This week, New York Magazine ran an excellent article by Jonathan Chait about the “language police” in modern liberalism. Summing up the article would be a disservice, not just to the author but also to everyone who would be better off reading it for themselves. Bookmark it for later (or go read it now, I’ll still be here).
In the article, he touches on a topic that has interested and worried me for some time: “triggers.”
So as not to retread too much of the ground covered by Chait in his article, I will specifically discuss the worrisome features of “trigger warnings” and the related politics. The term has an obvious purpose in modern discourse, but it seems to me that that purpose is far too often to silence opposition.
For those that don’t know, a “trigger” is something that could cause or reawaken PTSD or mental anguish due to past trauma or harm. A trigger is rooted in personal experience and thus not universal. A totally benign image or word to you might trigger terrible memories for another person.
On the surface, raising awareness of “triggers” and trying to avoid them seems like a reasonable, civilized act. In reality, though, it’s a hopelessly impractical measure that sacrifices free speech in the name of protecting, well, someone.
I’m going to focus on one example, as mentioned in Chait’s article, as a representative case in order to keep this from getting too abstract.
As discussed in the article, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Mireille Miller-Young (and her supporters) used the idea of trigger warnings to justify her abuse and vandalism of an anti-abortion protestor. You can tell by the fact that I used the term ‘anti-abortion’ instead of ‘pro-life’ that I am pro-choice. I don’t just believe in a woman’s right to choose, I accept that it’s quite simply the law of the land. I find most anti-choice protestors to be annoying at best, more often than not infuriating.
(Full disclosure: As a young child, I attended and marched in many so-called Pro-Life rallies because of my Christian parents.)
Whatever my feelings on the protestors or their beliefs, nothing should take away their right to speak. They should not be physically harmed or abused for their opinions, nor do I believe their property should be taken. Miller-Young acted out of conviction and passion and she committed a crime, for which she has been punished. I disagree with her actions but it happened and I think her punishment is reasonable. That’s where the topic should end, but it doesn’t.
My issue (and Chait’s reason for bringing it up) was that the professor’s actions have been defended by her and her supporters as justifiable because the protestors’ materials were a potential trigger. That is an extremely disingenuous way to excuse behavior meant to illegally stifle an opponent.
I certainly do not intend to dismiss Miller-Young’s (or anyone else’s) experiences, but I have a very serious problem with the idea that illegal or anti-social actions are justified by pain or trauma. That’s a dangerous precedent to be setting. Do we justify and forgive the actions of a child molester if we know that he was molested as a child himself? How about a veteran with PTSD who shoots up an office building? Or are we drawing the line at vandalism because we don’t like the cause of the people being harmed?
What truly bothers me about Miller-Young’s actions is that she was stomping on, in my opinion, the greatest liberty in the Western world: Free Speech.
Je Suis Charlie
Earlier this month, a horrific attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris shocked the world. It was met with an abundance of grief and anger and an amazing show of support for the slain. I stood in Washington Square here in New York while a crowd of French and American citizens gathered in remembrance. It was a small act in the grand scheme of things, but in a way it also demonstrated how small the act of the terrorists ultimately was: You can kill individuals, but you can’t kill their words.
Naturally, a couple days later, the backlash began. After all, no unifying moment can last without someone tearing it down. Charlie Hebdo was racist, sexist and just plain mean-ist the detractors said. Perhaps all of that is true (I’m not going to pretend like I had any great knowledge of Charlie Hebdo before the attacks), but it misses the point of both the rallies and the rallying cry “Je Suis Charlie.”
For most people such as myself who had no personal connection to the paper or the victims, we didn’t stand with Charlie Hebdo because of what they said. We stood with them because they said it. They exercised their right to free speech in the face of death threats and attacks. That is a noble cause. Even if you don’t like what’s being said, you have to respect the commitment.
That’s why I respect the anti-abortion protestors at UCSB more than I do Miller-Young. On a liberal college campus, they stood up for their beliefs and spoke for a cause. We can get bogged down in the question of rights (Women’s vs. fetuses’) or trimesters, but the bottom line is there are two strongly opposed, passionate sides of this debate and each has the right to express their views.
