Journalists Are “Centering” Their “Trauma” Because It Enables Them To Acquire Power

On March 28, Washington Post journalist Felicia Sonmez posted a Twitter thread describing the intense trauma she said she’d endured over the past year. An editorial policy imposed by the paper’s management had greatly exacerbated this trauma, she alleged, causing her to burst into tears during a recent therapy session and frequently lapse into spells of “vacant staring.” Sonmez, a Harvard graduate in her 30s who holds one of the most prestigious journalism jobs in the country, spoke of being “silenced” by her editors, which in turn kicked her “trauma response” into overdrive and worsened her condition further. She declared that the new crop of young journalists now beginning at the Post “deserve better” than how she’d been treated, particularly on account of their being so “diverse, talented and relentless in their fight for equity.” 

If any of these buzzwords and/or phrases sound familiar, it’s because their usage now dependably instigates a swift capitulatory reaction from the people who run legacy media institutions. The editorial policy adjustment that Sonmez had demanded be effectuated did in fact get effectuated, within a matter of hours. Her elaborately confessional Twitter thread — a well-worn tactic by this point — worked fantastically. Whatever the merits of the proposed policy adjustment at issue (and she may well have been on sound footing in demanding it), no one can dispute that her chosen self-advocacy approach achieved what she set out to achieve. Because increasingly, as this episode once again demonstrated, the key to coaxing stodgy old editors into acquiescence is to publicly “call them out” using a now-familiar punchy, emotionally inflammatory rhetorical style. 

We can just take Sonmez at her word and grant that this professional adult journalist genuinely did undergo the debilitating trauma she described, vacant staring spells and all. It’s impossible to judge the precise veracity of these trauma-related claims anyway, given how inextricable they are with the interior mental state of the individual in question. So we’ll have to just accept that Sonmez being “attacked online,” as she put it, really did result in the kind of extraordinary psychological turmoil she says she experienced. (Here’s some additional background information on the other alleged sources of Sonmez’s trauma.) What can be judged, however — and what has to be judged given its rapidly increasing prominence in public life — is the wider impact of the rhetorical style used so adroitly by Sonmez. Because it very clearly gets results. Call it therapeutic trauma jargon. 

Elite journalists such as Sonmez are deploying this rhetorical style with escalating intensity as they mount an initiative (starring themselves, naturally) to highlight the scourge of what they call “online harassment” and/or “online violence.” An article last week in Vanity Fair — which upon publication received a raft of borderline-tearful plaudits for being So Important And So Necessary Right Now — details the painful travails of professional adult journalists who claim, among other things, that they are “afraid to open Twitter” due to all the terrifying harassment that occurs on the site. I’m going to repeat the full phrase “professional adult journalists” multiple times for emphasis, as it’s important to bear in mind that we’re talking about people in their 20s and 30s who are largely alumni of elite colleges and possess other highly-sought-after elite credentials. They wield astronomically more influence in society than the average schlub could ever dream of.

These are people who made a conscious decision to pursue a particular line of public-facing work — the same work they are suddenly dedicated to proclaiming themselves profoundly “harmed” by, notwithstanding the steadfast institutional backing they enjoy from, for example, the New York Times. Because of course the person anonymously quoted in the Vanity Fair article as being “afraid to open Twitter” is an employee of the New York Times, which could reasonably be called the most influential newspaper on Planet Earth. Though the identity of the Afraid Person is obscured, some informed speculation might point in certain directions... but for now, we’ll just have to accept the abiding mystery of it all.

The state of the media industry is such that journalists are now incentivized to be as effusive as possible in professing how emotionally unstable they are. Why? Because it’s a surefire way to bolster their pleas for a redress of various workplace or personal grievances. No longer are these psychological issues thought to be best dealt with in the privacy of a therapist’s office, or among trusted confidants. Instead, these journalists create a public spectacle, beckoning colleagues to flood their tweet threads and affirm unstinting support. When Taylor Lorenz of the New York Times recounted her own emotional turmoil stemming from allegedly “violent” online criticism, the International Women’s Media Foundation, an NGO devoted to “[recognizing] badass female journalists and photographers whose courage sets them apart,” issued a rousing statement in her defense.

Subsequently, these journalists’ union representation will rush to amplify their grievances by echoing the therapeutic trauma jargon, such as stating matter-of-factly that the workplace policy decisions at the Washington Post are not just ill-advised, poorly-conceived, or even unfair — but “harmful.” Obviously, this harm cannot be externally adjudicated because one’s harm must never be subject to contestation or (god forbid) falsification. So the logic goes, every person has the right to say they are harmed without ever having the legitimacy of that harm questioned, because to question the harm compounds the harm. The New York Times appears to be completely on board with this new harassment/harm framework. With results like these, it’s only rational that more and more journalists are employing therapeutic trauma jargon to advance their professional and social self-interest.

