ I know that’s what I’ve been asking.”

The ending of political commitment is often termed a retreat from the public sphere. Left or right, activists give up on mobilizing people through various methods – party organizing, public speaking, union agitation, etc – and turn inwards, to the private sphere of work and family.

I first encountered this in a novel when I was 14. A lord is offered the chance of political office and influence, but prefers his castle and the company of his doe-eyed mistress. I instantly identified with him, despite the novel painting him as a failure and minor character, because I wanted a castle too. (My feminist consciousness was too embryonic to wonder why the mistress only got one sentence, and that one devoted to her doe eyes.) I sensed that the preconditions for politics were not just passion but security. Unless you’re a fulltime activist, or lucky enough to have activist opportunities at your workplace, activism is volunteer work that demands huge investments of time and interpersonal skills. You need to not have to worry about your pay cheque, health, retirement, and terrible job in order to do something about the world. Thee Faction are correct: time is better is than wages. But it’s not a choice for most workers. Activism needs time and distance from the capital-labour relationship.

This does not mean workers are ignorant of how capitalist society treats them. On the contrary, workers experience it more acutely than anyone else. Speaking personally, I care more than ever about the injustices of capitalism, because I have to experience them daily. I may not have the physical or mental energy to strategize or philosophize when I’m working full time, looking for work, etc. But I feel the need for revolution most deeply when I’m on the morning bus, stuck in Seoul’s perpetual heavy traffic that dims the horizon with fumes. It’s the experience of work that both makes politics necessary and very difficult to engage in.

Poverty frightens me (Rome Open City)

My music at work

To cope with this post-graduation narrowing of political horizons, I’ve been listening to music constantly at work. I’ve looked for songs about the deadly sameness of work. Here are a few:



Notice they’re all dad-rock. Is there a reason there aren’t any contemporary pop songs that speak to working class alienation? Is it because of the neoliberalization of the music industry? In other words, are there no working class musicians, or have working class musicians become wholly aspirational? The Guardian’s songs about work series was by and large a majority of old songs, or songs from niche genres. It’s been decades since pop songs could say terrible, accurate things about how most people spend their days.

Maybe the explosion of nostalgia for past genres by younger generations, isn’t just due to the rise of technology. Maybe it’s because contemporary music doesn’t speak to people’s experiences. There was always formulaic shit music, but the bands that came from working class backgrounds, and sang about working class lives, also got exposure. Where are those voices now? Where’s The Jam, The Smiths, innumerable funk bands?

You have something that belongs to us (Masters of the Universe)
A future, some reflection of our collective experiences, creativity and autonomy…

I was your teacha

These questions have been sparked by my continuing failing attempts to get into academia. At this point, after months of fruitless trying, when I could’ve taught myself Korean, learned how to program or acquainted myself with the history of experimental film in the time spent applying for jobs, it’s a reasonable question to ask: why bother? If the working conditions and future prospects are so dismal in academia, why do I keep trying, like so many others? Post-grads are smart people, surely we can figure out the odds. Our enthusiasm can’t all be professional snobbery or being misled by department heads. The answer, I’d suggest, is that anyone who’s ever had a ‘real job’ knows that academia is an escape from the drudgery. It’s that hope that keeps a million adjuncts holding on in vain.

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However, it’s the lack of that knowledge that keeps the Human Resource industry churning out vague affirmations like:

recognize and remember that you are the final arbiter of any job offer. If you want to remain in academia, that is your choice. Similarly, if you want to leave academia, that is your choice. Whatever choice you decide to make is the right choice.

Like all falsehoods, this has a grain of truth. Sometimes you can leave, but then you face the reality that no HR guru will ever, ever acknowledge: being a professor is a good job, not just because of the money (though that’s not bad), but because it gives you creativity and control.

I’m shocked by how nobody ever says this. Being a professor means hundreds of people hang on your every word, and those words are topics you’ve studied and are interested in – or at least, topics that you can give an interesting take on. Sure, they’re often not listening for the right reasons: the students want the grade, not your wisdom. But there are always a few in each class you can reach. Your job is to convince people of something, and to judge how well they understand you. However much the students might resent being there, they need you. That’s an incredibly powerful position.

