Superversive Blog: Trigger Warning or Smelling Salts?

 Smelling salts

A Victorian administers smelling salts to a lady who has fainted.


I know of a family where the father was a man of many virtues, but—like all of us—he also had some vices. One of his vices was that he treated his wife quite imperiously, ordering her around and expecting a great deal of her, treating her a bit like a servant of old.

But, for the most part, she did not mind. She loved him. She had been raised to believe that marriage was service, and she served with joy. Besides, she felt he had a right to have things as he liked—he was the sole breadwinner of the family.

Basically, he had the virtues of his vices.

This couple has a son. The son is a disabled adult. Unfortunately, he adopted some of his father’s vices without the corresponding virtues. For instance, he orders his mother around in just the way that his father did and speaks disparagingly of her efforts in exactly the same manner.

Except…the father was the woman’s husband and her breadwinner, at the very least, he deserved respect. The son neither deserves honor from his mother, nor does he provide for her.

He does not have the virtues of his vices.

(I do not in any way mean to imply that the son does not have his own strengths. He is a dear person. But this particular vice is not accompanied by a corresponding virtue.)

The Victorians are renowned for their hypocrisy—but you have to shoot high, to have noble standards, to have whole portions of society bother trying to pretend to live up to them. And for all those who only pretended to be virtuous, or Christian, or caring, there were those who actually did live up to these noble goals. Those who helped fight slavery or poverty or a thousand other ills.

The Victorians might have been judgmental, but they valued rationality and carried themselves with dignity.

They had the virtues of their vices.

Not so the Neo-Victorians (Neo-Vics for short), by which I mean this new brand of social do-gooder that is so popular today. Like the Victorians, they make a career out of rushing around and trying to improve things by pushing their noses into other people’s business. Unlike the Victorians, they are totally lacking in dignity.

They do not have the virtues of their vices.

But there is another way in which the Neo-Vics are like their predecessors. Victorian women are famous for their delicacy. Women of earlier eras did not faint away at the sight of a mouse or at an uncouth word. (Pioneer women, for instance, did not faint away at anything.) Nor did the ladies of, say, Queen Elizabeth’s day.

Fainting spells and hysterics came from two things: one, tight corsets—not a problem we have today. (Thank, God!) Two, hysterics were a way to show disapproval. If one fainted away at the very mention of something, men at least had to keep it out of the drawing rooms.

Sadly, we are seeing that again today.

Colleges used to be a place where people went to confront daring ideas and learn from them. Now, even 2000 year old Ovid’s Metamorphoses is so objectionable that students are demanding that they not be asked to read it unless the university provides them with atrigger warning, to prepare them ahead of time for the vile humanity reflected within.


Ovid may be old, but Echo and Narcissus still seem timely.


But is it really a trigger warning they need…or smelling salts?

(In case the term is unfamiliar, smelling salts were what they used in Victorian Days to help a young woman who had swooned recover from her faint. Smelling salts are also called “salt of hartshorn” because the ammonia that is the active ingredient in the solution was once distilled from the hoofs and horns of deer. Today, smelling salts are used by some athletes to stay awake and aware for games.)

I find this encouragement of mass-hysteria very sad indeed.

In my youth, feminists faced issues such as getting women into work places where never a high-heeled shoe had trod. Men truly thought women were too emotionally weak to survive in the workplace, so we gals set out to show them that they were wrong.

We were tough. We could hack it. We were the equal of any man.

This striving to show the strength of our character had a second benefit. We became strong. When problems came—and in life, problems come—we were able to face them, if not with dignity then at least with courage.

It breaks my heart to see the current generation succumbing to fits and hysterics rather than striving for strength and courage.

To use a single example from many, thee is a woman named Adria Richards who is known across the internet as an outspoken feminist. Her claim to fame is that she reported two geeks at a tech conference—for telling a risqué joke involving the word “dongle”.

Putting aside how strange this is when compared to the crudity of almost every walk of modern life, doesn’t this strike you as exactly the kind of thing Victorian women were known for?

Objecting to crudity in men's speech? Shrieking at the mention of bodily functions? Covering piano legs so that no one would see a leg and, oh horrors!, be reminded of a woman’s leg and, thus, of….sex!!!!!

Only Victorian gals actually did refrain from discussing many of these things among themselves—even in private. The Neo-Vics insist on routinely using words, mainly related to bodily functions, that I would not use in my personal speech, much less put in print.

They lack the virtues of their vices.

I remember being a teenage girl. It was a very emotional time. I remember being having to choose whether to become more or less hysterical at times. Some environments encouraged me to exaggerate my weaknesses. Others encouraged me to bear up and develop strengths.

I was lucky. I encountered more of the second than of the first.

But today’s young people?

They are being taught that fits of outrage and hysterics is what society rewards. That they should communicate their moral outrage by exaggerating their weaknesses. Society aside, this cannot be good for them as individuals—to stress their fears rather than their strengths? To have their failings, their loss of emotional control, rewarded?

Those lessons may not serve them well when they encounter the real problems life brings.

And what is college for, if not to prepare us to be better suited for real life? (That was why employers used to pay more for college graduates. They performed better.)

So, should people be allowed trigger warnings? Safe spaces? And other mechanisms designed to increase and celebrate victimhood?

Or do they deserve more? Might they be better off if society handed them a box of smelling salts and said, “Take a good whiff, deary, and pull yourself together”?

What's your opinion?