A Response To Apophemi on Triggers

[content warning: discussion of triggers. Mentions various triggers. Mentions, without using or condoning, racial slurs]


I originally planned not to respond to Apophemi’s essay requesting that people not discuss potentially triggering ideas dispassionately, because my response would inevitably have to discuss a lot of triggering ideas, and it would be dispassionate, and that might not be the most effective way of conveying that I take zir concerns seriously.

(Apophemi’s essay complains about being misgendered but doesn’t give me ironclad evidence what zir gender is, so I’m going to use the gender neutral pronoun here as a least bad option. No offense is intended and if Apophemi tells me what pronoun ze prefers I’ll edit it in.)

I’m changing my mind for two reasons. First, everyone else is doing it, so Apophemi has probably reached Peak Triggering by now and the situation can’t get any worse. Second, I feel like it would be more respectful and productive to object and give zir a chance to explain why my objections are wrong, than to just say “I disagree with this but I’m not going to explain why” and dismiss the whole thing outright.

(That having been said, if Apophemi doesn’t want to read this, I am totally in favor of this; ignoring all posts on my blog tagged “race/gender/etc” is always a good life choice.)

My one worry is the comment thread. I no longer trust my commenters to be kind or reasonable, and since we’re talking specifically about triggers and giving a big list of triggery things, unkind people present a problem. So I am closing comments for this thread. If Apophemi wants to make a response, ze may email it to me or post it somewhere and I will add it in.


Apophemi writes:

On the other hand, most of these things involve warning signs for opinions whose holders are frequently detrimental to my health and safety, and therefore I feel pretty entitled to these boundaries, and pretty insulted at the implication that possessing such boundaries is inferior to not possessing them.

An example: I cannot in good faith entertain the argument that high-scarcity societies are right in having restrictive, assigned-sex-based gender roles, even if these social structures result in measurable maximized utility (i.e. many much kids). I have a moral imperative against this that overrides my general impulse towards maximized utility, or rather (if you asked me about it personally) tilt-shifts my view of what sectors ‘deserve’ to see their utility maximized at the expense of a given other sector.

However, this results in a knee-jerk intellectual squick when I run across someone entertaining or endorsing these arguments. (If I were being YouTube-commenter-style punchy about this, this entire post would have been a comment reading “‘Fertile women’ my ass.”, for the record.) This is because respect for said arguments and/or the idea behind them is a warning sign for either 1) passively not respecting my personhood or 2) actively disregarding my personhood, both of which are, to use some vernacular, hella fucking dangerous to me personally.

I am reasonably confident (insert p value here) that this attitude is self-replicating among people who are accustomed to being at risk in a specific way that generally occurs to marginalized populations. (I cannot speak for people who may have a similar rhetorical roadblock without it being yoked to a line of social marginalization, other than that I suspect they happen.) This would mean that rewarding the “ability” to entertain any argument “no matter how ‘politically incorrect’” (to break out of some jargon, “no matter how likely to hurt people”) results in a system that prizes people who have not been socially marginalized or who have been socially marginalized less than a given other person in the discussion, since they will have (in general) less inbuilt safeguards limiting the topics they can discuss comfortably.

In other words, prizing discourse without limitations (I tried to find a convenient analogy for said limitations and failed. Fenders? Safety belts?) will result in an environment in which people are more comfortable speaking the more social privilege they hold. (If you prefer to not have any truck with the word ‘privilege’, substitute ‘the less likelihood of having to anticipate culturally-permissible threats to their personhood they have lived with’, since that’s the specific manifestation of privilege I mean. Sadly, that is a long and unwieldy phrase.)

This reminds me of the idea of safe spaces.

Safe spaces are places where members of disadvantaged groups can go, usually protected against people in other groups who tend to trigger them, and discuss things relevant to that group free from ridicule or attack. I know there are many for women, some for gays, and I recently heard of a college opening one up for atheists. They seem like good ideas.