Reading through the Vanity Fair article, written as a stirring call to action, one almost gets the sense that these professional adult journalists have placed themselves at the forefront of a new Civil Rights struggle — one which requires the rest of society’s urgent moral attention. God forbid anyone in the industry respond to professional adult journalists saying they’re afraid of Twitter with something along the lines of, “Being afraid of a social media site you voluntarily joined with your outlet’s blessing and institutional backing is ridiculous.” That would be downright abusive. Instead, the obligatory response is to profess exaggeratedly credulous horror and outrage. The Vanity Fair article not-so-subtly suggested that the colleagues of these beleaguered, battle-scarred journalists — particularly males — need to get with the program and come more proactively to the defense of women who say they experience this “harassment” online. Such a weird pseudo-chivalrous request seems to contradict some modern conceptions of the propriety of gender roles, but that hasn’t stopped sensitive media men from rising to the challenge with special vigor.

In general, it’s good to just assume that those blazing the trail of this new rhetorical style are by-and-large sincere in their views, rather than operating cynically. However, that doesn’t preclude recognizing the raw, almost Machiavellian calculations at work. Those most fluent in therapeutic trauma jargon certainly seem to have an excellent track record in achieving additional power and prestige for themselves, as evidenced by the many successfully executed media industry personnel coups in the past year. 

There’s a reason why those hyping anti-journo online backlash as some sort of existential crisis will never provide a workable standard to determine when “harsh criticism” supposedly becomes “harassment.” It’s because possessing the ability to arbitrarily decree when “criticism” becomes “harassment” is an enormous power to wield. The key thing to understand about this genre of journalist-induced panic is that no consistent, universal standard will ever be applied. The only standard that’s ever going to be applied is whichever standard benefits the career and social prospects of those inhabiting the sanctioned media in-group: i.e., those who repeat the correct ideological orthodoxies and lingo in connection with the airing of their grievances. I could post ten thousand different examples of gratuitous “harassment” I’ve received online over the years — shout-out to the troll group who routinely send me printed-out photos of myself with their ejaculate smeared across my face, that’s an endearing one — and none would ever be deemed “harassment” of sufficient severity to warrant a revamping of the media industry’s code of conduct. Why? Because the only relevant variable is whether you’re seen as favored or disfavored by the media in-group. That’s it.

Nothing about these trends is strictly limited to the media industry. One of the most formidable pioneers of therapeutic trauma jargon is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as demonstrated by her infamous livestream last month in which she recounted what she said was a past sexual assault — tying the trauma she’d incurred from that alleged sexual assault to the trauma she incurred from being in vague proximity to the Capitol riot on January 6, even though she’d spent the riot safely ensconced in House Office Buildings, and was both physically apart from any intruders and protected by police. The whole purpose of the formulation she introduced was to elevate herself beyond criticism, lest a critic be guilty of compounding her trauma — similar to the tactic sexual abusers are said to use when they “gaslight” their victims. AOC benefited massively from that episode, accruing ever-more social media clout, driving several news cycles, and securing Nancy Pelosi’s backing for an AOC-led group therapy session subsequently held on the floor of the House of Representatives. 

Twitter (which employs a stable of editorial writers, but won’t classify them as such because it could impinge on regulatory considerations) staged a bizarre editorial intervention when I posted a relatively throwaway tweet commenting on the AOC controversy; the next several days consequently brought forth an avalanche of online vitriol heaped upon me. If I wanted to, I could probably describe the countless vicious messages I received as “harassment” or “violence,” but I won’t do that, because I recognize that I knowingly engaged in public commentary on a contentious political topic. However, others in the media now do exactly that as a matter of course, and all sorts of institutions are following their self-pitying lead: even the United Nations has taken up the mantle of combating “online violence” against journalists, gliding right past any concerns about the coherence of the concept of “online violence.” 

It would doubtless be considered abusively trauma-compounding to politely suggest that the prudent response to psychological turmoil in these situations is to maybe try and develop a bit of equanimity and fortitude, particularly in the face of online criticism that you knowingly invited as a professional adult journalist opining on controversial topics in public. I get why such criticism can be jarring; it’s not pleasant. But it’s also unclear why anyone would go into journalism if they just wanted to deal in sterilized pleasantries.

The best way to understand this phenomenon is as a power-play for journalists (and like-minded peers in related fields) to assert their will, obtain greater status within their institutions, and defang their enemies and/or critics using a vocabulary that they’ve become super-proficient in — but which most normal people outside their rarified cohort will never master. Many of these journalists probably do suffer from genuinely extreme psychological anguish. That’s made clear in their erratic public behavior. But instead of trying to resolve those issues principally through counseling and other forms of private mental health support — in which case all we could do is wish them the best — they choose to “post through” their issues in public as a central feature of their journalistic activity. And then demand the rest of us go along for the very obnoxious ride.