1st Amendment Blues: “Triggers” and the Nuisance of Free Speech

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.)

Cops for Christ Nostalgia

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.

Charlie Hebdo Rally - PenNaturally, 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.

Trigger Warnings

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.


5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 01/26/15

The Decemberists – Lake Song

A new Decemberists album is definitely cause for celebration. Whether it’s through the music, the lyrics or just the pure spirit of showmanship that they bring to their craft, Colin Meloy and the rest of the band always produce something special. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World doesn’t have the cohesiveness of their best album, The Crane Wife, nor does it quite reach the emotional highs of most recent release, The King Is Dead, but it’s still an endearing addition to their catalog. Like their first albums, there are a lot of stylistic shifts throughout, most of them quite fun, but the Decemberists’ have always excelled at straightforward, heartfelt ballads, which is what makes “Lake Song” one of the standout tracks on this solid album. Delicate, affecting, and typically literate, this is what a love song should be.

Sia – Chandelier (Piano Version)

The original album version of this track is excellent (as is the video), but it was hearing the acoustic piano version of this song (on the sadly departed sitcom, Selfie) that revealed to me both how stunning the vocal performance is and the heft of the lyrics. Few pop songs hit with this kind of emotional resonance, an exquisitely heartbreaking account of losing one’s self (and pain) in a night’s debauchery. This is the track that makes the argument that Sia is not only one of our finest pop song writers, she is a bona fide pop star.

José González – Stay Alive

Found on the soundtrack of a movie I never saw, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, this soothing song sees José González stretching his sound, with his normal acoustic guitar replaced by piano and an incessant, enveloping cymbal build. González didn’t write this song, which isn’t much of a surprise since his biggest “hits” have almost all been covers. That the songwriter is Ryan Adams, though, does explain why I fell in love with this track almost immediately. This is the kind of track that Adams can write in his sleep, so it’s fun to hear another artist take it and make it his own. I don’t know if the Ben Stiller-starring movie was any good, but at least it resulted in this gorgeous collaboration, so that’s something.

The Stills – Retour a Vega

I have no idea how I came to be in possession of this track by the Toronto-based band, The Stills, but it’s been getting heavy rotation for the last few months. Sung completely in French (title translates to “Return to Vega”), the melody has a floating, graceful ease that lifts up the otherwise plaintive vocals. Even without Google Translating the lyrics, you get the sense that the singer is missing a girl. But after all, aren’t all songs about missing a girl?

Kanye West – Power

Is this guy annoying? Sure. Is he an over the top egotist? Absolutely. Does he still write some flat out killer tracks? Can’t deny that. How great is “Power”? It was the song that came on the radio as I drove into New York City on my first day of my 10th year and there couldn’t have been a better song for the moment. Almost all rappers put out boast tracks, but hardly any of them do it with as much style and swagger as Kanye. If you don’t get pumped up listening to those propulsive chants and crashing rhythm, you may have a fatal case of Stick-In-Ass Syndrome. Better get that checked out.

What a Terrible World

Skin and Bones

Wisps of blond in between the pages of a journal,
pages torn out;
shy goodbyes in public spaces;
the absence of skin and bones in my cradled arms
tell me everything
I would rather not know.
You’re gone
but in the shadows,
you’re gone
but in the morning
I’ll reach for you, the curve of your neck, the softness of your breasts,
the safety of your trapeze net
and only find a pillow,
cool, plump, dry like winter.
Then I’ll get up
slip into my skin and bones
and stand in the way of progress, looking back.
You left
and pressed my hand,
you left
and said, “Don’t be sad,”
but what I am is more aware
of the line, drawn in the sand, between happiness
and whatever we were
beneath the flesh.


X in X: The Project Gets A Tattoo

With 2015 marking the final year of a project that began in 2005, it was time for me to finally get a tattoo for 10 Cities / 10 Years.

The 16 other tattoos I’ve had inked onto my body over the last 12 years have spoken to a personal philosophy, much of which has developed over the decade of this project. They have been words taken from a wide range of literary and lyrical influences, melded into my own worldview. They are the words that make up my story.

But every book needs a cover. This is mine:

X in X Tattoo 2

10 cities in 10 years is, of course, the defining narrative arc of my life. Everything before it a preamble, everything after it will be a sequel. I set out nearly 10 years ago to accomplish something unique and ambitious. I can’t say that, now nearing the end, this project looks the same as how I imagined it in the beginning.

For the last couple months, I’ve stepped back and attempted to put this decade in perspective. I’m writing about the years now, hopefully with the end result being a book, part memoir, part travelogue, part historical re-examination. But as I try to form my memories into one cohesive narrative, various themes are taking shape. Some stories that felt important when they happened are now less interesting to me, whereas seemingly inconsequential details are taking on new, weightier resonance.

I still don’t know how this story ends.

My ‘X in X’ tattoo doesn’t mark the end of my project. I have one specific tattoo in mind for August 31st to cap the whole affair (and, no, I’m not telling what it is). This tattoo simply acknowledges that I’ve completed one aspect of my project: Reaching the 10th city, New York.