I interpret Apophemi’s proposal to say that the rationalist community should endeavor to be a safe space for women, minorities, and other disadvantaged groups.

One important feature of safe spaces is that they can’t always be safe for two groups at the same time. Jews are a discriminated-against minority who need a safe space. Muslims are a discriminated-against minority who need a safe space. But the safe space for Jews should be very far way from the safe space for Muslims, or else neither space is safe for anybody.

The rationalist community is a safe space for people who obsessively focus on reason and argument even when it is socially unacceptable to do so.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that these people need a safe space. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been called “a nerd” or “a dork” or “autistic” for saying something rational is too high to count. Just recently commenters on Marginal Revolution – not exactly known for being a haunt for intellect-hating jocks – found an old post of mine and called me among many other things “aspie”, “a pansy”, “retarded”, and an “omega” (a PUA term for a man who’s so socially inept he will never date anyone).

The reason the rationalist community tends to talk about controversial issues like race and gender on occasion is that the whole point of rationalism is giving things a fair analysis regardless of whether it’s socially popular or acceptable to talk about. So of course it will start focusing on all of the ideas that are least acceptable to talk about. I remember talking to someone who admitted, after several false starts and awkward pauses, that he found the scientific research on differences between races pretty convincing. I answered that I was still neutral on the matter but that Jensen was indeed a pretty darned meticulous researcher, and he very nearly cried with relief. He’d thought he was a terrible person for taking the research seriously, had never been able to talk about it with anyone, was stuck in a guilt spiral over it, and I was the first person to give him basic human sympathy.

And I think most people in the rationalist community have shared this reaction – not necessarily about race and gender issues, because contrary to the above we really don’t talk about those that much – but about atheism, or transhumanism, or negative utilitarianism, or simulationism, and they had finally found people who would pay them the respect to debate their ideas on merit instead of mouthing the appropriate social platitude to dismiss it as horrible or as totally obvious.

If you are the sort of person with the relevant mental quirk, living in a society of people who don’t do this is a terrifying an alienating experience. Finding people who are like you is an amazing, liberating experience. It is, in every sense of the word, a safe space.

If you want a community that is respectful to the triggers of people who don’t want to talk about controversial ideas, the Internet is full of them. Although I know it’s not true, sometimes it seems to me that half the Internet is made up of social justice people talking about how little they will tolerate people who are not entirely on board with social justice ideas and norms. Certainly this has been my impression of Tumblr, and of many (very good) blogs I read (Alas, A Blog comes to mind, proving that my brain sorts in alphabetical order). There is no shortage of very high-IQ communities that will fulfill your needs.

But you say you’re interested in and attracted to the rationalist community, that it would provide something these other communities don’t. Maybe you are one of those people with that weird mental quirk of caring more about truth and evidence than about things it is socially acceptable to care about, and you feel like the rationalist community would be a good fit for that part of you. If so, we would love to have you!

But if you want to join communities specifically because they are based around dispassionate debate and ignoring social consequences, but your condition for joining is that they stop having dispassionate debate and take social consequences into account, well, then you’re one of those people – like Groucho Marx – who refuses to belong to any club that would accept you as a member.

Imagine a Jew walking into a safe space for Muslims, and saying he finds Islam really interesting and wants to participate, but that in order for it to be a safe space for him they really need to stop talking about that whole “Allah” thing.


I deliberately said “the rationalist community” above rather than “Less Wrong”, because Less Wrong explicitly does try to be a safe space. It has a (vague and very poorly enforced) ban on talking about politics or other controversial topics which successfully discourages Reactionaries and their ilk from starting threads directly about their controversial views (they often get away with discussing other results that refer to them only indirectly).

These topics nevertheless come up anyway at regular intervals. There is almost always the same pattern when this happens:

A feminist or other person in the social justice movement very prominently posts a declaration that everyone on the site needs to be more feminist and social-justice-y. They get heavily upvoted.

A few people in the comments politely disagree, sometimes with the gist of the post, other times with specific claims.