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Let’s not pretend most jobs are equivalent to this. I’d imagine senior management positions in the private or NGO sector have similar levels of autonomy, but to prosper in these jobs you need to buy into a mission that’s not your own. As a professor, a large part of your job is to design courses: shape a debate on an important issue and present that to students. As an executive, a large part of your job is to make the company profitable. I don’t believe it’s possible to feel as part of that process compared to making money off your opinions. It’s part of the reason why academia pays less: doing something that you get to believe in is part of the deal.

As for the vast majority of other jobs, explain to me how serving muffins or making coffee or filing or filling insurance claims or a million other socially useless jobs come close in terms of satisfaction. I’ve worked many of them, and they don’t. To claim they do is not only patronizing and classist: it proves that HR professionals are blinkered ideologues.

Letting me work (Billy Liar)

Proof of how terrible most jobs are isn’t necessary for most workers. Proof of the shocking ignorance of HR professionals comes further down the paragraph:

it is common for PhDs, especially those in the humanities, to maintain that they are “over-qualified for the typing pool and under-qualified for a real job,” this is patently untrue (we also find it a stunning and very sad comment on how academics view their education).

She’s lying. This is patently true: I’ve been told to my face by employers that I’m overqualified. I lie to them, not because I like the typing pool but because I need to pay my rent. Is this a stunning and sad form of elitism? Having spent the last year feeling stunned and sad every day on my way to work, I’d like the HR professional to step in my shoes. Say goodbye to the speaking engagements, comped breakfasts and conference per diems. No more concerned VP Admins or minor Department of Education bureaucrats trying to solve the supply-side of the labour market by paying you $1000 a day. No newspaper calling you up for a column. Say hello to repetitive rote tasks, to which your labour contributes an infinitesimal part; sitting at a desk and typing until your wrist hurts because you have daily deadlines; and the firm knowledge that nobody knows or cares what you do, because it has no impact on politics, economics or social policy. That is real work: dispensing career advice is precious, dilettantish fantasy whose main purpose is to transfer blame for alienation from the ruling class to workers themselves.

You can't change (Billy Liar)
Otherwise, how would we maintain the uninterrupted accumulation of capital?

The best way to identify this class bias is to see its opposite. I was dumbfounded to read that tenured professors are the most unhappy members of academia (“Why are associate professors so unhappy?”) Listen to their explanation of why a $70K job for life is difficult:

I’ve looked behind the curtain, and Oz just isn’t all that great. Everybody is asked to do a whole bunch of stuff we didn’t sign on for, like sitting on an admissions committee debating whether someone with a 15 ACT score should be admitted. It all feels so much more plebeian and mundane.

You have to sit on a committee? Imagine how mundane it feels to be the person with the score whose future depends on whether you’re in a good mood because you’ve drunk enough coffee today? Think about the billions of people who ‘didn’t sign on for’ sublimating all their creative energy into creating forms or gadget parts, whose ability to express themselves is not just truncated but smashed. It’s the expectations of this pampered professional layer that expresses the pre-existing class position of academics. They are workers, but their origins lie elsewhere.

Grateful for office job (Billy Liar)

This is the secret of the lengthening queue for academic jobs. Being a professional is wonderful compared to the other options. Yes, of course we have to unionize academia and erase the divisions between professions. The first step is organizing campus-wide unions that include faculty and cafeteria workers. But you don’t get there by denying those divisions exist. Even paying a cleaner the wages of a tenured faculty member wouldn’t make those jobs equivalent. The prof would still have it a thousand times better.

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The Korean ferry disaster

Anyone living in South Korea has most likely been triggered by the wall-to-wall coverage of the ferry sinking. It’s being called a national tragedy. Quick update for cave-dwellers: the Sewol was making a routine trip from Incheon in the north of the Korean republic to the traditional resort island of Jeju. It strayed too close to shore, made a sharp turn and hit something, then slid quickly – but not too quickly – into the water, where as of today it remains wholly submerged, while 500 divers retrieve bodies from inside.

Which brings me to the collective trauma currently being inflicted on the South Koreans as they watch the ferry rescue operation unfold. Seoul is quiet: last weekend was warm and sunny, yet sidewalks were still navigable and there were seats in the cafes. It’s considered poor form to laugh too loudly, and no one feels like it anyway.

Unfortunately, the collective grief is shot through with scapegoating. The captain of the ferry left the boat early, as did many of the crew. Although five minutes into the disaster they were told to prepare the passengers for evacuation, the order didn’t get broadcast for another half hour, by which point the boat began seriously listing. It’s easy to look at the crew as a bunch of cowards, intent on saving their own skins rather than helping the passengers. Indeed, the inexplicable order for people to stay below deck in their cabins seems like outright murder, a point that President Park has been quick to capitalize on.

