Being Principled without Being a Sucker, Part 2: Trigger Warnings

In my last post, I talked about the way white supremacists exploit the idea of free speech in order to do violence, and how that ties into the general idea that manipulative people will exploit whatever principles you hold to get what they want.

Since trigger warnings, and mental health accommodations in general, are an issue I’m pretty passionate about, it occurs to me that all the hand-wringing about trigger warnings relates to this.  While the people ardently defending the free-speech rights of Nazis are ignoring the fact that the principle of free speech can be weaponized, the folks wringing their hands about trigger warnings seem to focus *solely* on how they could be twisted and misused.

“We shouldn’t expose people to traumatic images or stories without their consent,” is a pretty good principle. It’s founded on the concept of consent, it accounts for the fact that mental illness and trauma exist, and it emphasizes respect and kindness.

So, like any other principle, it can be manipulated. People can, potentially, falsely claim triggers they don’t actually have in order to get out of school assignments. Or they can claim to be traumatized in order to shut down discussions.

Those are legitimate issues that should be addressed if you’re a teacher figuring out how to accommodate students’ mental health needs or someone running any kind of online discussion community.

But.

A lot of people immediately jump to “Therefore trigger warnings are bad.” But, again, the fact that manipulative people can twist and misuse something to get what they want, doesn’t make it a bad thing. They can do it with free speech, after all.

The fact that some students will make up outrageous lies to get out of work is pretty well known.  Grandparents dropping like flies before a big assignment is due is a common trope. And yet, what kind of asshole would a professor be who stated on their syllabus that deaths in the family are no excuse for missing classes or assignment deadlines? Same thing with illness.  Yes, some people will fake sick to get out of work or school, but the solution to that is not to make everyone come in when they’re puking or coughing up a lung.

To me, it’s interesting how “We have to defend the free-speech rights of Nazis!” and “We can’t have trigger warnings because people will abuse them!” are opposite sides of the same coin.  The first is, “This general principle is good, so we just have to accept that people are going to misuse it in ways that could literally destroy our country,” while the second is, “People could misuse this to gain minor competitive advantages, so it must be a horrible principle.”

In both cases, thinking critically about *how* we defend the principle is important. Just having a principle that you’ll give students a heads-up before exposing them to triggering material doesn’t mean they automatically get out of assignments that might be triggering. Some might, if that’s appropriate, but they could do an alternate assignment that addresses related ideas. Others might just need more time or some other minor tweak. For others, the heads-up might be all they need.

Likewise, having a principle that everyone is legally entitled to speak unless they’re defaming someone, shouting fire in a crowded theater, or inciting violence doesn’t require pretending that a group that’s openly planned violence is peaceful. It doesn’t require volunteering to give Nazis a platform, or continuing to employ someone after you find out they’re a member of the KKK.

Stay tuned for Part 3, where I tie in fat acceptance and talk about the principle of body autonomy and diet talk in FA spaces.

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Be Principled Without Being a Sucker

I’m still pretty sick over Charlottesville, and right now there’s a lot of argument about the principle of free speech as it applies to white supremacists.

The “Unite the Right” rally was initially moved from downtown Emancipation Park to a larger park outside of downtown for safety reasons, but the ACLU challenged that. On free speech grounds, they made sure that the rally went on as planned. If it had been a peaceful rally, that might have been fine.  But the intent was never a peaceful rally. The heavily armed white supremacist groups surrounded a church, trapping people inside.  They stalked and harassed people. They beat them with pipes, attacked them with torches, and ran over them with a car. Richard Spencer described the rally as “a huge moral victory in terms of the show of force.”

Essentially, a violent white supremacist group conned the ACLU into supporting them with talk of free speech and peaceful assembly. My understanding is that between organizers making violent threats and public discussion of plans to come heavily armed, this should have been apparent to the ACLU. But whether it was or wasn’t, Nazis and the KKK did a bang-up job of using the banner of “free speech” to threaten and assault a lot more people than they would have if their rally had been in the alternate park, which wasn’t in downtown.

The ACLU initially claimed that it was in no way responsible for the violence, but later stated that it would start looking more closely at rallies asking for ACLU support and would not represent protesters who want to carry firearms. This seems pretty reasonable to me. The First Amendment includes a right “to peaceably assemble,” not “to show up better armed than the local police and beat the shit out of counterprotesters.”

It also seems to me to be an indicator of a lot of larger problems. One that’s been discussed a lot is the way Donald Trump is supporting and encouraging racism, but the larger problem I want to talk about is more abstract.  It’s basically this: No principle, no matter how noble, is immune to being abused by manipulative people. Abusers and manipulators of all stripes, from a controlling partner to someone who doesn’t want to pull their weight at work or school to literal Nazis and Klansmen who want to literally murder every Black or Jewish person in the country, are all really good at taking good things and twisting them.

To me, this means two things. First, the fact that something can be abused can’t make it bad, because *everything* can be abused. Secondly, having good principles doesn’t absolve you from being smart and savvy about how you adhere to those principles. If, for example, you work for the ACLU and are asked to defend a rally, do your best to find out whether these are people who want to peacefully express their ideas (good, bad, or genocidal) or a heavily armed mob intent on violence.

Or, to put it in D&D alignment terms, because I’m a geek like that, it’s not enough to just be lawful. Evil people will get your support for their evil by appealing to your lawful principles. If you want to be lawful good or even lawful neutral, you need to think really critically about the motivations of people who are trying to appeal to your principles.