Dear Ms C*d*,
I write to protest your astonishing lack of consideration in sending my client, Mx. ****, a letter about holiday songs without affixing a conspicuously visible Trigger Warning and Content Label. Mx. **** has been my patient for several years now. They have been diagnosed as suffering from Major Depressive Disorder, Non-Psychotic (ICD-10 F33.3), With Suicidal Ideation (ICD-10 R45.851), and your message awakened many of the symptoms characteristic of this disorder:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts (Source: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression)
Your letter conveyed the judgment of the music staff of the school that Mx. ****’s children attend, that “Jingle Bells” and other seasonal songs must no longer be sung at the school. The reason adduced was that
the music department has started to research the background of songs we’ve used and found out some have a problematic past: racist or derogatory terms or themes, questionable authenticity, and/or appropriated origins. December songs we are no longer singing at school include: Jingle Bells, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Winter Wonderland, and Chestnuts Roasting, you can click on the links to learn more. We take responsibility for singing these songs in the past and are committed to our continued work to evolve as educators. … Song repertoire is a piece of the larger school-wide identity scope and sequence as we support each other in raising a generation of changemakers.
Mx. **** has always sung “Jingle Bells” in the comfortable belief that, unlike many year-end holiday songs, it was neither racist nor anti-Semitic. To the untrained ear, its lyric has to do with dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh (presumably without cruelty to the aforenamed horse), over the fields, laughing all the way (attention: laughing from mere physical exhilaration, not laughing at any person, creed, ability status, or nationality). The idea of bobbing a horse’s tail and affixing bells to it (as in “Bells on bobtails ring”) has caused Mx. **** some pain in the past, but in therapy I suggested they simply sing out “Bells on bumpers ring” loudly enough that they will not hear the offensive “bobtail” word as sung by others, and this method seems to have been well-tolerated, by my patient at least.
But now your message and the linked essay have informed them that “Jingle Bells” was apparently sung as part of a minstrel entertainment in 1857. The fact that its composer wrote tunes to be performed by white actors wearing blackface, and the suggestion that “Jingle Bells” might at one time have figured amongst the numbers on stage, condemns it forever in the eyes of properly vigilant people, for we all know that, just as in the old South one drop of the “wrong” kind of blood was sufficient to exclude a person from the category of free white people, so too, in our enlightened era, the possibility of tracing any element of culture to a situation, a person, and/or a connotation that are in any way “problematic” suffices to justify removing it forever from the repertoire. It doesn’t matter that “Jingle Bells” is not usually sung in blackface. The fact that a historian has found evidence that it might have been sung in blackface at least once condemns it. It also doesn’t matter that evidence has never been brought forth that singing “Jingle Bells” promotes racist attitudes in white children, or induces problems of self-esteem in non-white children. I will gladly concede the bit about the bobtails, but the larger point is that any suspicion of complicity with evil (by which we mean attitudes that are derogatory, exclusionary, appropriative, or otherwise non-nice) calls for prompt action to remove the offensive cultural object. The moral imperative– who will think of the children?– is plain. Even the pleasure that generations of children have taken in singing “Jingle Bells” must be sacrificed on the altar of this demanding ideal.
No person aspiring to virtue today could possibly disagree with your strategy of cultural correction. But my patient, who although non-psychotic is subject to rumination and insomnia, was, I regret to say, profoundly triggered by your mail. How many times have they, unawares, sung “Jingle Bells” in public? How many times have they hummed it in private? How can they bear the knowledge of having done that, understanding as they now do that to hum “Jingle Bells” is the moral equivalent of sailing to Africa, clapping chains on innocent villagers, and dragging them across the Atlantic to serve without salary and die early after decades of back-breaking labor? Not to put too fine a point on it, singing “Jingle Bells” is spiritual lynching. What other customs, cultural artifacts, or activities in which Mx. **** has engaged over a lifetime, though apparently harmless, could be traced to a similar origin? Can anyone be pure?
My patient is a White Liberal American, and to make things worse, a Protestant [gender withheld by patient’s request]. They have tried to do all the right things in their life. They have not spoken the N-word. They have not discriminated against Jews, or Muslims either. They have left the room when relatives told jokes about chitlins or nose operations. They have marched against the war in Iraq and for Black Lives Matter. They have given to the right charities (small problem: they omitted to brag about it). They have voted regularly. They do not belong to any segregated clubs. They have looked into their genealogy and discovered many individuals in the past fifteen or so traceable generations who owned slaves or benefited from the slave economy, who considered heterosexuality normative, who believed their own religion or nation superior to others. All this self-scrutiny they have faithfully performed since attaining the age of reason.
And yet your message was allowed to reach my patient’s ears without so much as a warning that its content would trigger bouts of guilt, self-doubt, and suicidal ideation. How can I guide my patient toward healthy self-esteem if they are constantly reminded that their very DNA is soaked in the blood of criminals, that their profession and hobbies glitter with privilege, that their desires, pleasures, and dreams cannot be innocent? What short of a quick exit from this vale of tears could put right the injustice that is the life of a person who has inherited so much of American majority culture? How, moreover, can I keep my patient from snapping into an opposite subject position and espousing White Christian Nationalism as a flight from constant guilt and self-recrimination? Or turning to Fox News in order to externalize these guilt feelings into hatred and resentment of the Other?
Worry about how to be a worthy person has sent my patient into a tailspin. They are unable to sleep, they avoid friends, conversations, and public places, their consumption of alcohol to deaden the pain of being themself has gone up. All this could have been avoided by simply affixing a label that reads: WARNING. WHITE LIBERAL GUILT TRIGGERS BELOW. AVOID READING IF AT ALL SENSITIVE.
You have put yourself in the position of authority, the judgment seat. Yours is the voice that decides if my patient deserves to live or die. However, were they to die by suicide, their life insurance policies would be invalidated, and being a White Middle-Class Person, they could not accept that– the very thought of losing their death benefit might kill them. Such are the unendurable double-binds of the guilt of privileged people.
Please allow me in conclusion to express my sincerest envy of your moral unassailability.
Dr. Narziss Goldmund Fort-Da