Thursday, September 17, 2015

Speaking with freedom

Wendy linked me an article that has really been making the rounds on the internet.  At 4700 odd comments it clearly hit a nerve both for those who agree and those who do not.  The basic premise of the article is that universities are making a mistake in trying to keep people from being offended, and that they should discourage trigger warnings for content, and let people speak freely without worrying about giving offense.

It is important that people feel free to speak.  While laws both in the US and Canada protect our freedom to speak without government interference (to varying degrees of success, admittedly) they do not prevent universities from interfering with speech nor force them to do so.  As such this isn't a legal matter, but rather a matter of good policy for universities.  We should be talking here about what is going to be the best possible environment for students to learn and be careful about our uses of the words 'free speech' as those regularly derail conversations away from any useful course.

It is critical that students learning at universities have access to a wide range of ideas.  The very core of academic research is testing of ideas against others with the plan of discarding those that fail and this cannot be accomplished unless communication of those ideas is easy and with minimal impediment.  I don't think that is in any doubt, regardless of how you view the politics of offense.  The key thing we need to make clear is that there is a great difference between being disapproving of someone's opinion and thinking that they ought to be censured on the basis of holding that opinion.  Basically, we need to be clear on when exactly we use the threat of expulsion or firing to prevent speech.  There are many opinions that I greatly disagree with but would not wish someone to be removed from a university for, like "I think God exists and wants us to worship him." or "Those GamerGaters really have a point about ethics in video games journalism."  Those opinions are wrong and tick me off but they aren't specific threats and universities are better off letting those who know better tell those people they are full of it than trying to ban the speech.

When you ban speech, whether it be by threat of guns or expulsion, you should have a damn good reason for it, and "That person is an asshole and they are wrong" doesn't cut it.

Trigger warnings are a big part of what the article rails against and I kind of get their point - you cannot possibly figure out what might trigger any member of a large, random group of people.  Any list of triggers is going to be absurdly long and if it is remotely comprehensive it cannot be reasonable to use... and being truly comprehensive is impossible.  If a professor wants to use trigger warnings I have no problem with it because they ought to present the course as they see fit so long as the course gets taught, but compiling a mandatory, set of trigger warnings for all courses for all people is preposterous.

There are some really tricky points.  For example, "The most qualified person should get the job."  To many people this seems obviously true, even tautological.  But we should recognize that it is constantly used to justify hiring another straight white man in a situation where overall qualifications are difficult to judge, and where people who aren't that straight white man would be just as good but haven't had the opportunity to develop the desired qualifications.  When you utter this statement you have to recognize that it is often used as a justification for discrimination so even though we generally do want more qualified people to get the job we also should avoid tacitly supporting discriminatory hiring practices when we can.  Even though hearing that statement would likely provoke some kind of negative response from me varying from "You assbucket" to "Um, you really ought to consider the implications of what you are saying..." depending on the circumstances I don't think this sort of thing should be policed at universities either.

The world is full of good ideas that are on the outside and bad ideas that need to die.  Unfortunately there isn't some global metric we can use to decide which ones to allow and which ones to condemn so we need to create spaces where ideas can be aired, considered, debated, and eventually set to rest one way or another.  Universities are those spaces, and it is extremely important that people be able to bring up all kinds of ideas that might make others uncomfortable in those spaces.  However, part of making other people uncomfortable is getting told that you are wrong and bad.  Feeling forced to apologize because so many people have informed you that you are a bag of shit is an example of the marketplace of ideas working, not censorship.  Telling people they are being offensive and wrong and being told you are offensive and wrong in turn without having the guns be brought in is, and should be, the university experience.


  1. Ok, seriously, no it is not even remotely "preposterous" to compile a list of extremely common triggers and set rules that they must be applied when those topics are being depicted and discussed.

    I can make a very short list that would reduce a fuckload of harm, watch:
    - violence (including especially war-related violence and sexual violence)
    - oppression and bigotry (including racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, and the internalized versions thereof)
    - mental illnesses (especially eating disorders, OCD, anxiety, and other disorders that are specifically triggered by depictions of the disordered thought patterns associated with them)

    There is *literally* no reason not to require that these things be warned of in all classes, for all people.

    *Yes, I feel weird posting this, given the way I've been; I just think it's important enough (and honestly I can't believe you would have fallen into such sloppy thinking that just because all triggers can't be controlled for consistently none of them should be Seriously?) to break my radio silence. Like, seriously? Feel free to respond here or whatever, since obviously it's your space anyway.

  2. Lindy West wrote a response to the article you mention, you might find it interesting:

    I think you are conflating two things. Telling someone 'hey what we are about to talk about/watch on tv/watch on a film/read in an article has graphic violent/sexual/racist etc content, so please be aware of that' is not the same thing as censorship. Asking to implement trigger warnings is not the same thing as not allowing professors to put sensitive/intense/controversial material on their syllabi.

    It's not just a basic courtesy to your students, it allows some of them to better engage with the material. Which is the point.

    It also acknowledges that there are certain common things that certain people encounter in society, because shit is fucked up. Our society enables rape, it enables violence, it enables racism. Giving someone a trigger warning is what profs can do to say: hey, not all of you have had the same experiences, and some of you have encountered some of the shit we're about to see IN REAL LIFE. I want to take a second to acknowledge that, how shitty it is, and how we're about to talk about shit you have experienced/still do experience in an academic setting.