Other people express outrage that anyone would disagree, and say this just proves that the site is full of horrible people and that feminism and social justice are needed now more than ever.

World War III happens.

It happened when Daenerys gathered a whole series of feminist things from people that got posted to Discussion called things like “On Creepiness” and “On Misogyny”. It happened when Multiheaded, a Marxist somewhere to the left of Kropotkin, posted a thread complaining about people complaining that there were people complaining about controversial opinions on the site (or something). It happened when Apophemi’s essay itself got posted to the site and heavily upvoted.

I’ve downvoted all of these things, not because I disagree with them (although I often do) but because the ban on politics is really useful to avoid exactly this kind of situation. I hope in the future it is more consistently enforced, and I hope this would be more conducive to the kind of site Apophemi wants.

“But,” people object “banning politics is hard, and talking politics sometimes is fun, and besides, social justice ideas are important to disseminate. Can’t we just ban the nasty, triggering kinds of politics?”

This would be a good time to admit that I am massively, massively triggered by social justice.

I know exactly why this started. There was an incident in college when I was editing my college newspaper, I tried to include a piece of anti-racist humor, and it got misinterpreted as a piece of pro-racist humor. The college’s various social-justice-related-clubs decided to make an example out of me. I handled it poorly (“BUT GUYS! THE EVIDENCE DOESN’T SUPPORT WHAT YOU’RE DOING!”) and as a result spent a couple of weeks having everyone in the college hold rallies against me followed by equally horrifying counter-rallies for me. I received a couple of death threats, a few people tried to have me expelled, and then everyone got bored and found some other target who was even more fun to harass. Meantime, I was seriously considering suicide.

But it wasn’t just that one incident. Ever since, I have been sensitive to how much a lot of social justice argumentation resembles exactly the bullying I want a safe space from – the “aspie”, the “nerd”, that kind of thing. Just when I thought I had reached an age where it was no longer cool to call people “nerds”, someone had the bright idea of calling them “nerdy white guys” instead, and so transforming themselves from schoolyard bully to brave social justice crusader. This was the criticism I remember most from my massive Consequentialism FAQ – he’s a nerdy white dude – and it’s one I have come to expect any time I do anything more intellectual than watch American Idol, and usually from a social justicer.

(one reason I like the MsScribe story so much is that it really brings into relief how aligned social justice and bullying can be. I’m not saying that all or even most social justice is about bullying. Just enough)

The worst part was when I read some social justice essay – I can’t remember where – which claimed that it was impossible to bully a member of a privileged group. That it didn’t count. That there was no such thing. So not only did they sound suspiciously like bullies, but they were conveniently changing the rules so that it was impossible by definition for me to be bullied at all, and all my friends (except for the black ones) who had problems with bullies as a child or in the present – didn’t count, didn’t exist, didn’t deserve any sympathy.

I believe you mentioned in your essay that feeling like you’re being told you’re not a person is really scary? Well, just so.

So suffice it to say I am triggered by social justice. Any mildly confrontational piece of feminist or social justice rhetoric sends me into a panic spiral. When I read the essay this post was based on, I got only about four hours of sleep that night because my mind was racing, trying to figure out whether I was going to get in trouble about it and whether anyone who supported it could hurt me and how I could defend myself against it.

Because my mind doesn’t just let me feel sad for a minute and then move on – no, that would be too easy. It gives me this massive compulsion to “defend myself” against any piece of social justice I see by writing really long and complete rebuttals. Which inevitably attract more social justice people wanting to debate me. And unfortunately, outrage addiction is a very real thing, and I find myself actively seeking out the most horrible social justice memes in order to be horrified by them.

(…also, telling me I’m not allowed to be triggered by my triggers is itself a trigger. Whoever designed the human mind was really kind of a jerk.)

I struggle against this all the time. H.L. Mencken writes “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” Well, this is my temptation. It requires more willpower than anything else I do in my life – more willpower than it takes for me to get up in the morning and work a ten hour day – to resist the urge to just hoist the black flag and turn into a much less tolerant and compassionate version of Heartiste.

