Equalism is not an easy road. Equalism makes us work harder. To bridge our differences, we have to keep thinking and talking, even when we get annoyed and offended. When we believe in “open minds”, we need to find ways through this kind of everyday experience of closed minds.

It’s much easier to quickly decide, to assume that we know, how someone else thinks. When we think we see some sign of what we think their views are that we don’t like – we can switch off and save the bother of any more talking or thinking.

The same thing happens with all the reading at our internet finger-tips. We tend only to spend time on what we know we will like and agree with. Search engines, too, give us what they know we like, as surely as the days we used to buy the newspaper that reflected our own viewpoints.  Two new concepts get us thinking more about this: trigger warnings, and the newest one, assumption creep.

Trigger warnings

Trigger warnings are a development of familiar things like film censorship categories (such as 12, 18 or X in the UK, or PG-13, R, or NC-17 in the US), TV news programmes where migraine or epilepsy sufferers are warned of flash photography, and the warning that “some viewers may find this report distressing”. Even just knowing the topic, or the title of a book, gives us a clue about whether we want to go into it or not. You get a chance to prepare or switch off.

Psychoanalysts have to begin any paper they write by referring to Freud. Otherwise it’s not considered kosher enough. I am a feminist, and I praise the feminist movement for all it has done. But I’ve found that if my praise is not mentioned frequently, some feminist readers are annoyed.

Trigger warnings developed mostly in US college campuses, to manage a boundary between keeping open communication going while warning people – before they start reading or join an audience – who might be upset or offended, or triggered, into unpleasant or even post-traumatic experiences. Sadly, this kind of offence caused has been used to close down straightforward fair and open discussion, even when the upset is no more than a difference of opinion. Closing down a robust discussion is not going to help learning or genuine equalism to develop.

Trigger warnings have mainly been in the context of gender sensitivities. So, for example, talk of ‘due legal process’ in rape cases may be upsetting to those who may have been raped and not received justice. Technically, a rape that has not been proven is an alleged rape; but the personal experience and the added injustice may make the phrase ‘alleged rape’ a trigger. The need for warning may then prevent an important discussion.  ‘Due legal process’, too, may be interpreted – and misinterpreted – as someone diminishing the seriousness of rape.

Trigger warnings seek to ensure everyone avoids any upset. The concern for equalists is that they may be just a way to put up a wall that stops people talking altogether. You cannot steamroller anyone into a discussion they don’t want to have. So we need to persuade ourselves that difficult discussions are important to have, not to avoid. If trigger warnings help us negotiate into more robust discussions, that’s good. If they excuse us, that’s not good.

Anyway, here’s a couple of articles to look at: Tiffany Jenkins looks at Trigger warnings: a gun to the head of literature, and Jill Filopovic writes about how We’ve gone too far with ‘trigger warnings’.

And here’s a couple of books for those that want a deeper and broader understanding of the subject: Firstly, Timothy Garton Ash (2016) Free Speech: Ten principles for a connected world – I highly recommended that you get the post-Gulbenkian and much cheaper version on Kindle!  And secondly: Mick Hume (2015) Trigger Warning: Is the fear of being offensive killing free speech? 

Assumption creep

There’s a consequence when we rely on the antennae of others to give us these early warnings of what we should steer clear of. We risk subjecting ourselves to censorship by them. We may end up, for example, prematurely deciding that someone promoting free speech is bound to be a right wing conservative. You only find out that they are not right wing by going past your premature assumption. This is what Tim Lott describes in: If left-wingers like me are condemned as rightwing, then what’s left? He uses the term ‘assumption creep’ to describe this lazy way of deciding early on what and who someone is more generally. So you damn them without a proper hearing.

Equalism won’t work unless it is founded on the principle of free speech for everyone. But that means – ideally – that all sides engage in a process of listening and talking in a reasonable way with conjecture and refutation providing the basis for growing our knowledge. So we strive to ‘respect difference’ with enough mutual skill and sensitivity with those we want to engage with. We don’t want our speech to be so free that there’s no one in the audience. But again, we need audiences to be persuaded that robust discussion may be a good thing.

In practice, equalism also means we give and expect robust attention to reasoned discussion. We do not want trigger warnings and assumption creep to give us an excuse to slide past a proper discussion, a real meeting of minds.  So we must overcome this over-sensitivity and offence-taking in order to get to know who someone really is, what experiences and views they actually hold, and how to talk reasonably with them and about them. As Alan Kor says (see below), that is the way we might genuinely change each other’s minds.

Finally

A couple of quotes help make the main point. First, in God in the Dock, CS Lewis writes:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated. But those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Second, Alan Charles Kor, in his youtube video (at approximately 4 minutes in) describes co-founding Van Pelt College House in 1971 – a place where you could be an individual (more than just a representative of some group identity) and where there was an extraordinary mixing of cultures and viewpoints. He says:

They argued with and offended each other all the time. But freedom is an extraordinary medium, and over time they learned to talk to each other; to understand each other; to humanise their relationships with each other; and even – occasionally – to change each other’s minds. What a terrible price students are paying now for the idea of comfort.

Trigger warnings assisted by assumption creep rather prioritise comfort over discussion, thinking, equalism and learning. Let’s put up with a bit more discomfort for the better cause of talking with each other about important things. Opening our minds requires us all to bear some groaning from our closed minds!

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about triggers or feeling censored that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!