I’D LIKE TO THINK I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for most things.
That is to say, I like to fancy myself as someone who isn’t easily offended.
I’ve seen Faces of Death. I’ve watched Cannibal Holocaust.
2 Girls 1 Cup.
Googled “blue waffle”.
I’ve read William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, and the Marquis de Sade.
Watched Divine eat dog shit in Pink Flamingos and laughed.
I can watch binge watch documentaries about spree killers and terrorists. I can waste an entire Saturday afternoon watching Forensic Files without being the least bit bothered about stories of kidnappings, rapes, murders, and all the horrible things people do to one another that sometimes makes me wish I’d been born a cat.
These things should offend me. But instead I was all like…
Under any other set of circumstances, I would take some pride in my high tolerance for offensive things. There’s a tendency in people to assume that the things that don’t bother me do not bother other people. However, I’ve come to realize that this isn’t the case.
Some people are really offended by the things that don’t offend me.
So much so that they need to be told that what they’re about to see may be upsetting.
So much so that they need a trigger warning.
What’s a trigger warning? If you haven’t been on or near a college campus lately, a trigger warning is
a statement at the start of a piece of writing , video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).
A trigger warning is supposed to forewarn a person of upsetting content.
I get the point of trigger warnings.
Cautioning people about content that may be offensive is nothing new. Content advisories are all over popular media. We got parental advisory stickers on music and video games. MPAA ratings on films and ratings on TV shows.
One of my favorite movies, ReAnimator, had a warning on its commercial. The commercial cautioned people who are squeamish to avoid watching the film.
As a fan of ReAnimator I would say that the warning is totally necessary.
So, if the purpose of trigger warnings is utilitarian – we’re motivated by the want to do good – an inconvenience (of some) is outweighed by the overall good a trigger warning produces.
Personally, I appreciate the fact that we’re concerned for people who have sensitivities on certain topics. Giving someone a heads up probably is a good thing.
So why is everybody so upset about trigger warnings?
Unfortunately for the well-intended, looking out for the sensitivities of others hasn’t been received as warmly as their intentions. Trigger warnings, like their also well-intentioned cousin, safe spaces, have been described as political correctness gone amok.
Political correctness, or rather, how much political correctness sucks, leads folks like actor, Libertarian, and former mayor of Carmel, California, Clint Eastwood, to say this:
As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and not all good intentions give good outcomes.
Some folks think that trigger warnings, despite the best of intentions, have done more harm than good.
Alright, we can agree that warnings may be useful, but does that mean they’re a good thing?
Does the fact that someone is sensitive to certain subjects necessitate that we (ought to) warn them that the content of the material is about that subject?
How obligated are we to mind that we don’t offend everybody? To what extent are we morally obligated to not offend?
You don’t have to politically incorrect to think that trigger warnings don’t belong in a college classroom or anywhere else.
You could be a philosopher.
Here’s a thought experiment: We are a professor teaching a Women’s Studies class at a university.
We also assume that we have at least one student who has experienced a trauma and will react in a particular way to certain material presented in our class. We, for the sake of not triggering a memory of a past trauma, flag possibly disturbing material with a trigger warning.
So far so good, right?
Well, here’s a possible problem with what we’ve done – we should ask, is our assumption a bit paternalistic? Are we assuming that we know what’s best? Is the trigger warning somehow depriving a person of the ability to make their own decisions over what kind of content offends them?
Wait – before I go any further, let me define paternalism.
the policy or practice on the part of people in positions of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates’ supposed best interest.
And, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP)
The usual justification for paternalism refers to the interests of the person being interfered with. These interests are defined in terms of the things that make a person’s life go better; in particular their physical and psychological condition.
When we act paternalistically, even if our aim is to secure the interests of others, we are, by definition, interfering with another person’s ability to choose. Paternalism acts against a person’s free agency.
You see, philosophers really dig the idea of autonomy. Free moral agents require autonomy. In order to act autonomously, our decisions must be our own. Our choices must be arrived at through our own rational thought processes, without interference from others. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant says autonomy must be absolute, even if our justification for interfering in someone else’s choices is for their own good (Kant was an deontologist, so consequences don’t matter).
A violation of autonomy, according to Kant, is no different than treating rational free agents as if they are mentally incompetent.
And according to Kant that’s not being very moral.
The ultimate consequence of not respecting autonomy, some argue, is this: Although a college campus may offer safe spaces from triggers on college campuses, utilizing trigger warnings are not preparing young people for the world off campus.
You see, on college campuses, subject matter deemed triggering is often avoided out of fear of causing further trauma to sensitive individuals. The real world, according to trigger warning critics, is a harsh place and unpleasant situations and subject matter can’t be easily avoided.
According to the argument against trigger warnings, protecting people from everything that may offend them is shielding them from how things truly are. In turn, shielding people from life’s unpleasant realities makes people weaker. Warning people of any mention or instance of unpleasant subject matter (so as to avoid it) deprives people of the ability/responsibility to toughen up and imbues them with mistaken belief that the “real” world will accommodate their sensitivities.
A generation who is not fully equipped to deal with the real world cannot develop into or thrive as fully autonomous individuals.
As Professor of psychology and trigger warning expert, Metin Basoglu, observes, in the real world, there are “an infinite number of situations can act as triggers”.
We also ask, how can a college professor properly teach a class if the content/subject matter of the class triggers students? If college professors make a habit of avoiding subject matter that upsets people, then why use material on those subjects at all? The ultimate consequence of trigger warnings may not be protecting people from trauma, but a chilling effect on the expression of ideas, creativity, even the exchange of information.
Our intention may be to protect someone suffering from a prior trauma, but slapping a trigger warning may lead some to skip an article, book or class altogether.
After all, an article or class may be upsetting but it may also be informative.
And without the right information, we can’t achieve knowledge.
Trigger warnings may also remove context.
Listen: If a professor assigns a particular piece of work, it’s often because the work contributes to the purpose of the class.
Particular work is assigned because you’re supposed to learn something from it.
Anyone who has ever had to read Mark Twain knows that Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contains (potentially triggering) racist language. However, avoiding the book because of it’s racist content doesn’t allow a reader to appreciate Twain’s use of racist language in context. The use of language as it was used in the American South of 19th century enables us to understand Huckleberry Finn’s character development. Should we continue to assign students to read potentially triggering material like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Last Exit To Brooklyn, and The Great Gatsby? Should we stop reading Shakespeare and Vonnegut? Or refrain from discussing topics such as rape, suicide, bullying, mental illness, racism, homophobia, misogyny on college campuses because those topics may upset some people?
Is this where our good intentions will lead us?
Is this where we want our good intentions to lead us?
What about the trigger warning itself? Are some people so trigger-prone that a mere trigger warning will trigger them?
So… in the end, what do we do? I honestly don’t know. My gut and feelings tells me that we should be mindful to the sensitivities of others.
And that’s not always a bad thing.
Especially if you’re an emotivist.
But as a philosopher, the whole topic gets me thinking about slippery slopes and being that guy everybody hates who says “trust me, it’s for the best”.
Maybe I’m not the right person to talk about this.
I just want everyone to stay off my lawn.