I don’t think I’m at all alone in this. Like, you may notice there’s a large contingent of people – mostly men, but a surprising number of women as well – who totally freak out when they hear social justice stuff and seem to loathe social justice with an unholy passion? And maybe you’ve wondered whether the classic glib dismissal of them as people benefitting from the patriarchy who are upset about “uppity women” quite explains the level of rage and terror and sudden lashing out?

If you are, indeed, someone who has been traumatized and is easily triggered, you can probably recognize the signs yourself. There’s a certain desperation, a certain terror thinly disguised by rage that doesn’t really come from anything else.

So suffice it to say I am triggered by social justice, and probably a lot of other people are too. Why do I make such a big deal of this?

First, because it has a lot of bearing on whether we can just ban triggery things. There is a certain school of thought that there are two or three excessively evil things that trigger other people, like making fun of rape, and once we make people stop those, we will live in a trigger-free paradise.

But that’s not true. I’m triggered by feminism. My girlfriend is also triggered by certain kinds of feminism (long story), but also by many discussions of charity – whenever ze hears about it, ze starts worrying ze is a bad person for not donating more money to charity, has a mental breakdown, and usually ends up shaking and crying for a little while.

Since we can never make every form of discussion respect everybody’s triggers, that leaves two solutions. First, we can try the “my triggers are important, your triggers are invalid” solutions and end up with powerful groups able to enforce their triggers, and weak groups being told to “just man up”. Second, we can try the safe space solution, where not everyone can be certain of safety everywhere, but everyone is certain of safety somewhere. I don’t expect Tumblr to stop being feminist for me, but I have managed to scrub my Facebook feed so thoroughly that I only get about two or three articles per week on how hilarious it would be if male superheroes were dressed like female superheroes. One learns to relish little victories.

Second, because I think the essay contains a false dichotomy: privileged people don’t have any triggers, oppressed people do. You guys are intact, I am broken. But truth is, everybody’s broken. The last crown prince of Nepal was raised with limitless wealth and absolute power, and he still freaked out and murdered his entire family and then killed himself. There’s probably someone somewhere who still believes in perfectly intact people, but I bet they’re not a psychiatrist.

Third, because I have not yet raised the black flag. And some of my resistance I credit to – the rationalist community. The Litany of Tarski: “If all feminism is horrible, I desire to believe that all feminism is horrible. If all feminism is not horrible, I desire to believe that all feminism is not horrible.” It is a calming litany. Sometimes it helps.

A Christian proverb says: “The Church is not a country club for saints, but a hospital for sinners”. Likewise, the rationalist community is not an ivory tower for people with no biases or strong emotional reactions, it’s a dojo for people learning to resist them.

I do not think it is always wrong for people to engage in activities that exclude certain categories of disadvantaged people. For example, music naturally excludes the deaf (someone will bring up Beethoven here. You know what I mean). Horseback riding excludes most people too poor to buy horses or live in the country. This is sad, but these activities should still continue.

But I do not think dispassionate discussion for the easily triggered is as bad as all that. It is more like marathons for people who are out of shape. They will have difficulty at first. If they want to learn, they can. If they try, they will become stronger. I can’t run a marathon and I can’t always discuss issues fairly and dispassionately, but I’m glad both activities exist as things to aspire to.


Following sufficient rinsing and repetition, it may occur to someone in a ‘discourse without limitations’ community to wonder where all the (say) queer people and/or women and/or trans* people and/or disabled people and/or people of color and/or non-American-and-Northern-European people and/or citizens of the third world and/or people whose first language is not English and/or Jewish people and/or etc. (repeat and/or for any population ‘coincidentally’ discouraged from participating) went.

Or rhetorical-you could argue that women and/or minorities and/or historically disadvantaged groups are inherently irrational / otherwise not qualified for community membership, at which point I would proceed to avoid rhetorical-you, as above.

