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Politically sidelined (trigger warning)

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Where would I find enough leather
To cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
It's as if the whole world has been covered.
~ Śāntideva

When I was five years old, I saw my first TV fight. When I was seven or eight, my first TV murder by gun. The fact that I can remember these so clearly probably says something. I felt sick for some time, and frightened. You could say I was triggered. Certainly I was grievously affected by witnessing violence that I had never to that point imagined. Had I personally experienced such brutality beforehand, these representations could well have re-opened old wounds. I don't know.

In later life, I watched my partner die, slowly and painfully, from pancreatic cancer. I cannot abide articles and commentary about cancer. They hurt, even years afterwards.

It's a rough-edged world, hard and sharp, and we are soft creatures, easily injured by it. We are gifted, as a species, with a self-preservation instinct (both individual and social). We have intelligence, a collective life and symbolic systems of representation to help us survive. But we are beset on all sides. Natural disasters, famine, disease and an irreversible ageing process go hand-in-hand with the everyday dangers of the physical environment and, of course, the additional threats that we pose to ourselves: war, assault, speeding cars, junk food, discrimination, environmental degradation and on it goes.

We also have imaginary fears to torture and wound our minds: phobias and paranoia, perennial nonsense about the afterworld and its eternal punishments, and that well-identified phenomenon known as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. And we have our memories, some of which we keep re-living, particularly the bad ones.

We build walls against all of these threats, real and imagined. But do these walls imprison the cause of our alarm, or ourselves? Are we free at last, or merely fugitive and cloistered?

The recent academic fashion of "trigger warnings" (TWs) suggest the latter. Once these were posted to allow victims of PTSD caused by sexual assault to avoid representations that could re-create their trauma. But the category of things against which these warnings have been erected has become ever-broader, and, paradoxically, more rigid at the same time. And the venue of these warnings, once confined to "safe spaces" where the victimized could feel protected and nurtured, has moved outwards, to places that never have been, and never should be, safe.

Like universities.

It is hard to improve upon Jill Filipovic's succinct takedown of this runaway fad in academe. Here is a (partial) list of what is now held to require one of these TWs:

[M]isogyny, the death penalty, calories in a food item, terrorism, drunk driving, how much a person weighs, racism, gun violence, Stand Your Ground laws, drones, homophobia, PTSD, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, self-injury, suicide, talk of drug use, descriptions of medical procedures, corpses, skulls, skeletons, needles, discussion of “isms,” neuroatypical shaming, slurs (including "stupid" or "dumb"), kidnapping, dental trauma, discussions of sex (even consensual), death or dying, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy, childbirth, blood, scarification, Nazi paraphernalia, slimy things, holes and "anything that might inspire intrusive thoughts in people with OCD".

We can add to this catalogue (which applies only to texts) such disturbing real-life "triggers" as applause, and taking positions on the Middle East. Jewish students at Berkeley claimed that the use of an imaginary word rhyming with "intifada" made them feel "marginalized." Meanwhile, Palestinian students at MIT claimed that celebrating Israel made them feel "unsafe."

As a category becomes steadily more inclusive, it loses its usefulness in helping us to differentiate, which is the whole point of categories in the first place. And not only do we have an expanding array of triggers, but the alleged victims of, say, numbering calories in a food item or swearing may not have PTSD at all, but merely feel "uncomfortable."

"Life is Triggering," said one commentator, Professor Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago. An orthogonal response to this by Professor Aaron Hanlon of Georgetown University deserves consideration as well: while not opposed to well-placed warnings in very specific contexts, he opposes a university policy in this respect. Why? Because the vast academic precariat known as "contingent faculty," now estimated to comprise 75 per cent of all faculty in the US, are rendered even more vulnerable than they already are, constantly having to check to ensure that they haven't inadvertently triggered someone or other by mentioning holes or spiders and thus jeopardized their permanent job prospects.

The effect is to chill, to dumb down, to self-censor, to reduce the unsafe excitement of the world of ideas to a pot of lukewarm tea.

Now, those who are deeply scarred emotionally by trauma -- combat veterans and rape victims, for example -- obviously deserve consideration. It is not unreasonable to make some accommodation for PTSD sufferers, as one does for other forms of disability, on university campuses and elsewhere. At my own university, students with disabilities have access to a centre where they can request just such accommodation. But the whole notion of "trigger warnings" has been so carelessly construed and so grievously misapplied that it needs to be…

Well, no triggering here. But it's high time, I think, to step firmly back from the intellectual brink to which this latest wave of moral panic has driven us. We can't make the world a safer and better place if we insist on running away from it -- or enabling others to do so.

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