Hooray for Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and Political Correctness

My post earlier this week about a feminist society apparently colluding in the silencing of women has been widely shared in the past few days.  There have been hundreds of new visitors to this blog.  With this in mind I think its worth me writing a little more about my views, lest people make incorrect assumptions.
In particular, it is worth noting that my post is not part of a wider pattern criticising feminism, feminists or anyone fighting for equality.  Instead, it is part of a fairly consistent pattern defending freedom of expression.  Previous posts about Goldsmiths College were in defence of the SU diversity officer Bahar Mustafa, charged (wrongly, in my opinion) under the Malicious Communications Act over her ill-judged but not illegal #KillAllWhiteMen tweets.
I have also seen my article discussed in the context of the perceived decline in critical thinking at universities, both in the United Kingdom and the United States. In September, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote a widely discussed Atlantic article ‘The Coddling of the American Mind‘ that is perhaps the most complete example of this, although there have been many others.
In all such articles, the concepts of ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ are both held up as examples of what is wrong with today’s students.

Hooray for Trigger Warnings

It is eminently sensible to warn someone before you show or read something that could cause them distress.  In the UK, TV news programmes always warn viewers if the pictures they are about to show include flash photography (which could trigger epileptic fits) and disturbing images.  Why not warn people that a piece of literature includes extensive use of the N— word, as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does?  Why not warn people before discussing domestic abuse or rape?
Whenever a free speech controversy arises, someone always says: “if you find it offensive, then don’t read it”.  Sometimes that person is me.  But if the reader is not given some sense of the content, how can they make a decision for themselves as to whether they would like to read it or not?  Trigger warnings, like many other ostensibly ‘politically correct’ innovations, are a courtesy to other people.  They acknowledge that not everyone has the same sensibilities as the dominant group. The idea that a man should tell a woman who has been a victim of rape that she is being ‘coddled’ by trigger warnings is rather distasteful.

Hooray for Safe Spaces

These too have immense value.  People from traditionally dominant groups—so, white, male, cis-gender, straight—tend to dominate the conversations to which they are a part.  There is a virtue in those from groups that experience this kind of discrimination to collect together in spaces where they don’t have to put up with this nonsense.  Freedom of Association is a human right too, and we should not mock those who choose to spend some of their time with like-minded people, or in places where certain types of people are not.  Demanding that such people spend all their waking hours in environments that they consider hostile is unreasonable.

Hooray for Political Correctness

I’m on record as supporting the idea that people should be decent and respectful to one another if they want to be taken seriously in public space.  I support the idea that, when someone is offensive, it is desirable that other people exercise their right to counter-speech to tell them how rude they have been.  Here’s my speech to the Cambridge Union, defending political correctness.

Here is as good a place as any to link to Laurie Penny’s essay ‘The Free Speech Delusion‘ in the New Statesman, making the distinction between seeking to shut down another person’s right to speak, and merely challenging their views with your own expression.

Tack away from the Twitter storm

One other thing that nags at me is that the feminist society now under scrutiny is likely made up of very few members, and their odd statement in defence of testosterone fuelled intimidation has focused the attention of the world upon them.  The scrutiny must be  intense and I guess that they must have received some unpleasant messages on social media as a result.
I do not believe that my act of blogging contributes to, or could be described as bullying.  But anyone entering the political debate should be mindful that their words could be picked up and shared by so-called ‘culture warriors’ eager to upset people who they believe are wrong-headed.  Every group has members who are capable of engaging in this kind of pile-on: Left and Right, the Conservatives and the Liberals, the Atheists and the Religious.  Crafting words that say something substantial and meaningful, whilst heading off the possibility that they will inspire an unpleasant Twitter storm, is a constant challenge.

2 Replies to “Hooray for Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and Political Correctness”

  1. Another excellent blog Rob. Before reading this I had read Tim Lott in the Guardian on 28.11 15 2 ” When Words are as harmful as bullets “, did you see it ? Your blogs always make me think how often we are guilty of lazy thinking and speaking and can so easily give unintentional offence. Keep blogging !

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