You are implying – not saying, but I hope it is fair to read the implication – that “discourse without limitations” drives minority group members away from the communities that participate in it.

This has recently become an interest of mine because a number of communities I’m in – the atheist community, the rationalist community, the Reddit community, the Vaguely Techy Bay Area community – notably lack certain kinds of minorities. And there are many people who say this must be because of some kind of inherent flaw in the community, that it proves either that community members are racist, or at least that they are less actively non-racist than might be desired. Sometimes people say this nicely and helpfully, like you have. Other times people say it more confrontationally, often with the standard “nerdy white dudes” line thrown in.

And always they make the same dichotomy you do – between the “driving these people away” explanation, and the “are you claiming these people are inherently inferior?” explanation. And the proposed solution is always to be more “respectful”, which means talking more about feminism and social justice, and being less accepting of people who counterargue against it.

Needless to say, this is not a solution I can entirely get behind. So I am terribly biased on this point. Still, let me nevertheless present my argument for evaluation.

I have been to several yoga classes. The last one I attended consisted of about thirty women, plus me (this was in Ireland; I don’t know if American yoga has a different gender balance).

We propose two different explanations for this obviously significant result.

First, these yoga classes are somehow driving men away. Maybe they say mean things about men (maybe without intending it! we’re not saying they’re intentionally misandrist!) or they talk about issues in a way exclusionary to male viewpoints. The yoga class should invite some men’s rights activists in to lecture the participants on what they can do to make men feel comfortable, and maybe spend some of every class discussing issues that matter deeply to men, like Truckasaurus.

Second, men just don’t like yoga as much as women. One could propose a probably hilarious evolutionary genetic explanation for this (how about women being gatherers in the ancestral environment, so they needed lots of flexibility so they could bend down and pick small plants?) but much more likely is just that men and women are socialized differently in a bunch of subtle ways and the interests and values they end up with are more pro-yoga in women and more anti-yoga in men. In this case a yoga class might still benefit by making it super-clear that men are welcome and removing a couple of things that might make men uncomfortable, but short of completely re-ordering society there’s not much they can do to get equal gender balance and it shouldn’t be held against them that they don’t.

The second explanation seems much more plausible for my yoga class, and honestly it seems much more plausible for the rationalist community as well.

We’re not actually missing all those groups you mention as minorities who might be driven away. In fact, in many cases, we have far more of them than would be expected by chance. For example, we contain transgender people at about five times the rate in the general population (1.5% vs. 0.3%), and gays/lesbians/bisexuals at about three times the rate in the general population (15% vs. 4%). People who Jewish by descent are four times the national average (8% vs. 2%), and people with mental disorders are either around equal to the general population or much much higher, depending on how one interprets the data I did a terrible job collecting (sorry). We have more people with English as a second language than almost any other online community I know (the country with most rationalists per capita continues to be Finland) and members from Kenya, Pakistan, Egypt, and Indonesia.

The only groups we appear to be actually short on are women and minorities (and then only if you follow standard American practice of refusing to count Asians as a real minority, numbers be damned).

But just as you would not immediately jump from the overrepresentation of transsexuals to the assumption that we must somehow be discriminating against cissexual people, so one does not jump from the overrepresentation of men to the assumption that women are being discriminated against.

Most rationalists come from the computer science community, which is something like 80% male. A few come from hard science fields like math and physics, both of which are 80 – 90% male. There is zero need to invoke “discourse without limitations” as an explanation for why the rationalist community is heavily male-dominated, and any attempt to do so would run into the question of why the occasional dispassionate cost-benefit discussion of eugenics apparently horrifies women but heavily attracts Jews, gays, and people with mental disorders.

Worse, the hypothesis fails in the other direction as well. There are lots of groups that are horribly offensive towards minorites yet nevertheless manage to have very many of them. Across nearly every denomination, far more women than men go to church – if you go to a Catholic Mass, you will see pews full of ladies at levels the atheist community can only dream of. The atheist community is so feminist that there has been a serious movement to replace it with “Atheism Plus” that excludes all non-feminists; the Catholic Church is so regressive that it won’t let women become priests and thinks they were created as a “helpmeet” for man. And yet women, in aggregate, love the one and hate the other.

