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.

Religion at Pride and Conflicting Access Needs

The relationship between sexual orientation is complex, conflicted, and messy as hell.  At most Pride parades, you’ll run into both religious queer people marching with their churches and assholes with megaphones using God as an excuse to browbeat people.

There’s a good Twitter conversation here about the role of straight, religious allies: https://twitter.com/foodtruckpastor/status/878775871175368704

I did like that other people were suggesting the same thing I mentioned here, the idea that Christian allies can help by distracting the haters quietly and politely and getting them to put their megaphones down.

But @IrishAtheist pointed out that an awful lot of LGBTQ people are victims of spiritual abuse and don’t want to be anybody’s mission field, no matter how affirming they are.

It’s complicated because religion can either be a huge positive or a huge negative, depending on your own experiences. At my first Pride, one of the things that was the most meaningful for me was seeing a big rainbow flag on the church near where the parade started, and all the affirming church groups marching.

But I’m a little unusual as ex-fundamentalists go, having never experienced direct spiritual abuse. I absorbed a lot of toxic and harmful theology, but I attended those churches on my own, rather than being taken to church by my parents. That made walking away from fundamentalism, if not easy, at least a lot less complicated, and it meant I never really considered walking away from Christianity all together.

But queer atheists and agnostics are a minority in multiple ways, and too much religious expression can make them feel unwelcome, particularly if they’ve experienced spiritual abuse about their orientation.

For talking about this issue, I really like The Unit of Caring‘s concept of competing access needs, which I found out about from Brute Reason. Here’s the basic idea as the Unit of Caring explains it:

Or (and here’s the example I am scared to share) I’m gay. And sometimes I wonder, ‘would the world be a better place if gay people didn’t exist?’ Telling me ‘wtf is wrong with you’ is really not helpful for enabling me to work through that question. And if I ask it in my campus LGBT center, or on tumblr, it is likely that my need to have that conversation is going to have a big painful collision with someone else’s need not to hear questions like that entertained seriously.

I need people who will think about my question and give me honest answers, to the best of their ability. I won’t be able to get over this question until someone reaches out to me with a genuine spirit of respect and curiosity so we can talk about the answer.

On the other hand, the needs of other people to not be around serious conversations about whether they deserve to exist is really valid and really important. There should be safe spaces where my question is prohibited. There should be lots and lots of spaces where my question is prohibited, actually. Everyone in the world should have access to spaces where my question is prohibited.

But if my question is prohibited everywhere – if it is a universal norm that no decent human being will have a conversation with me about this – then it will keep lurking in the back of my head, unanswered. Or, even worse, I’ll turn for answers to the people who are willing to ignore this universal norm, the people who don’t care about being regarded as decent human beings, and I’ll internalize the things they are saying because no one else is in that space countering them.

And if a ‘safe space for asking really weird hypothetical questions without being judged’ exists, I can go there and ask, and people will take me seriously and I’ll know that they’re trying to give honest answers.

People can have valid and completely incompatible needs. It doesn’t make either person bad or wrong for having those needs. It doesn’t even mean they can’t be friends or should never interact; it just means that they need *separate* places to have those needs met.

My need to have my identity as a bi Christian affirmed and supported is real and valid. So is the need of LGBTQ victims of spiritual abuse to have queer-friendly spaces where they won’t have *anything* religious pushed on them. We’re not going to get those needs met in the same spaces, but that’s okay. Ideally, a large city’s Pride would have multiple events with multiple different focuses.  Maybe there’s a queer atheist/agnostic/secular humanist meet-up, and there’s also a queer interfaith religious ceremony, and those things are nowhere near each other.

Engaging with the fundies at Pride?

Last year’s Baltimore Pride was my first Pride event.  As I’ve mentioned before, it was *awesome.* Also as I’ve mentioned before, I was, shall we say, emotionally unprepared for the fundamentalist jerk-weasels with the bullhorns, and may have overreacted a small bit to their presence. (That is, I got into a shouting match about how God is love and they’re the ones who need to go read their Bibles.)  This was less than helpful, both because it stressed me right the hell out and because it kept them lingering at our part of the parade, rather than moving on to bother someone else.