The project is only finished when I’m able to look back on all 10 completed years and see the whole road behind me.

Until then, though, I have a permanent reminder of what I have been through in my life, where I have been and what I have seen. Nothing can be undone now.

X in X Context

Why Do We Seek Labels?

It’s almost a daily occurrence now. On Facebook or Twitter, in an article or mind-numbing listicle, someone is discussing the traits, burdens and/or pleasures of being an introvert. Based on the unscientific sampling of my personal feed, 90% of the narcissistic self-promoters in the world are actually meek and shy introverts.

When us loners aren’t breathlessly talking about how weird it is that we prefer books to people (haha, I’m soooo crazy!), we’re posting the results of a Briggs Myers personality test (or some generic knockoff).

“I’m totally an INFP.”

“Well, I’m an ENFJ.”

“Oh, I could definitely see that. I guess that’s because I’m an ENTP.”

“I kind of figured all of you were CUNTs.”

And when we get bored with scientific classifications that mostly mean nothing, we fall back on the original sugar pill of personality labels: The Zodiac.

What’s Your Sign?

How is it that a generation raised on “Be Yourself” entertainment is so obsessed with conforming to labels? How can we, on one hand, talk so much about how our race, gender and sexuality doesn’t define our potential and value, and then turn around and say without a trace of irony, “Oh, I’m a Cancer, that’s why I’m so emotional”? Why are we so in need of being sorted?

Hate to break it to you, but you aren’t Harry Potter.

I realize that most people who read horoscopes don’t put much faith in them. They read them for entertainment, they read them because they’re bored, or they read them because it’s fun to see how they match up with their lives. But, like the lapsed Catholic who still crosses himself before entering a scary, black basement, there is an ounce of belief in these people.

It’s not faith in the Zodiac (though, obviously, there are people who truly and fully believe in the bunk), but rather a kind of desperate hope that there could be some truth in the predictions. If the horoscope is true, if the Briggs Myers is accurate, if Muhammad is the Prophet, then there is understandable order in the universe.

There isn’t. At least, not in the way you want.


Being an introvert can be great. (Except when it’s not.) There is no question that I fit the label. I fit many labels. I’m shy, I’m pensive, I’m a Wallflower, I’m serious, melancholy, calculating. (Except when I’m not.) I am many things that are really just synonyms for the same trait, which is [fill-in-the-blank].

I imagine, though, that being an extrovert must be pretty great, too.

Except when it’s not.

We have an unhealthy compulsion to be categorized. I don’t like to say, “Because of the internet…” since that’s a very myopic way of looking at the world. I don’t think the internet is fundamentally changing us so much as it’s allowing us to more fully reveal the truest human nature. That said, because of the internet, we are becoming more and more obsessed with telling other people what our label is, presumably so they’ll better understand and accept us.

Am I too quiet? Well, don’t be mad at me, I’m just an introvert.

Am I not assertive enough? That’s just my personality trait, I’d rather create than control.

Am I bad in bed? Must be because you’re a Gemini.

We’re so scared of admitting our failings – of admitting that being less than perfect isn’t a quirk but a reality – that we seek a label for every single possible human personality.

I’m guilty, as well. I am bi-polar. Mostly it’s an affliction I have to deal with to get through day-to-day life and I don’t tend to talk about it in my real world life.* I rarely tell co-workers and don’t bring it up with friends and roommates unless I think they’re someone who will appreciate the conversation, usually because they have a similar struggle. I don’t want to be defined by my condition.

Except when I do. Because at times I do want to wrap myself up in the label. I want to use it as an excuse so that all my worst behaviors and traits can be written off and forgiven. I want permission to be weak.

We are all weak at times, and in those low moments we seek the comforting reassurance that it’s not our fault, not our responsibility. It’s just our nature.

That might be true, but what of it? There are positive traits and there are negative traits. There are qualities to be celebrated and qualities to be corrected. And then there are traits and qualities that just exist, neither good nor bad. I think of it (as I do most things) in evolutionary terms: There is no right or wrong way to be, generally, but there are traits that are more beneficial for particular circumstances.

I have great qualities for being a writer. I have lousy qualities for being a pop singer (even if I do have an ass like Nicki Minaj).

Our incessant need to label ourselves speaks to a great insecurity within us. Maybe it’s because of the constant bombardment of celebrity news and digitally-manipulated images, or maybe that insecurity always existed and the internet is just allowing us to admit it.

Either way, it’s a sickness. Not the insecurity. Insecurities can actually be a gift, a reminder that we are not done yet, that we can always do more to improve ourselves. No, the sickness is the desire to label ourselves, to say, “This is who I am so deal with it.” There are more than 7 billion people on this planet. If the world doesn’t want to “deal with it” they’ll just ignore you, like I imagine most of your friends on Facebook already do.

Nobody cares if you’re an introvert, an INTJ or a Taurus.

We only care what you actually do. So close the Buzzfeed quiz and go create something of lasting value.

Manhattan Sunset


*I use this space to talk about my condition on occasion because I want people to understand it, and I want people who are dealing with the same problem to have a place to feel less alone.

            the road is life


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