Trigger Warning: This essay, among other things, discusses trigger warnings in a way (somewhat intentionally) that may offend some poor sensitive souls. It does so not to intentionally offend them but to engage them more realistically with the world!
It is easy to be impressed with the constant march of technological progress. We all can point to the fact that technology has enhanced, and indeed even sometimes saved, our lives. No doubt we all have our favourite technologies.
It brings to mind an old joke about a discussion a few people were having about their favourite technology. Despite the plethora of inventions using the most advanced technologies modern science has provided put forward by the group, one guy insisted that his favourite invention was the thermos flask. His companions were surprised that he should nominate such a commonplace, low-tech device.
“Why on earth, would you single out the thermos,” they enquired.
“Well it is able to keep cold things cold but also to keep hot things hot.”
“What is so special about that?”
“But how does it know?”
[Before you groan too loudly, let me tell you this joke has a great pedigree. It was told to me by someone who is now a Judge in the Federal Court of Australia! (Thank you Andrew!)]
Anyhow, I am eagerly awaiting a new development in technology. It seems likely that one day we might be able to transfer thoughts between human brains. Now whilst there would obviously be many uses for such technology, I have a particular one in mind. It would be wonderful to be able to communicate a trigger warning to an-about-to-be-born child. I am not sure what the exact message should be. Perhaps, “Don’t come out unless you are prepared to face reality!”
But unfortunately the poor child has no choice. Once the birth process begins it will most likely be expelled from its mother’s body and have to face the world.
And indeed the world can be a difficult place.
I have written about this before in numerous essays.
M Scott Peck began his lovely little book, A Road Less Travelled with this statement:
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
One of the fundamental precepts of Buddhism reaffirms that life inexorably brings with it suffering.
So isn’t it enough that we should have to endure the natural suffering of life without adding a whole lot of confected suffering that just doesn’t need to be there. This needless suffering automatically arises from the sense of victimhood that some people assume to protect their fragile egos from the assault of the real world.
Those afflicted with the illness of victimhood avoid reality by taking offence when their beliefs, however ill-founded, are questioned. What a difference is made by the response, “I disagree” which encourages debate to the response “I am offended” which brooks no further discussion and seeks apology.
Trigger warnings are designed to protect us from confronting the world. I read a recent article by Jill Filipovic taking issue with trigger warnings in the context of University education. Talking of the educational environment, she said, “It is hopefully a space where the student is challenged and sometimes frustrated, and sometimes deeply upset, a place where the student’s world expands and pushes them to reach the outer edges – not a place that contracts to meet the student exactly where they are.” And of course trigger warnings are designed to ensure the latter outcome.
The phenomenon we now call “political correctness” no doubt began with the best intentions in mind. But now, in today’s world of easily offended minorities, it has quickly become an impediment to free speech. It renders it impossible to have a reasonable discussion on the contentious issues that have aggregated self-serving minorities around them like religion, politics, gay marriage and so on.
I cast my mind back to my younger days when I enjoyed playing social cricket. We had arranged to play a game against an indigenous team from a nearby community. They were a happy mob who played the game in the right spirit, not too seriously (but nonetheless very athletic) and pleased to enjoy the conviviality that was the prime motivation for our erratic efforts to play cricket. The team, their families and some supporters all arrived at our home ground in a bus they had chartered for the event. The captain of the team, Eddie, was the first to alight and with a beaming smile on his face came up to me, the opposing captain.
“Gidday, Ted. Good to see you again.”
Then looking back at the bus, he said, “I was glad to get off that bus!”
“Why, Eddie?” I asked. “Has there been a problem?”
“Nah,” he replied. “Just the same old thing – it sure was dark in there!”
Then he and the alighting passengers all laughed and I did as well.
I wonder how today’s political correctness police might interpret such an exchange. To me it was a good-humoured exchange about our racial difference initiated by a self-assured indigenous person. As you might imagine with an attitude like that we were destined to have great day, which we did. I can’t remember who won and it didn’t matter in the least.
And of course trigger warnings are more or less designed to shield people from what some might think are politically incorrect words or to shelter them from facing up to some of the unpleasant thoughts and situations that occur naturally in the world.
Nick Cater from the Menzies Research Centre recounts how the Australian Bureau of Statistics have slipped a trigger warning into the Commonwealth Year Books warning they might contain “language or views which may be considered to be inappropriate or offensive today”. So it seems that even bland, objective statistics and how they are characterised in the past can be offensive. So we are not allowed to tell people about the world as it is, how we characterised it back then or perhaps provide an interpretation of the data that might offend them. We need to shield them from reality.
It is interesting to conjecture how we got to this point. Trigger warnings seem to have evolved from the context of tertiary education.
Some commentators have pointed to changing social norms. In recent decades we (largely the baby boomer generation) have, for perhaps good motivation but likely adverse outcomes, been sheltering our children more and more from the world at large.(See my blog essay of 5/11/2011 Where Are the Free-Range Kids.) Where once children spent much more time out in their neighbourhoods, they now spend much more time indoors. Where once children engaged physically in play and games, they now are ensconced in digital technology. Where once children walked or cycled to school, they are now driven. The physical interaction in the neighbourhood and playground have been exchanged for social media. We now have in our Universities the first generation of students that have spent all their teenage years exposed to Facebook! In our desire to cocoon our children we pulled down all but the most benign of playground equipment and we largely forbade climbing of trees. Progressively the underlying message we gave our children was the world is a dangerous place. But never mind, we will protect you!
This generation of children also arrived to be embraced by the self-esteem movement. We sought to protect their little egos from any form of assault. So not only did we cocoon them physically, we cocooned them psychologically. Now in our institutions of learning we are trying to ensure that they are not exposed to ideas that might cause them discomfort. This of course, as Filipovic pointed out above, is not a good learning strategy. And in the process we have created more people that believe they have the right not to be offended. Worse than this they want to solve the problem by shutting down discussion on subjects they are not comfortable with and discount the opinions of those that differ without listening to the arguments.
This approach is wrong on many fronts.
To begin with just at the time they are about to face the real world in earnest we are allowing our young people to avoid facing such reality. I recently read an article about law students in an American college petitioning to have the study of rape law taken off their curriculum because it was too confronting! Maybe a time will come when our medical students demand they don’t have to see blood! Rape happens. People bleed when they are injured. Many professions that can contribute to the betterment of society have to deal with the realities of human existence. Those parts of the world that need our greatest attention are mucky, disorderly and often horrific. If you can’t deal with that you are never going to make much of a contribution to the betterment of Humankind.
Now often those that have suffered great trauma will not want to relive those experiences and will avoid those circumstances that remind them of their direst suffering. We can understand that. But most who are subject to trigger warnings will not be subject to significant suffering. Perhaps the major suffering they will endure is to have to defend some of their rusted on beliefs. Most of us whose egos are not locked onto defending some narrow belief set enjoy the challenge of debate. But those who, as a result of these dysfunctional processes, perceive themselves as victims will shy away from such debate and thus limit their capacity to learn.
If I have some sort of phobia, say the fear of flying, and I go to a good psychologist I will most likely be encouraged to confront my fear – not avoid it. The psychologist will normally put before me a program that will lead me to eventually get on an aeroplane. But trigger warnings and such claptrap are promoting avoidance. And the willing victims are never going to be able to fly but will always be grounded by their pathological inability to confront the world as it is.