You know what other community has more women than the rationalist community? The men’s rights movement. According to the /r/mensrights survey, about 9.3% of men’s rights activists are female, which is slightly fewer women than the rationalist community on the last survey, but slightly more women than the rationalist community on the survey before that. A friend who reads Heartiste guesses that about a third of his commenters are female (though adds that some of these may be men who are pretending in order to make a point). So if we actually spent all our time belittling women and justifying their oppression, as far as I can tell our percent female readership would probably go up.

I am left pretty certain that the male-dominated rationalist community has a gender imbalance for the same reason as my female-dominated yoga class. We could always see whether it might help to inviting some feminists in, listen to them without protest, and agree to do whatever they say – but I would enjoy that about as much as you would enjoy getting lectured by men’s rights activists without being able to protest, and the end result would probably be about the same.


Apophemi’s essay continues with an addendum:

there’s significant linguistic signalling that can make up the difference between people who have more to lose from apparently innocent argument participating or not. For (specific to my experience) example…

– arguments against accusations of racism/sexism/cissexism/heterocentrism/ableism/etc. that boil down to “those are silly words and they aren’t in my spellcheck”

I worry that you’re not being entirely fair here. Who the heck doesn’t have “racism” in their spellcheck? I feel like your opponents may be making a more subtle point than you think.

When I ask people to use words other than “racism”, it’s usually because I believe a Worst Argument In The World is being sprung on me – the article will explain more. I think this is a reasonable concern, and it’s always fair to ask someone to taboo their words.

But there’s another problem I sometimes run into with some other concepts, like “male privilege” or “male gaze” or “marginalized”.

You said you enjoyed my Anti-Reactionary FAQ (thanks!), so I wonder whether you enjoyed section 2.3.1, in which I deconstruct the word “demotist”.

The Reactionaries argued that “demotist” countries, meaning countries that had some notion of popular sovereignty including communisms, non-monarchical dictatorships, and democracies – had a terrible human rights record. Which is true – Maoist China (communist), Myanmar under the junta (non-monarchical dictatorship) and many others do have terrible human rights records.

But the Reactionaries were loading the debate by using the word “demotist”, which deliberately groups those regimes together with stable liberal democracies (who have fantastic human rights records compared to anyone else). My argument here was exactly that “demotist” wasn’t in my spellcheck and that in order to “win” the debate the Reactionaries had to invent new words that loaded the argument in their favor. Denied the ability to use their own words and forced to use the same vocabulary as the rest of us, their argument totally falls apart.

Not everything must be stated in ordinary language – if you didn’t let chemists use terms like “valence electron” or “ionic”, you would be denying them a useful tool that makes chemistry much easier. I get that.

But when people are trying to talk about ordinary processes, and they insist on using their own words which don’t exactly correspond to features of the world, and they can’t always make the same arguments with more standard words, I get super suspicious.

Words are hidden inferences. They encode assumptions, and sometimes those assumptions are correct and other times they are wrong. This is true more than usual with jargon, and even more than usual with partisan political jargon (don’t call them “rich”, call them “job-creators”!) It is useful and acceptable to ask people to take a step back from their words to examine whether the assumptions behind them are correct.

– conflating terms describing marginalization (such as the above) with insults (i.e. “calling me racist is an insult”, “let’s discuss this without using meaningless insults like ‘misogynist’”),
– use of insults that have a history of being specific to women or that effectively mean “this person is like a woman”

Oh God oh god oh god oh god you so do not understand oh god.

Which words are or are not slurs is not a feature of the word’s etymology or even the intent of people using those words. For example, the word “Jap”, on its own, is very clearly just a convenient shortening of “Japanese person” in the same way that “Brit” is very clearly a convenient shortening of “British person”.

