[Content note: hypothetical spiders]
I complain a lot about the social justice movement. Or for a change, I sometimes complain that the media is too friendly to the social justice movement. So when the media starts challenging the movement, with articles like We’ve Gone Too Far With Trigger Warnings, I really ought to be happy things are finally going my way.
Instead I’m a little disappointed
I like trigger warnings. Trigger warnings aren’t censorship; they’re the opposite of censorship. Censorship says “Read what we tell you”. The opposite of censorship is “Read whatever you want”. The philosophy of censorship is “We know what is best for you to read”. The philosophy opposite censorship is “You are an adult and can make your own decisions about what to read”.
But part of letting people make their own decisions is giving them relevant information and trusting them to know what to do with them. Uninformed choices are worse choices. Trigger warnings are an attempt to provide you with the information to make good free choices of reading material.
Imagine someone only interested in geology, who only reads geology books and neglects all the other interesting fields of science, history, and art. In a sense, we’re enabling this person by putting titles on books – it helps her avoid all the other interesting things she could be reading that challenge her monomaniacal focus on geology and open her mind a little. If books didn’t have titles, then instead of heading straight for the geology books, maybe she’d pick up something that looked like it was a geology book and end up reading Don Quixote and be better off for it. Our decision to title books anyway assumes that we care less about denying people the ability to avoid things they don’t want to read, and more about trusting people’s judgment and making it easy for them to choose and obtain what they want. This is the philosophy behind trigger warnings as well. If you don’t like it, then I accuse you of not liking capitalism. You may prefer a country with a military draft; those are really good at making sure people are involuntarily exposed to the harshness of reality rather than sheltered from it.
So my role model here, as in so many other places, is Commissioner Lal: “Beware he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart, he dreams himself your master.”
Trigger warnings fight those who would like to be our masters in another way as well. They’re one of our strongest weapons against the proponents of censorship. The proponents say “We can’t let you air that opinion, it might offend people.” Trigger warnings say “I am explaining to you exactly how this might offend you, so if you continuing listening to me you have volunteered to hear whatever I have to say, on your own head be it.”
I agree that bad people could use trigger warnings to avoid ever reading anything that challenges their prejudices. This is a problem with providing people informed choices. Sometimes they misuse them.
But I could also imagine good people using trigger warnings to increase their ability to read things that challenge their views. Suppose you are a transgender person who becomes really uncomfortable when you hear people insult transgender people. Gradually you learn that a lot of people outside the social justice community do this a lot, so you stop reading anything outside the social justice community – forget about genuinely rightist sources like National Review or American Conservative. Now suppose sources start trigger warning their content. Most right-wing arguments don’t insult transgender people, so all of a sudden you have a way to steer clear of the ones that do and read all of the others free from fear.
Actually, “fear” is the wrong word, it buys into the stereotyping of triggered people as coddled or cowards or something. Maybe some people feel fear. Others would just be free from exasperation, anger, distracting dismay, the cognitive load of having to hear people insult you and not being able to respond and having to exert effort to continue to read. I feel like this might be my response to the existence of more trigger warnings (at least if anyone ever warned for my triggers, which they won’t).
And I guess I admit that the people who use trigger warnings to narrow their minds will probably outnumber those who use them to expand them. But the question is still: do “we”, as a civilization, force people to be virtuous without their consent? And even if we should, how come we don’t do this in any other area of life? Why don’t we make a rule that every fifth link to Paul Krugman’s blog has to redirect people to Tyler Cowen’s blog, and vice versa, so people don’t get a chance to only read the opinions they agree with? Or that every Republican has to watch one Daily Show a month, and every Democrat has to listen to one Fox News segment?
If we’re not going to do any of that, it hardly seems fair to put the whole burden of epistemic virtue on the easily triggered.
The strongest argument against trigger warnings that I have heard is that they allow us to politicize ever more things. Colleges run by people on the left can slap big yellow stickers on books that promote conservative ideas, saying “THIS BOOK IS RACIST AND CLASSIST”, and then act outraged if anyone requests a trigger warning that sounds conservative – like a veteran who wants one on books that vilify or mock soldiers, or a religious person who wants one on blasphemy. Then everyone has to have a big fight, the fight makes everyone worse off than either possible resolution, and it ends with somebody feeling persecuted and upset. In other words, it’s an intellectual gang sign saying “Look! We can demonstrate our mastery of this area by only allowing our symbols; your kind are second-class citizens!”
On the other hand, this is terribly easy to fix. Put trigger warnings on books, but put them on the bullshit page. You know, the one near the front where they have the ISBN number and the city where the publishers’ head office is and something about the Library of Congress you’ve never read through even though it’s been in literally every book you’ve ever seen. Put it there, on a small non-colorful sticker. Call it a “content note” or something, so no one gets the satisfaction of hearing their pet word “trigger warning”. Put a generally agreed list of things – no sense letting every single college have its own acrimonious debate about it. The few people who actually get easily triggered will with some exertion avoid the universal human urge to flip past the bullshit page and spend a few seconds checking if their trigger is in there. No one else will even notice.
