There have been a variety of responses to Urban Outfitters' "blood-splatter" Kent State sweatshirt -- and this is going to be another one.
I had to discreetly comfort one of my students today. They happened to see the story and a picture of the shirt in question while they were checking their phone before class. They started to hyperventilate and shake, and I had to take them into a quiet and empty area to see if they were OK. This student, who I will not name for obvious reasons, has PTSD and had been triggered by the image.
This is just a reminder that while this piece of clothing seems harmless enough -- it's just an over-priced, ugly sweatshirt, after all -- its style is symbolic of something more sinister and ideologically harmful. To add to the laundry list of reasons that others have already explored today, I think that it's despicable to commodify students -- dead students, living students -- and it's really twisted to think that their bodies and experiences should propel "creative," "edgy" marketing. Either Urban Outfitters has some woefully ignorant folks on their development team, or they were doing it for shock value. After all, bad publicity is still publicity, so, why not? In either case, the result is the same: it's a trigger not only for those who remember the National Guard killing four of our students on May 4th, 1970, but also a trigger for anyone post-May-4th who has suffered violent trauma, who sees fake blood splatter and is immediately reminded of the real thing, from their lived experiences. In that case, there is no difference between the reality and a facsimile. If the impact is the same -- if it evokes true and deep emotions of past trauma -- then it doesn't matter whether it's "just a shirt."
It's also good for all of us to remember that intention and impact are not measured the same way. Later today, Urban Outfitters issued a half-baked apology for making and selling the shirt. "We meant no disrespect," they said. If they intended no harm, I understand, but it doesn't negate the impact of their decision. It does not erase my student's experience of being triggered. We do not get to decide how other people react to our decisions; with regards to Post-Traumatic Stress, this is especially true. Being triggered is a knee-jerk reaction; it is in no way planned. It just happens. The impact is, at times, difficult to overcome. A simple "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to" doesn't erase anything. And in the case of company-issued apologies, they are as much used as a marketing tactic as anything else, so impact becomes particularly important to consider. The common metaphor used in counseling is this: If you break a plate, then apologize to the plate, the plate doesn't automatically repair itself. Repair is a separate action. "I'm sorry," while helpful if it's sincere, is not repair.
Ultimately, I have to wonder, is it worth it to Urban Outfitters to privilege "edginess" over the emotional well-being of their potential customers? I know that I can't trust a company to put people over profit, but who do they think will buy their merchandise? Generally speaking, alienated and/or triggered customers don't buy products that alienate/trigger them. I'm no businesswoman, but how logical is that?
In any case, as an instructor, I feel responsible for the safety of my students. Today, I was reminded that my students' safety also includes their emotional and mental health. So, while companies like Urban Outfitters don't have their best interests at heart, I do. Other instructors at Kent State do. And I join them in saying that this is more than "just a shirt." It's a reminder of how far we've yet to go, if dead students can be commidified so easily.