Dissents Of The Day

Collier may have missed our airing of dissents from transgender readers here. The Dish doesn’t duck from strong criticism. Another reader:

I disagree with your view on language as being harmless and that people should just get over being offended by the use of “tranny,” “faggot,” or whatever. We could have an interesting back-and-forth discussion about the power of language and it wouldn’t bother me if we vehemently disagreed.

What does bother me, and the reason I’m writing, is your use of your blog as a bludgeon against a college student who represents not the antithesis to your argument, but simply a young, naive strawman used to convey your disgust. Here’s how you describe them: “What I am interested is condemning this pathetic excuse for a student.” What I think is pathetic is your savaging of a random, young college student who embarrassed themselves rather than representing an honestly defensible position. If you’re going to attack and rant against a position, take on someone who can strongly defend it. Instead of boosting the strength of your argument, it makes you come off as a bully.

I think that’s condescending to the student. If you want an example of bullying, check out the petition organized by the student and their allies:

On Thursday May 22, The Institute of Politics hosted a seminar with Dan Savage, a gay advice columnist who has a history of making numerous misogynstic, biphobic, transphobic, and racist comments.

Note that these students have absolutely no compunction about accusing someone of being a racist and misogynist, but cower and complain that they don’t live in a safe space if someone neutrally uses a term they have decided is now verboten. I don’t have much sympathy for this kind of hypocrisy, intimidation and cant. Another reader:

I am with you when you say that trans folks (and lesbians, gays and everyone else) should get over the over-sensitive word policing. Yes, it is appalling that a student ran crying out of a lecture. I too dislike the idea of trigger warnings in lectures. And yes, Savage seems to be using this in an appropriate context. That being said, let me remind of your posts against one Alec Baldwin. You seem to argue that trans folks should just get over themselves when being presented with language that they don’t much like at the same time that you take Baldwin to task for deploying homophobic language. Want to explain that? Are you not living up the same standard that you expect of trans people?

You can read the blog for many years and find my position on free speech, including offensive speech, clearly and consistently applied. The Baldwin case was about the double standards of liberals. If you are going to present yourself as a crusading gay rights activist, then it’s perfectly legit for me to call someone out when he uses terms like “cocksucker” and “faggot”. Baldwin’s outbursts were also linked to physical threats, using the term “faggot” and “toxic little queen” to directly intimidate gay people. (Even then, as in the Jonah Hill case, I’m totally cool if someone acknowledges what they said and offers a clear apology – which Baldwin refused to do.) But none of that is the same as being able to use terms freely in a non-aggressive form, not directed as a slur at someone, but as part of a lively or challenging discussion. As I wrote yesterday:

I’m not talking about deliberate demonizing of others or threats of violence; I’m not talking about prejudice or bigotry. I’m talking about being able to say words freely in order to think more freely.

The student was engaged in an attempt to prevent that, to dictate by emotional blackmail which words can and cannot be used in a university. And its [sic] confreres tried to get Dan Savage indicted for a hate crime because he refused to obey. I’m sorry but this tendency is anathema to a liberal society. Another reader goes into greater detail on the college student and trigger warnings in general:

Wasn’t there some sort of famous quote from James Madison or John Adams or something, that he studied politics so that his descendants might study poetry? I’m glad the Stonewall Rioters did what they did, but it might also be that our ethical conversation about what can and cannot be done within the world of LGBT rights has progressed to the point where there is at long last some space for a new generation of campaigners to give thoughts to our emotions and our human selves. Human selves that are sometimes traumatized and re-traumatized by sloppy language – human selves which are thankfully now free enough of the oppressions of a world before Stonewall, but are still subject to the bare difficulties of living psychically in a world arrayed against us, even if only in subtle and often-invisible ways.

I don’t mean to defend this particular student – the description of the situation does seem to suggest Savage has the right way of it in this context – but your blanket condemnation of any respect given to the concept of a trigger warning itself is silly. Not only that, but it assumes that a trigger warning is given so that people can avoid ever having to see something that offends them.

For instance, I can get triggered by fat hatred. But you know what? This doesn’t mean that I don’t read things that contain it! If I’m reading a post that says “(TW: fat hatred)”, I steel myself. I know that I may get bothered; I know that my anxiety levels might jump through the roof; I know that I might feel my heart start to beat faster as memories of my abuse flood my psyche. But I read on anyway. And quite often I find that material that would have drained my emotional reservoirs had it come upon me as a surprise is actually easier to manage and sort through because I had just a moment or two to prepare myself.

Your idea about what a trigger warning is and why people want them is abject caricature. Very few people ask for them because we want to wall ourselves off from all possibility of taking offense. We ask for them because sometimes, just sometimes, going into a difficult situation knowing it will be difficult gives us the mental and emotional space to make fruitful contributions to the discussion and explore the subject matter with the correct distance required for academic, dispassionate perspective. While I lack any sort of study to prove this is the case, I know from my own anecdotal experience that no one in my wide circle of TW-savvy acquaintances and friends actively avoids all posts that contain their triggers. They might sometimes skip one because they’ve already engaged 10 that day and don’t have the energy for another one, but the idea that trigger warnings exist to wall off academic or critical inquiry is absurd. Trigger warnings exist because they often give people the mental and emotional space to actually engage in such inquiry with aplomb.

Previous Dish on trigger warnings here.