Yet it is not okay to go around calling Japanese people “Japs” and then lecturing them because they are “conflating” a term describing their heritage with an insult (“ha ha, that silly Japanese person thinks I’m insulting her just because I used a shortened form of her demonym”).

Most Japanese people have a history – maybe personal, maybe just second-hand – of correctly associating the word “Jap” with an attempt to dehumanize them, marginalize them, or cause them huge amounts of personal grief. It doesn’t matter whether you think “Jap” was meant to be offensive, if a Japanese person tells you they’re triggered by it and you keep using it, you’re a jerk.

(and the same is true of a much more famous slur which is a derivation of the perfectly innocent Latin word niger meaning “black-colored”, but which has been wrenched far away from that perfect innocence by the referents of the term having more than enough opportunities to associate that word with an attempt to hurt them.)

So a neutral word can become an insult or trigger or slur if it is associated sufficiently strongly and sufficiently often with people trying to hurt you.

Now, when those people were sending me death threats because of that article in the college paper, what word do you think they used?

When the media talks about a “scandal” in which some politician or actor is accused of being offensive and then gets fired from their job and has to do a live apology on national TV during which they break down crying, what word do you think always starts the process?

When you read the MsScribe story – which a dozen people in the comments said struck incredibly true to life for them – what word did MsScribe use to deride her enemies before kicking them out of the community and making everyone refer to them as “cockroaches” and posting sexually explicit stories about them doing horrible things?

People have an incredibly reasonable terror of that specific word, and when you refuse to change it to one of many dozens of available synonyms, that has some pretty strong implications about where you are coming from. It says “I don’t respect you enough not to use this word that terrifies and triggers you” which in turn means that people’s terror and triggering is probably correct.

I am sure there are some lovely elderly Southerners who use [the n-word] simply because that was what they grew up with, and are mildly annoyed every time a black person throws a fuss about it because they honestly didn’t mean any harm. And they use that exact same argument: “I didn’t mean anything by it, it’s just what I call people like you, you’re so sensitive treating it as an insult.” But they are missing the point. It doesn’t matter what their feelings are, it matters whether it hurts other people.

And when they anticipate this, like “Oh, I’m going to call that black person the n-word, and I bet he’s going to get all upset about it, you know how they are”, that doesn’t seem innocent to me. It sounds like they know they’re hurting other people and just don’t care.

And when you say you expect people to feel insulted and triggered by the word “racist”, but you’re going to do it anyway, even though you are perfectly aware of other words you could use that would actually be more descriptively accurate, I kind of have the same worry.

And then your very next point is that you don’t want people to use terms you consider slurs. Well, yes, of course that is fair! And I try to avoid slurs as much as I can.

Yet I cannot help rounding this entire section off to “The two things that annoy me are when other people use language that triggers me, and when other people ask me to stop using language that triggers them.”

And when I have bring this up to people, they usually answer “It’s impossible to trigger a member of a privileged group” or “Triggering a member of a privileged group doesn’t count”. I am so happy you have defined away my pain. THIS IS THAT DEHUMANIZATION THING AGAIN.

In conclusion, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

Sense of being persecuted by “political correctness”…I have failed so far to find a definition of “political correctness” in this context that could not be search-and-replaced with “trying to avoid hurting people” to either no effect or increased comprehensibility. You are free to attempt to change my mind on this, I guess?

I like this sentence because it is a good example of language in fact making a difference, of words being hidden inferences, of reasonable requests not to use terms that don’t just boil down to “it isn’t in my spellcheck”. In fact, Scott Adams makes this exact point in his essay What’s The Difference Between A Sexist And A Regular Asshole? It intrigues me that both sides are trying to remove the others’ linguistic weapons by demanding they be deactivated and replaced with normal words, but are refusing to relinquish their own. Anyhow…

When I see references to “political correctness”, it’s usually followed by something like “has gone too far”. This suggests a reasonable interpretation to me – political correctness is indeed a way of trying to avoid hurting people, but like all forms of trying to avoid hurting people, it can go too far.

