While a campus should be the ideal principled setting for discussions of censorship and discourse, our expectations and rules of conversations are influenced and set beyond just the classroom; media, culture, and politics are all arenas and arbiters.
Trigger warnings, identity politics, and holding people to account (calling out) are not inherently damaging to discourse, in fact they are tools that if anything bring more people into the conversation and put us on track towards better understanding and practice for the future. It’s not the tools, but the people wielding them that are sometimes unwise or not well-intentioned. In the same way that ethics in gaming journalism or frog memes were a fine and dandy thing to be concerned about up until the moment when they were co-opted by lonely, misguided pre-teens who are very good at the internet.
Trigger warnings are in themselves not censorship, if anything, once you have everyone ready, committed, and sure of context, you should feel even freer to say whatever it was that you wanted. The well-meaning intention is to remove barriers and limit shock or trauma that might otherwise keep people from engaging in the conversation. We as a human civilization have a long and deep history of conversation being dominated and led along the lines of race, gender, class, and depending on the state of the world’s empires even nationality. Sure, we shouldn’t expect to always feel comfortable or unchallenged, but for those with post-traumatic stress disorder or trauma, that “discomfort” we feel might manifest for them as something more painful. In fact, as noted in an article by the Huffington Post’s Lindsay Holmes published last year on the subject, early clinical uses of the term and theory were by psychologists who were trying to classify war neurosis in veterans. By giving the warning, you give that person a choice to either withdraw or the preparation they need to fully engage and contribute. Think of it as the context you would give, such as “Hey I’m an air marshal and this is a test” or “We’re with Paramount and this is a film and most of these people here are extras,” before you get up and shout the word “BOMB” on an airplane. Sure, referring to it as a, or even giving a trigger warning can sometimes feel corny, if you can find an alternative way that does the same thing then go on ahead. Otherwise feel free to justify and explain the violent images of war crimes or violence that you included in your Business 100 PowerPoint which upset people. If you want to talk about whether or not in the long run exposure is harmful or helpful to those suffering trauma, then get a degree in psychology and have the discussion somewhere, but that seems, to me at least, to be separate from the issue of whether or not it’s censorship.
Between that and callouts, what proponents would like to call speaking truth to power and holding to account, is probably the root of this growing dread that some people feel about political correctness and censorship. Once again, in a perfect context callouts are well-intentioned and meant to challenge the norms, rules, and arbiters that for generations have been free to speak when others aren’t or the ideas that have guarded themselves too closely against criticism. They’ve become the tool that has been wielded too loosely and so unwisely that it’s grated against even my benifit of the doubt. For example, if I was being charitable, the recent accusation of cultural appropriation against NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton by the Twitter of a Vancouver-based Black Lives Matter group (which is a leaderless movement made up of chapters who are all over the map when it comes to this kind of stuff) might have to do with a marginalized group not wanting parts of their culture adopted for a political purpose or commodified for the benefit of those already in power. However, considering the contention was over a post Ashton made using Beyonce’s lyrics from the song Irreplaceable — “To the left, to the left” — to stake her position in wanting a more progressive and ardently left platform, there is little benefit to give here.Irreplaceable was first written as a country record by Norwegians, it was the exchange of culture and cooperation between the parties involved that turned it into the manufactured pop that it became. If Ashton, as a person who grew up with this music in the West, isn’t allowed to celebrate or have fun with it then what is the point of us even continuing to try and move culture forward? I’ve said it before, but callouts and telling people to check their privilege have become accusations and tools to keep people out rather than help anyone move forward.
That tweet, and some of the righteous discontent that you’ll find on campus’ and in the media, isn’t always motivated by intellectual curiosity or good intentions for a better tomorrow. Professors shouldn’t feel unwilling to teach classes because of trigger warning, or students eager to debate, or theories and politics that are increasingly intersectional in their approach. What is putting strain on our discourse is a wave (and the size of it I don’t know but you can’t deny it being there) of performance activism, ego, and progressiveness as a brand rather than a principle. It’s mostly on online spaces sure, but you’re bound to know someone who couldn’t show humility if they tried but is more concerned with the correct and “woke” rules of discourse than they are real change or real people.
Yet, even with that said, even with all the frustrations I have in a wide coalition that has to include people more concerned with saying what sounds right over being right, of constantly coming up with new criteria for solidarity, and just generally obnoxious whiners; I know at the end of the day that my life isn’t changing much or under threat because of them. What worries me isn’t a campus left that is pretty much across the board mocked and marginalized by the media and those powers, because in the grand scheme of things they’ve been given very little power to meaningfully move a progressive agenda forward. Yet on the other end, you have racists — and I mean that in the most direct, truthful way, people who think there is some inherent advantage and superiority in the pigment of their skin and lineage of their blood — and totalitarians being given greater legitimacy in the discourse every day. You have sinkholes and propagandists like Rebel Media having a legitimate influence over the leadership of a major political party right here in Canada. What worries me isn’t this argument we’re having with a progressive and inclusive political movement that’s only been able to find its footing in the past few decades after centuries of power imbalance and is now in the midst of an awkward teenage-growth-spurt-like phase of development. And it’s not about young people trying to find an identity that fits into the standards of their peer group and politics, and that becomes reflexive rather than chosen.
I’m more worried about how my kids one day are still going to be asked, “So where are you really from?” if they’re even still welcome in this country. I’m more worried about some idiot taking their talk radio too far and doing something dangerous in my community. I’m not worried about someone telling me the word idiot is ableist. Life moves on from challenge, but it doesn’t move at all if the people who hold real power and influence (and maybe we would if we could get out and vote) aren’t working for those who really need the support.