    As someone who has suffered trauma, I appreciate graphic sexual content warnings. Not because I think 'oh I can't ever read this thing' but so that I can mentally brace myself, or decide to read it later, or tomorrow, when perhaps I'll feel emotionally read to encounter that kind of content. Before someone jumps out of a plane, or bungee jumps, we allow them to take a minute to prepare themselves, right? This is a thing we do. Because it's the humane thing to do. We don't just push people out of planes before they're ready. We would consider THAT preposterous.

  3. There is definitely some misunderstanding here. Probably because my paragraph on trigger warnings was both too short (didn't adequately delineate my feelings) and too bombastic (which is a thing I do at times, occasionally causing entertainment, sometimes causing me problems). I should have written more carefully, and that was a mistake on my part.

    Let me be clear: There is nothing wrong with trigger warnings, and used appropriately they are a big help to some people. The stuff in the article I Iinked about trigger warnings made some really foolish and incorrect assumptions about them, especially that trigger warnings are a way to avoid content entirely rather than to engage in it in the appropriate mindset and with forewarning.

    The really key word here is mandatory. If a topic cannot be discussed or broached without an appropriate trigger warning delivered ahead of time then I have a huge problem with the system that does that. If a university decides that war, for example, cannot be mentioned without a warning ahead of time I think that does a massive disservice to students and learning. A list of banned topics that can be unbanned with a warning ahead of time is not the sort of environment that is best for students, nor one I want to be involved in. (It could be gotten around by professors simply posting a trigger warning for basically everything that mandated a trigger warning on their courses, which ruins the entire point.)

    Professors taking time to list trigger warnings on course syllabi seems good to me and has no downside. Students asking professors for information about course content and getting useful information in return is also a good thing.

    Essentially I want the process to involve the direct participants, not some large scale bureaucracy setting a list of banned topics, both because such a list bothers me even if it is well done, and it will inevitably be abused to protect things I do not think should be protected at all. (As an example of this, the UN has a resolution that protects religions from being criticized. If the UN can be coopted in such a blatant way, clearly universities will too.)

    There are middle grounds between 'do nothing' and 'the end of free speech'. For example, universities could request that professors use trigger warnings but not enforce it. That would send the message that you can say what you want but that using trigger warnings is useful, which is all fine by me. However, that isn't *mandatory* trigger warnings, but just a request, which is very different to my mind, so long as the request truly is just a request.

    It may be that people think that I am worried about an impossibility, that authorities would never try to actually forbid a topic or punish those who broached a topic without the proper preparation. I disagree, because although we have relatively free speech in Canada today our government just passed a bill that essentially criminalizes speaking in support of a terrorist group. Which could, for example, be potentially a label applied to say, greenpeace, and is in fact applied to groups governing palestinian territory controlled by Israel. Erosion of free speech is a real thing that is happening right now, and this is in a country that is actually doing well on free speech compared to much of the world.

    Trigger warnings are good. *Mandatory* trigger warnings that ban speech without that trigger warning being applied ahead of time are something I am strongly against.

  4. I really do not see anywhere where anyone is claiming that trigger warnings are 'mandatory' or that profs will be held accountable if they aren't given.

    Having said that, even if they were made mandatory, I think having a core list like the one valprehension suggested is completely do-able? I'm really really not seeing why this is an issue of freedom of speech. It sounds very much like slippery slope thinking.

  5. So, I will go ahead and say that to some extent, I think that trigger warnings should be mandatory, when we specifically talking about universities, and not generally in the world. And I don't think it's hard to create guide-lines/rules for how they are applied that would make it clear that simply putting a blanket trigger warning for everything over an entire course doesn't count.

    Here's the thing: setting standards for how a person communicates while representing an organization they work for is not a curtailment of their freedom of speech. If university professors want to gather people together and talk about triggering concepts without warning, they are free to do so. Just like if I want to unwind after work by swearing about awful customers I can do so.

    But if I swore at customers while I was at work, I would be fired, and rightfully so. Because swearing at customers is inconsistent with working in customer service.

    Similarly, willfully behaving in ways that risk making your students sick is inconsistent with being a teacher of any kind. And I do want to make it clear that that is what we are talking about with trigger warnings - I\m not talking about requiring warnings for uncomfortable material. I'm talking about requiring warnings for material that has a high risk of triggering symptoms of trauma-related mental illnesses (notably, a subset of the category "illnesses", i.e. making someone sick).

    Professors are protected by freedom of speech in that they are allowed to talk about whatever they want on their own time. But like every other employee, they can and should be expected to maintain the values of the organization they work for while on the clock. If a university decides that it is important to them that their courses be accessible to and safe for people with trauma-related disorders (to the extent such a thing is reasonable possible), then they are absolutely within their rights to insist that professors maintain the safety standards they choose to set.

    And, importantly, I believe that universities are obligated make themselves accessible to marginalized people, which means they should mandate that professors attend training on trigger warnings, what they are (and what they are not, since they are often so wildly misrepresented in intent and use), and why they are vitally important to many people.

    I also believe that anyone who, having been given this information, decides to continue to willfully risk making their students sick, should absolutely be censured. Whether or not that censure should be institutional is I guess a littel tricky, but honestly your attitude seems to be that all professors are fine regardless of what they choose, and I fundamentally disagree with that.

    Teachers have an moral obligation to attend to the needs of their students, and to make the material they teach accessible. Part of doing so is providing trigger warnings. Thus teachers are morally obligated to provide trigger warnings.

    No one, however, is obligated to be teacher.

    You see how that works?