Or if it’s about a syllabus, put it on the last page of the syllabus, in size 8 font, after the list of recommended reading for the class. As a former student and former teacher, I know no one reads the syllabus. You have to be really devoted to avoiding your trigger. Which is exactly the sort of person who should be able to have a trigger warning while everyone else goes ahead with their lives in a non-political way.
I’m sure there are some more implementation details, but it’s nothing a little bit of good faith can’t take care of. If good faith is used and some people still object because it’s not EXACTLY what they want, then I’ll tell them to go fly a kite, but not before.
I know a lot of people worry about slippery slopes; give the culture warriors an inch and they’ll take a mile. I think this is a very backwards way of looking at things. Like, the anti-gay people talked about a slippery slope and fought desperately hard against gay marriage, even though it was pretty hard to find anything actually objectionable about it other than that it might be on a slippery slope to worse things. That desperate fight didn’t delay gay marriage more than a few years, and it didn’t prevent whatever gay marriage was on a slippery slope to. What it did do was totally discredit conservatives in this area. Now any time anyone makes a family values argument, even a good family values argument, people can say that “family values” is code for homophobia, and bring up that family values conservatives really have held abhorrent positions in the past so why should we trust them now? It gave liberals huge momentum, and if there is a slippery slope then all that opposing gay marriage did was destroy the credibility of anybody who could have stopped us going down it.
Opposing a good idea on slippery slope grounds is a moral failure and a strategic failure, and I’d hate for opponents of the social justice movement to make that mistake with trigger warnings.
But this is all tangential to what really bothered me, which is Pacific Standard’s The Problems With Trigger Warnings According To The Research.
You know, I love science as much as anyone, maybe more, but I have grown to dread the phrase “…according to the research”.
They say that “Confronting triggers, not avoiding them, is the best way to overcome PTSD”. They point out that “exposure therapy” is the best treatment for trauma survivors, including rape victims. And that this involves reliving the trauma and exposing yourself to traumatic stimuli, exactly what trigger warnings are intended to prevent. All this is true. But I feel like they are missing a very important point.
YOU DO NOT GIVE PSYCHOTHERAPY TO PEOPLE WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT.
Psychotherapists treat arachnophobia with exposure therapy, too. They expose people first to cute, little spiders behind a glass cage. Then bigger spiders. Then they take them out of the cage. Finally, in a carefully controlled environment with their very supportive therapist standing by, they make people experience their worst fear, like having a big tarantula crawl all over them. It usually works pretty well.
Finding an arachnophobic person, and throwing a bucket full of tarantulas at them while shouting “I’M HELPING! I’M HELPING!” works less well.
And this seems to be the arachnophobe’s equivalent of the PTSD “advice” in the Pacific Standard. There are two problems with its approach. The first is that it avoids the carefully controlled, anxiety-minimizing setup of psychotherapy.
The second is that YOU DO NOT GIVE PSYCHOTHERAPY TO PEOPLE WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT.
If a person with post-traumatic stress disorder or some other trigger-related problem doesn’t want psychotherapy, then even as a trained psychiatrist I am forbidden to override that decision unless they become an immediate danger to themselves or others.
And if they do want psychotherapy, then very likely they want to do it on their own terms. I try to read things that challenge my biases and may even insult or trigger me, but I do it when I feel like it and not a moment before. When I am feeling adventurous and want to become stronger in some way, I will set myself some strenuous self-improvement task, whether it be going on a long run or reading material I know will be unpleasant. But at the end of a really long and exasperating day when I’m at my wit’s end and just want to relax, I don’t want you chasing me with a sword and making me run for my life, and I don’t want you forcing traumatic material at me.
The angry article above with all the talk of “spoiled brats” annoys me as an amateur politics blogger, but this Pacific Standard article pushes my buttons as a (somewhat) non-amateur psychiatrist. This is not your job to meddle. If you are very concerned about helping people with PTSD, please express that concern by donating to PTSD USA or one of the other organizations that will help those with the condition get proper, well-controlled therapy. Please do not try to increase the background level of triggers in the hopes that one of them will fortuitously collide with a PTSD sufferer in a therapeutic way.
If, like me, you think the social justice movement has a really serious kindness and respect problem, then you know that it’s really hard to bring this up without getting accused of unkindness and disrespect yourself. I don’t know how to best respond to this problem. But I’m pretty sure that the very minimum one can do is not to actually be unkind and disrespectful. And I worry that some of these arguments against trigger warnings are failing to clear even this very low bar.