These facts, combined with the heartrending texts as the teens discovered too late they couldn’t leave, have led to some predictable responses. Suicide by a survivor; attacking the rescuers; attacking the governor of Gyeonggi province for making the questionable decision to write some poetry about how difficult the rescue operation is. What drives these responses is how personalized they are: the problem lies with individuals. For grieving parents, this is understandable; for politicians, it’s calculated.

The more level-headed media outlets, international and local, have pointed out major flaws with the ‘evil sailors’ argument.

1) The uncertainty of the crew’s actions. The transcript of the unnamed crew member trying to get instructions from the maritime control station is infuriating – possibly moreso because I’ve had so many conversations like this in Korea, albeit with far less at stake:

Controller: “Please go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing.”

Crew member: “If this ferry evacuates passengers, will you be able to rescue them?”

Controller: “At least make them wear life rings and make them escape.”

Crew member: “If this ferry evacuates passengers, will they be rescued right away?”

Controller: “Don’t let them go bare. At least make them wear life rings and make them escape… We don’t know the situation very well. The captain should make the final decision and decide whether you’re going to evacuate passengers or not.”

Crew member: “I’m not talking about that. I asked, if they evacuate now, can they be rescued right away?”

The crew member tries to get a straight answer on whether it’s safe to evacuate, and the controller either doesn’t know or won’t tell him/her. The captain had similar concerns: he claims not to have ordered an evacuation because he thought the teenagers would get swept out to sea and die of hypothermia. Even if this seems to present a greater chance of survival than staying below deck, it’s the kind of ‘best guess’ thinking of the untrained – and given he wasn’t on the deck at the time of the disaster, and a 26 year old with 6 months’ training making only her second navigation through those waters was – training was clearly lacking. The first ‘bang’ signalled the ship’s listing and may have been cargo shifting in the hold, since the hull appears undamaged. Some couldn’t walk because they were injured by shifting cargo, making the evacuation order irrelevant.

Yet the crew were certified safe, and this points to 2), the much-larger story that President Park is keen to bury with accusations of murder: there are systemic failures at every level of the disaster response and shipping company policy.

a) The ship was only allowed to operate because the Korean government relaxed safety regulations on the import and retooling of old ships in 2009
b) the cargo was not loaded or secured properly, and safety inspections weren’t done
c) the ship may have been travelling too quickly to make up for lost time – spend any time in a Seoul bus or taxi and you’ll know this is standard procedure
d) the ship may have had its stabilizing ballast load emptied to go faster

The crew members were irresponsible, maybe criminally, but so were the ship owners and government regulators. And the amateurish disaster response, which featured different ministries refusing to share information with one another, shows that however criminal the crew were, the bureaucrats were just as unfocused.

The story will develop for a long time to come; the laughter of Seoul’s happy groups of students will be muted as well. (That sounds terribly cliched but it’s true: you can’t walk in a campus, or down a street in a trendy neighbourhood without hearing groups of laughing young adults, often slapping each other.) Whatever the details to follow, the only clear feature of this tragedy so far is that it was a collective failure, not a personal one, sparked by shoddy regulations and genuine instant decision-making. Let’s not rush to judge.

Relative safety

I’ve saved the speculation till last, because it’s subjective and could be entirely irrelevant. But since other commentators haven’t shirked from blaming greed, cowardice or human nature, I’m going to add in my observations of Korean safety rules. First, I’ve seen heavy moving equipment balanced on old wooden beams, I’ve dodged cars and scooters driving on sidewalks, I’ve had to pressure my landlord to buy a cheap smoke alarm, which apparently is not mandatory – safety standards in Korea are not what I’m used to in the west.

Second, there’s the ‘rigid rules, flexible implementation’ model of laws and regulations. Everybody knows that you can argue your way out of a speeding ticket or immigration violation. Bureaucrats often don’t know the rules they’re supposed to enforce. Again, this is something I never realized before I came to Korea. Where I come from, bureaucrats delight in the immovable nature of rules, presumably for the power they provide. Here, things are flexible. That’s not a bad thing: it’s part of the reason Korea can develop and change so rapidly. I’ve seen 10 restaurants open in my small neighbourhood in the last six months, and I highly doubt each went through a planning and environmental assessment process. If you want to get things done quickly, it helps to be flexible. But then you can get things like poorly-secured cargo.

My deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the dead.

Trigger Warning

A trigger warning is material that can cause distress to traumatized people. Trauma happens when you receive a mental shock so threatening to your safety – say, getting shot – that you can’t store it as memory. You get blocked and the memory remains present, as if it’s happening now. Any feature that reminds you of that trauma brings it back: a sight, sound, smell, it doesn’t matter. It’s no accident that PTSD was first identified in American veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, and that some radical treatments for it have come out of treating victims of terrorist bombings.

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War: an accepted source of trauma

It’s become common to write ‘trigger warning’ before an article or picture that deals with violent imagery. However, arguments against trigger warnings have also appeared and become mainstream after Oberlin College, a small liberal arts institution, advised instructors to avoid presenting material that would remind sexual assault survivors of their trauma. Numerous editorials appeared about those crazy liberals and their thin skins, but there were two counter-arguments worth taking seriously.

1) Well-meaning liberals warned of the dangers of censorship:

Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives. Trigger warnings don’t just warn students of potentially triggering material; they effectively shut down particular lines of discussion with “that’s triggering”.

I usually care about censorship when governments censor radical ideas. But that’s not really necessary these days: the weight of new material published daily smothers radical or controversial material, and the liberal fiction of ‘giving equal weight to all sides’ simply ensures that the powerful can create new sides when necessary. Censoring harmful material is a different, more complex issue, and I don’t think people should get carte blanche to try and hurt or trigger others.

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But if it’s too intense, it doesn’t contribute much of anything

2) This is the more serious critique that some leftists have advanced. Triggers are not just seeing something you don’t like, but come out of trauma, or more specifically, Post-Traumatic Distress Syndrome. If the problem is just trigger warnings, that’s another way of saying “Violence exists but let’s not talk about it.” In fact, media triggers are the tip of the iceberg. War, gendered sexual violence and disasters are the real traumas of capitalism and patriarchy. Trigger warnings are just a way to trivialize real trauma.

What is trauma?

The problem with this argument is that it assumes trauma is acute: a single big event. But trauma is also chronic: a slow accumulation of humiliations can also become trauma and leave someone just as PTSDed – and open to triggers – as a survivor of a drone attack. Humans are complex because their environments are complex, and there’s no way to codify the point at which something becomes a trigger. Some people go through bombings and make art; others get bullied and become shrinking wrecks.

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Chronic trauma

Does acknowledging chronic trauma diminish the real suffering of those who went through acute events? I don’t think so. With research showing that the impact of bullying lasts your whole life, I think chronic trauma’s impact is real and quantifiable. [Edit: See The Guardian‘s harrowing account of boarding school abuse:

Psychiatrists I have spoken to agree that, yes, while sexual and physical abuse is the headline grabber (and what makes criminal cases), real damage is done to children and adults by long-term psychological abuse. A child may recover from a blow, but not from the withdrawal of love and the denial of safety – the “complex trauma” child psychologists talk of.

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Chronic trauma is a thing, and it’s equatable to acute trauma in the long term. Real violence, however slight, can accumulate. However, this doesn’t mean acute pain hurts less. It clearly hurts a lot more in the moment. It’s telling that the symptoms of PTSD are equally available for victims of terrorism and victims of loveless childhoods. We’re all individuals: there is no way to equate differing sufferings, which is a morally odious exercise anyway.

Bart anxious

And this is my problem with the calls to prioritize acute trauma over other varieties: it ranks suffering, and who gets to suffer the most? For example, I volunteered teaching English to Somali women refugees who left their countries fleeing violence. They were some of the most upbeat people I’d ever been around, constantly joking; only once did a grandma tell me that she had to leave when unnamed assailants seized her property, and the inference was clear that she was next. If I had to pick a group of most-traumatized, they’d get the medal. But there was no way to decide if they had suffered more than, say, the Chilean refugees from the Pinochet regime, or the Iranian refugees from the Ayatollah’s regime that I’ve met, worked and joked with.

Instead of ranking – which is endemic to language politics for some reason – we need to recognize how harmful all violence is: physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and their social subtext. And given the breathtaking sweep of daily violence committed against and by so many, that can lead to a sense of despair. I think that’s a deeper source of the reaction against trigger warnings. They raise another, equally frightening prospect: that daily life in capitalism is so difficult that we’re all traumatized.

Homer traumatized (The Blunder Years)