Trigger Warnings: Censorship and Speech Policing

Trigger warnings have become enormously popular and topical, not the least because of feminists and social justice warriors. For some reason, a large number of people seem to believe they live in a fantasy land where they have the right to not hear things that might upset them. I’m not sure where this fantasy derives from as it clearly has no grounding in reality.

Let’s go ahead and ‘unpack’ the ‘logic’ behind trigger warnings. Now, if you’re not a gaping asshole like myself and you generally don’t like gaping assholes, I love them, then at first glance you may be thinking, Well, this isn’t so bad. I mean shouldn’t we generally be concerned with people’s feelings?

Sure, generally speaking. I do happen to think it is best when we concern ourselves with the consciousness, awareness, and thus experiences of those beings that can most appreciate and comprehend them. This is why we are more concerned with the well-being of dogs as opposed to daffodils or rocks. It is also why we might be more concerned about the experiences of a human being over say…a chicken.

However, the reality, whether you like it or not, is that your ‘rights’ do not extend to your feelings, nor do your feelings supersede my right to say something reasonable or even extreme like, ‘All priests should be shot in the head for their stupidity and sinister beliefs.’

I understand that if you are a rape victim and suddenly you happen upon a blog or youtube channel that blithely discusses or ruminates over this topic you may feel yourself offended, profoundly impacted, or whatever. But in this case it is up to YOU to be cautious about where to venture on the internet or outside.

You see, actually, the bigger asshole in this situation is the person who expects the entire planet to be solely focused on their feelings and experiences. The bigger asshole is the person who wishes to limit the freedom of the entire earth so that they may walk about it without ever experiencing a range of emotion outside of contented and pure elation.

Guess what, here’s an idea…consider ‘life’ itself a trigger warning. Maybe we should all accept that in the course of living, loving, and generally experiencing, there will be ups and downs, good times and bad times, great experiences and disappointing experiences. Sometimes there may even be profound and heart-wrenching tragedy. It is likely that no one who lives long enough will not experience the full scope of life’s travails and joys.

This may be difficult to hear but your feelings just don’t matter enough to limit freedom of speech or content – or even to justify warnings about such speech or content. It is true that there are limited forums in which we rate things like art, such as films. But this is not about feelings, it is about generally excepted notions of age-related maturity and the rights of parents to police what their children see or hear.

However, even here we have serious problems. Which is worse? Explicit sex scenes? Or violence? Can a 16 year old handle it? Maybe this one can but that 18 year old can’t. See how even this generally accepted but nevertheless arbitrary measure of content is still entirely subjective and dependent on the individual and culture?

Still, ‘rating’ does not extend to public space in general, nor does it realistically exist between people.

Now let us consider a situation. If you have two kids and you walk into a Red Lobster and decide to sit next to a group of young men who enjoy using terms like ‘cunt’ or ‘fuck’, so long as they are speaking at a reasonable volume, you don’t actually have a right to tell them to stop talking. You do, however, have the right to change tables or frequent another restaurant.

Now let’s imagine a trigger warning situation. If I am a rape victim, or a victim of molestation as a child, and I enter a Red Lobster, how much sense does it make to say, ‘Excuse me everyone, here’s my life story and the reason for my exceedingly fragile psychology, you will all have to police your language and content so long as I am within the vicinity because otherwise you might make me cry.’ Did that sound ridiculous? That’s because it is.

Imagine another situation in which your class is having an important discussion about sexual ethics and conduct. Now someone stands up, a young girl, and says that everyone must stop talking because she is beginning to feel really uncomfortable now that the dialogue has taken a turn to violence. Is it reasonable for her to expect people to stop talking because of her uneasiness? Is it reasonable for her to say before class, ‘Listen guys, our conversation can be as free flow as you want until it begins to make me feel bad or upset.’ No, it isn’t. She can leave, stop listening, not attend, or take it upon herself to research what the topic is and postulate as to where it could lead. And surprise, we don’t always know where a discussion might lead – sort of like life eh?

And what about the internet, where you may have no warning? Well, again, that’s life. The internet is not much different than the street in this regard. You don’t know what a person might say or even do. Literally, anything could happen. But logistically speaking, it is simply way too onerous and self-centered to expect everyone to be concerned about your experiences and feelings. My feelings and experiences may be different and I have a right to express them without doing you physical harm. Does this potentially lead to rude behavior? Can it be abused and become inconsiderate? Sure. But that is when you get to end the discussion by leaving.

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