It occurred to me afterwards that an absolutely wonderful thing allies could do to show their support would be to divert and distract these folks. Not by yelling at them or making a big scene, but just by quietly asking them some questions. Basically play the role of someone who’s interested in what they have to say, and see if you can get them to engage with you, one on one, quietly.  Because every minute they spend looking up some passage in Leviticus for you and answering your oh-so-sincere questions is a minute they’re not yelling hellfire and damnation at someone who’s hurt by it.

The giant downside of course, is that you’ve taught them that yelling hate gets them the kind of attention they want. And they will, of course, spin the story such that you were a person suffering from same-sex attraction, conned by the liberal media, who they rescued from the flames of hell. But, then, lying liars who lie will claim that they used to be gay and God fixed them, or whatever they need to claim to try to convince people that their hate is a holy cause. So, I’d be wary of saying things that agree with them or sound like you’re convinced by their cherry-picked passages.

This is just an idea I’m tossing around in my head.  It seems like it might be worth attempting, to make Pride events a little safer for people who’ve come out of (or are still in) oppressive religious environments and just need one day to be who they are. I’m not sure if giving the haters even that much validation is a good thing, though.

LGBTQ Fat PRIDE!

For the first time ever, my local area had a Pride march!  We had a small rally with three speakers who represented a range of ages and experiences, and then we marched a short loop.  I carried the bi pride flag, which made me ridiculously happy.  We had at least 50 or 60 people, a pretty good turnout for the first year, especially when a lot of people went up to Capital Pride instead.

After the ugly reception that a prior Pride event had gotten (people felt the need to tear down flyers and to put up anti-LGBT religious signs in their cars near the event), I was worried we’d be catching some kind of flak from the religious haters.  Particularly as motivated as they were to cause a stink about library sex ed because (gasp!) the teacher was queer.  But, there was no pushback that I saw.

For me, the best moment was when one of the speakers, a genderqueer teen, talked about the depression he’d* gone through as a kid. He mentioned how part of accepting himself was accepting being fat as a good thing and reclaiming that word.  I applauded, he pointed at me and grinned, and it turned into a round of applause.  I was really happy to be able to kick off an outpouring of support for a fat teen, that yes, it is okay to be fat, your body is awesome, and you are awesome.

*He was introduced by someone who knows him personally using he/him pronouns, but he didn’t actually say those were his pronouns. I’m going with he/him/his based on the info I have. So, awesome genderqueer teen, if you happen to be reading this and you go, “Wow, that’s me…but those aren’t my pronouns!” please let me know & I’ll make corrections.

You don’t get to talk about abortion unless…

Okay, new rule.  All the dudes who want to enforce pregnancy on anyone who can’t prove to their satisfaction that they were raped or that the pregnancy will kill them need to meet the following qualifications:

  1. Blood and Organ Donor: You must donate blood every time you are eligible. Not once or twice a year or when it’s convenient. Every single time you’re eligible. You’re off the hook if the Red Cross won’t actually take your blood, but fear of needles, passing out, or throwing up aren’t an excuse. Likewise, you must be registered as a bone marrow donor and donate marrow whenever needed. You must also give a kidney to anybody who needs one if you’re a match. If an embryo has the right to use someone else’s body for nine months to sustain its life, then sick people in hospitals absolutely have the right to your blood, your bone marrow, and any organs you have multiples of.
  2. Sex: You must never in your life have had sex that could get another person pregnant without confirming with that person that they actually wish to become pregnant. Since all birth control has a failure rate, that includes protected sex, unless one or both of you has been permanently sterilized.
  3. Charitable Giving: You must actually contribute 5-10% of your income to help people in poverty. If you’re a member of a religious organization, only the portion of your contributions that actually serve that purpose count.  If you tithe 10% and your church spends 30% of its budget on benevolence, then you’re at 3% and still have at least 2 to go.
  4. Social Safety Net: You must actually support a society in which everyone has food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. If you vote Republican, that’s pretty much an auto-disqualifier.
  5. Dependable Friend: If a friend or family member who is pregnant or has an infant needs anything from you at any time, no matter how expensive, annoying, or inconvenient, you have to help. Sister wants you to skip the football game and babysit for free?  You’re on the hook.

