Every few months, it seems, another one of those articles surfaces about how political correctness or trigger warnings or “social justice” is ruining the country or the educational system or everything. Our own President Roth reminded us a few weeks ago that “there is no right not to be offended.” These arguments typically suggest that because a few of us are so fragile and oversensitive, everyone is losing: words are banned, jokes are less funny, debates about important issues are diluted or even curtailed.
While I’m really not concerned if racist jokes lose their appeal, I agree that we need more, not less, conversation. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away, and indeed, often worsens them. If we can’t talk about the systems of oppression that plague our society–racism, heterosexism, misogyny, classism–we’re going to have a hard time dismantling them. Sometimes frustratingly, we have to be able to talk about these issues not only among our own identity and affinity groups, but with people whose ideas are vastly different from ours. So yes, I agree that trying to shut down conversations about sensitive topics is problematic. (Which is not the same, please note, as removing oneself from a conversation because of personal history or trauma.) More speech, please.
The thing is, though, the targets of these arguments–the oversensitive college student, the person who can’t take a joke, the “social justice warriors”–hardly ever seem to be asking for less speech. Perhaps there are exceptions, but I cannot think of a single anti-racist activist who wants people to stop talking about racism. When we ask that certain words not be used or that our histories be treated with understanding and respect, we are not questioning whether these conversations should happen, but how. To worry that such efforts are ruining free-spirited debate seems, to me, to be missing the point.
In a Vox article that went viral this summer, Edward Schlosser worried that students not only “refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas — they refuse to engage them, period.” This is also, apparently, the problem with trigger warnings: they allow students to completely avoid things they might find traumatizing or even merely offensive. These tactics, the authors assure us, are not only damaging to intellectual tradition, but to ourselves, the very people we were trying to protect! The world is full of scary ideas and people who will offend us, better toughen up now. And yes, as Roxane Gay has pointed out, trigger warnings have their limits, trauma is incredibly personal, and far too often, the world isn’t a safe space. As I said earlier, anyone interested in dismantling oppressive systems will have to engage with uncomfortable and offensive ideas.
Okay. But: we know. If the intention behind arguing against hateful (not just hate) speech was to avoid it–and the sentiments behind it–entirely, we’d be doing an absolutely terrible job. Pointing out oppressive language or behavior opens one up to, at best, being accused of overreacting and far too often, slurs or even threats. We know we’ll have to engage scary ideas: in complaining about them, we’re already doing so. The most dedicated activists are almost always the most affected–people of color proclaiming their value even as the world around them ignores it, survivors of sexual violence confronting their trauma in the hope of preventing its reoccurrence. The concern that a desire for kinder words, for trigger warnings (not censorship) is going to create a generation of people unable to deal with the world they live in is, at the very least, understated. If the world is really so dangerous, perhaps the problem is larger than our trigger warnings.
It appears, then, that something else is going on. The authors I argue against often seem to worry that the age of trigger warnings and political correctness starts us down a slippery slope. Today, racism, sexual violence, but what next? Attempts to control how we talk about these issues will, they worry, enable a totalitarian reign of emotion, in which the “thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card.” Anyone’s whim will be grounds for censorship, free speech will be destroyed, intellectual inquiry as we know it will end.
Again, this seems far-fetched. There’s a significant difference between being the victim of systems of oppression and having an unpopular opinion, a difference between asking that my experiences as a mixed-race woman not be invalidated and wanting everyone to agree with my opinion about, say, the ideal system of government. (An example I use because many non-trivial discussions benefit from a wide variety of opinions.) I and many of my fellow activists don’t want calls to respect marginalized communities to be read as support for every allegation of offense having the force of law. Such a misunderstanding trivializes anti-oppression movements. It also overestimates the power any one individual–particularly someone marginalized–is likely to have.
The ubiquity of articles like the ones I’ve cited suggests that advocates of trigger warnings or “political correctness” are a long way from holding unbeatable trump cards. It does not feel “unacceptable” to question the legitimacy of our emotional responses, nor to infantilize us. If these prominent professors and journalists are in danger, it is not the danger of their voices being overridden by the unrealistic, over-emotional young adults they seem to fear.
Indeed, it feels like arguments about the dangers of modern activism are often invoked not to protect all speech, but to quell some of it. Crying First Amendment is an easy way to dismiss charges against one’s speech. Sara Ahmed puts it better than I: “When you hear a challenge as an attempt at censorship you do not have to engage with the challenge. You do not even have to say anything of substance because you assume the challenge is without substance.” The debate becomes about free speech vs. censorship, reason vs. emotion, and the original issues–how words reinforce systems of oppression, whose voices are heard–are sidelined.
It is difficult to feel like one is being attacked, and I understand the urge to shift the blame. Referencing one’s right to say whatever one likes, however, feels like an excuse to ignore activists, to avoid self-reflection, to maintain the status quo. It only highlights the existing power structures–in which perceived threats to personal freedom of expression take priority over perceived threats to the safety and wellbeing of marginalized people. That efforts on the part of anti-oppression activists to ask for respect are so often met with accusations of over-reaction and censorship feels more like a trump card than anything a marginalized person can say or do.
I’m not saying there is no more to be said about free speech. I am prepared and willing to have more conversations; we need to have these conversations in order to give everyone’s speech a better chance to be heard. I request, however, that we examine how these conversations have been and continue to be conducted. I hope they move beyond the idea that requests for respect are attempts to hide from the big bad world. I hope more privileged participants recognize that there’s no need to prepare the marginalized for a reality they’re already dealing with. I hope we stop getting accused of shutting conversation down when we would just like our voices to be heard within it. I hope we stop being told to grow up. Keep talking, please, disagree, argue–but do so while affording us the respect we have asked for. Listen.