Some might argue that Miller-Young’s actions were pretty innocuous, especially in a world where people die for their beliefs. You can minimize Miller-Young’s actions by saying they are not as extreme or vile as someone blowing up an abortion clinic, but you cannot make the argument that they are logically different. Both actions are an attempt to silence the opposition, and in both cases the aggressors believe themselves to be moral actors (defending the unborn; protecting students from triggers).
It’s a matter of degrees, not morality.
Triggers are legitimate concerns for people who have gone through traumatic events. Unfortunately for them, that’s their problem, not the world’s. I know that sounds unsympathetic, but it’s just common sense. If you’re my friend and I know that a certain movie brings back bad memories for you, I’d be a dick to make you watch it. If I’m a complete stranger and something I do or say is a trigger for you, well, too goddamn bad.
Just as I have said before that I will not take offense on your behalf, I will not live my life in constant fear of someone else’s triggers. It’s not only an unrealistic way to live, it’s counterproductive. There is too much trauma in this world to believe it can be forever avoided.
You could argue that there’s nothing wrong with someone explaining their triggers, and you’d be right. If you’re with friends and family, or if you’re in an online community and you want them to understand that some subjects or symbols might be a trigger for you, then by all means, share. In fact, sharing your experiences will likely be good for you.
But expecting the world to change for you is staggeringly narcissistic.
I discussed the Miller-Young case for a reason: In both the physical and digital realms, there is an effort by socially conscious people to silence people because they are expressing opposing, arguably harmful views. I think not only of the protestors, but of the infamous story of the woman heckler who stood up at a Daniel Tosh stand-up performance and yelled that “rape jokes are never funny.” The headline of that story for most people was that Tosh (purportedly) retorted, “Wouldn’t it be funny if she was raped by, like, 5 guys right now?” Not a particularly witty or amusing comeback, but considering the setting and that he was a stand-up comedian, hardly an especially harsh line (Louis C.K.’s hilarious heckler scene on his show Louie is, to me, both much harsher and much, much funnier).
Whereas most people saw this as a feminist issue, I only saw it in terms of free speech. Comedians be joking, yo. Hicks, Carson, Bruce. These were all famous comedians who fought the good fight so that comedians could tell jokes about any subject they wanted. Without them, Louis C.K. wouldn’t have a career and that’s not a world I want to live in.
Add to that list the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. I don’t know enough French to get his jokes but, based on what I’ve had translated for me, I definitely don’t agree with his political views (at least, what he professes publicly). Regardless, I absolutely believe in his right to espouse them. The irony of him being arrested so soon after the Charlie Hebdo shootings wasn’t lost on anyone.
We need these people. We need people who say awful, horrible shit. We need people who offend.
Without them, we fall into complacency. We lose sight of the world we’re fighting for, we forget that the relative stability that we live in was something that had to be earned. Sometimes such voices make us uncomfortable. C’est la vie.
Deal With It
I know victims of abuse and rape. I know people who suffer from PTSD. I wish Sam Beckett could travel back in time to protect them from that suffering and set right what once went wrong, but that show has been canceled for years now. So we have to carry on.
The problem with sacrificing free speech in the order to make yourself feel better is that at some point someone could use the same excuse to shut you up. And they will.
There is no such thing as complete free speech. Even the freest nations in the world put limits on speech, and there are plenty of ways in which governments can and actively do suppress it.
So how stupid is it that we would willingly participate in that oppression?
I don’t believe in protesting outside movies that I dislike or boycotting companies with whom I disagree. If I don’t like their product, I just ignore it. For the past 10 years, I have quietly not eaten at McDonald’s. It isn’t a boycott, it isn’t a political statement. I don’t like their food, I’m not a particular fan of their business practices, so I don’t eat there. It’s really that simple. I have never told anyone they shouldn’t eat there and I am not waging a war to abolish the company.
There are causes for which dramatic action should be taken. I want to be clear that I am not arguing that protests have no place in our world. There are causes that equate to life and death and require action. Distaste for another person’s opinions is not one of those causes.
Making a capital offense of every single slight and offense actually undermines legitimate causes. If you don’t like what someone is saying, counter them with a better argument, don’t vandalize their property or shout them down into silence.
And if they don’t go away? Well, suck it up. The world doesn’t exist to fondle your oversensitive balls.