You might argue that this is all terribly unfair, and who am I to dictate how you live your life. What right do I, a total stranger who knows nothing about you, have to decide how much you can tolerate, the nature of your intimate relationships, and what parts of your life and your very body you have to give up?  You’re right.  I don’t have any.  You’re an autonomous human who gets to decide what you can handle, how you want to live, and what obligations you’ll submit to.  But, and this is the key point—So. Is. Every. Pregnant. Person.

If you’re trying to make a problem worse, I have trouble believing you when you say you’re solving it.

The New York Times recently published an op-ed arguing that all economic problems with abortion can be solved with private charity. It should be obvious to anyone paying attention how false that is.  It’s nice that, in the course of lying to you about breast cancer and depression and withholding your test results, a crisis pregnancy center might also hook you up with a low-cost car or help you with utility bills. But that only scratches the surface of the economic issues–everything from life-long medical costs from pregnancy complications to lower earning potential as someone with a kid to take care of. Crisis pregnancy centers frequently stop helping women as soon as they can’t obtain a legal abortion.  They’re certainly not going to help with daycare costs when the kid you didn’t abort is five, or help you out with the cost of insulin for the next twenty years if gestational diabetes never goes away.

It occurred to me that crisis pregnancy centers are, as far as I’m aware, the only charities working on an issue who are actively trying to make sure more people need their services. Every other organization at the front lines of addressing a problem at least encourages measures that would prevent the problems they address in the first place. Animal rescue groups hold free spay and neuter clinics and encourage people to get their pets fixed. Groups who help homeless people find places to stay are also often trying to address substance abuse, mental illness, and economic issues.  And you won’t see crisis hotlines for LGBT kids saying, “Sure, go ahead & reject your kids for being gay! We’ve got this covered.”

Crisis pregnancy centers, in contrast, actively oppose measures that would result in fewer unplanned pregnancies. The author of the NYT Op-Ed wrote an abstinence-only “sex ed” curriculum—the very kind that drives up teen pregnancy rates. Additionally, by trying to make abortion illegal, they’re looking to massively increase the number of people who need their assistance.

There were about 660,000 abortions reported to the CDC in 2013, and there are between 2300 and 3500 crisis pregnancy centers. Divided evenly, that’s a couple *hundred* additional people in need of help per clinic per year, without even counting the increased abortions if schools that are currently teaching medically accurate sex ed switch to abstinence only.

An American Independent article lists some statistics on the number of people seen by crisis pregnancy centers. According to the Family Research Council, approximately 230,000 ultrasounds were performed at a thousand centers, 230 per clinic.  Even if those centers only did ultrasounds for *half* of the pregnant people they see, providing services for the 650,000 people who currently have abortions would be a 50% increase.

Any other charity might panic at the idea of 50% more people needing their help.  Ask a homeless shelter to add 50% more beds or a cancer treatment center to see 50% more patients, and they’ll be frantically trying to figure out where the money, staff, and resources will come from. But a CPC’s apparent response is a shrug and a blithe “We got this.”  The op ed doesn’t mention any such numbers, or any concrete plans for how the author’s organization would handle such an increase, only the vague generalization that conservatives “must sacrifice their time and treasure to serve women in need”. It’s worth mentioning that this sacrifice of time and treasure is totally voluntary, with no guarantee it’ll actually happen if abortion rights disappear.

To me, that’s a pretty strong indication that CPCs aren’t looking to solve the economic problems associated with unplanned pregnancies as much as they’re trying to put a fig leaf over them. “See, women don’t need abortions! Crisis pregnancy centers will provide them with charity so they can take care of their babies.” Whether their help is sufficient for the actual needs of the pregnant person isn’t really their concern, as long as they prevent that person from having an abortion.

(Hat tip to @AnaMardoll for her thread on how disingenuous the idea that abortion isn’t an economic issue “because private charity” is)