Trying to prevent terrorism is good. But when any vaguely Muslim looking person who tries to board a plane tends to get hauled off and strip-searched without so much as an apology, one can ask whether the legitimate goal of trying to prevent terrorism has gone too far.

Likewise, when people start saying that it’s cultural appropriation to eat latkes or a ten-year old girl can be charged with rape for playing a game of Doctor or heterosexual white people can’t be depressed or any of the other three million things of this sort I see on Tumblr every day, then I do think it’s fair to say that the legitimate goal of trying to protect disadvantaged groups is going too far in certain cases.

This is not to say that it has uniformly gone too far in every aspect of society, just that in these cases – the ones the people saying this have encountered – it has locally gone too far.

I do not really know what claim you are asserting – that political correctness never goes too far? That no one trying to protect the rights of minority groups has ever overstepped good sense? This seems more like cheering on a side than stating a defensible position to me.

See also Section II of this essay.

– pretty much any usage at any point of the word “insane” when we are not talking about a court case by now

Dammit, you just broke my girlfriend.

Ze is a mentally ill person who has attempted suicide a few times and been in and out of mental hospitals, and ze is now seething with anger. I think I see smoke coming out of zir ears. Now ze is demanding that I write an extremely angry response saying HAVEN’T YOU EVER READ ANYTHING IN THE DISABILITY RIGHTS COMMUNITY??!?! and DON’T YOU KNOW THAT LOTS OF PEOPLE USE TERMS LIKE “INSANE” AND “CRAZY” TO AVOID MEDICALIZING THEIR DISABILITY??!?! and HOW DARE YOU PURPORT TO SPEAK FOR ALL OF US WHO THE HELL APPOINTED YOU OUR REPRESENTATIVE??!

As a psychiatrist myself, avoiding medicalizing disability is not really high on my list of priorities. But as a “mentally ill person” myself, – two years on Paxil followed by eight on Prozac followed by two years of behavioral psychotherapy followed by the incredibly enjoyable process of finding a hospital that wanted to employ a psychiatrist with a mental illness because I knew I wouldn’t be able to hide it through however many years of work I will be with them – avoiding the use of the term “insane” has never been high on my list of priorities either.

I have never, ever, noticed the pattern you have – people who use the word “insane” being otherwise bad or de-legitimizing people with mental illness. In fact, it has happened more than once to me – twice, I think, spookily similar – that a mentally ill patient asks me what my diagnosis is, I say something like “schizophrenia” or whatever, and they say “Nope! I’m insane! If you want to be a good doctor, you’re going to have to learn to tell it like it is!”

Both my girlfriend and I agree that people being very concerned about people using or not using specific very common words has been a much bigger warning flag of someone who is otherwise not a nice person than use of the word “insane”.

…which is not to say that you haven’t had the exact opposite experience! That’s kind of the problem. No one can speak for an entire community and community members have very different experiences and preferences. My policy so far has been to always respect someone’s terminology preferences when talking to them personally or in a small group, and to respect terminology preferences I know to be common when talking to a large audience. In a lifetime of working with the mentally ill and dating two different disability rights bloggers I have yet to hear anyone else express a strong preference against “insane”, but if it happens more often I will update. And I will certainly avoid doing it if I ever have reason to talk to you directly.

If by “sluttiness” r-you mean “sexual promiscuity”, what is gained by using a gender-targeted insult that is likely to make a significant portion (i.e. women and/or queer people, who together are like… 55% of the world at least) of r-your potential audience uncomfortable and less likely to engage with r-your argument?

This I apologize for unreservedly. In the Anti-Reactionary FAQ, I quoted some reactionary passages using the word “sluttiness”, and then I continued using it myself afterwards. I was hoping to kind of mock the reactionaries by pointing out how much their argument depended on that one word. In the process, it seems I offended some women/queers as well. I was wrong to do this, there were very easy ways to avoid it, and I will avoid it in the future.


You probably aren’t even reading this, but I hope someone like you is.

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