The Pew Research Center recently released their 2013 Global Attitudes Survey, summarising responses from 40 117 respondents in 40 countries to various moral issues. A local journalist called me for comment this morning, but as usual, only soundbites will survive and besides, many readers of Synapses might never spot the resulting article in any event. So, here are some thoughts on the Pew results as they relate to South Africa. Continue reading
It’s perfectly reasonable to be dissatisfied with the electoral process. We might struggle to find a voter in any jurisdiction who can’t present a case for how things could be better, whether the improvement were to come from revisions to party funding legislation or the accountability of elected officials to those of us who elect them.
And, grumbling is what we do – all the more since the Internet and social media allowed for vastly increased numbers of people to join in the grumbling. But for all the grumbling, it’s perhaps worth thinking about – or revisiting – what the point of electoral systems in democracies is.
On the surface, of course the point is to show us what the will of the people is, and to allow for us to elect people to represent us in Parliament, or on city councils. (In South Africa, we don’t elect people but instead vote for parties, who choose the people – which is but another thing you could grumble about it you wish.)
But the dissatisfaction leads some to say we should simply opt out, either through not voting at all, or through measures such as spoiling your ballot. Recently, Ronnie Kasrils has been reported as recommending spoiling your ballot as a way to indicate that you believe our current ANC government has let us down (though, more nuanced accounts of his statements to the media indicate that he’s recommending a vote for a minority party first, and only spoiling your ballot if none of those parties are palatable to you).
To make one thing clear: spoiling your ballot is a legitimate choice in a democracy. But it’s the wrong choice, because it misunderstands the point of voting, in that it begins with fealty to a chosen party, where that fealty allows you to either endorse the way that they are doing things, or instead, to simply withhold your support from them.
The right choice is to understand your vote as purely a tactical gambit, deployed in the manner that might best achieve the outcome you hope to achieve. Signalling disappointment with a political party isn’t effectively signalled through spoiling a ballot, in that the signal is far too noisy – in brief, there is no way of telling whether you spoilt your ballot because you’re incompetent, or because you were protesting the electoral system rather than the party you ostensibly didn’t vote for.
A vote for an opposition party shifts the balance of power, however minutely. Voting for nobody, by contrast, indirectly rewards the incumbent through denying an opposition a chance to govern – especially when dealing with a significant majority such as the one the ANC enjoys in South Africa. A spoilt ballot might well decrease the majority party’s proportion of votes cast, but a vote for an opposition party will decrease it further, and alert them to the fact that they cannot take your vote for granted in a far more transparent way.
The tactical element of each person’s vote is of course a matter that can only be clarified by the individuals themselves. For a middle class liberal type like myself, living in the Western Cape, a vote for the ANC in the provincial ballot might play a part in alerting the governing party (the Democratic Alliance, or DA) that their steadily increasing social conservatism is diametrically opposed to liberal ideas.
It doesn’t necessarily matter that the ANC is illiberal – the vote signals that the party that is supposed to be liberal seems to instead be more focused on attracting votes through playing on fears of social decay than on defending its ideological turf. (It’s a separate issue whether the turf is the correct one, or whether the short-term gaining of votes is sensible strategy on their part – I’m simply addressing the voters’ choices and how they might be made.)
On a national level, a vote for the DA might well be the best signal of disaffection with the ANC – but then again, a vote for someone like the EFF might be more effective in the long run, because both the ANC and the DA are roughly centre to centre-right in economic terms, and the voice that’s missing in a poverty-stricken country like ours is the leftist one. Having a strong EFF presence in Parliament might be just what’s needed to shake the incumbent from their dogmatic slumbers, to paraphrase Hume.
And then, next election, you get to make the same choices again. The key thing to remember is that they are choices, and that you owe nobody your loyalty. If it’s the long-term future of the country that you care about, then you should vote in the manner that you think best supports a prosperous future for the country – not in a manner that best supports a prosperous future for any particular party.
Some of you might think that Ivo Vegter can’t be fixed, given that he’s a resolute critic of government intervention in our lives, suspicious of the doom-and-gloom narrative around climate change, and (cautiously) pro-fracking. To be honest, I disagree with him more than I used to, especially on the climate change issue.
However, it’s partly because of his columns in the Daily Maverick that I’ve discovered that I disagree with him, and why. This is part of the point of commenting in the public domain – that arguments can be put forward, debates can be had, and minds can be changed. As John Stuart Mill famously reminded us in On Liberty, we want to encourage free speech and robust debate partly because it shows us where we are wrong, and partly because it helps us know what criticisms need to be addressed and responded to, even when we are right (or think we are right).
It’s with this in mind that I alert you to the fact that Ivo, a friend as well as a fellow columnist (at one time – I subsequently retired) at the Daily Maverick, is unwell and in need of support. If you’ve enjoyed his writing, and/or if you think that the independent columnist role is worth supporting, consider helping him out (his banking details are at the previous link). He – and many like him – earn far too little (or sometimes, nothing) for what they do, but readers often benefit greatly. As per the nature of crowdsourced initiatives, your small donation can make a difference, if there are enough of you making them.
To quote a September 2013 version of me,
there’s an arms-race of hyperbole going on, especially on the Left, and therefore especially in matters pertaining to social justice. This is understandable, especially because the Right has bombarded the world with similar hyperbole for long enough. But the trend is not a good one, and we should resist it.
It’s not good, partly because we denude language through doing so. More importantly, though, it’s not good because it gives an intrinsic advantage in argument to those who shout the loudest, and who are willing to claim that they are most fundamentally or critically hurt. And in the long run, it’s not good because the only rational (or sadly, so it might seem) way to respond to a climate of hypersensitivity is to shut up, and not say anything at all, for fear of offending someone.
I’m not at all sure where the dividing line is between expressing justified grievances and bullying someone out of a debate – or out of a job, as happened to Brendan Eich, ex-CEO of Mozilla, yesterday. While it’s true that some viewpoints are not worth entertaining, that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone who holds those viewpoints shouldn’t be allowed to, and shouldn’t be allowed to campaign for them without fear of reprisals.
Homophobia is wrong, and harmful – you’ll find plenty of posts over the years highlighting the offence, hurt, injustice and sometimes even murders that can be attributed to homophobia, from the relatively trivial cases of Error Naidoo to the properly odious Scott Lively, who had a part in inspiring the criminalisation of homophobia in Uganda.
However, it’s not at all clear to what extent Brendan Eich is a homophobe at all, unless we define homophobia simply as the belief that certain legal entitlements should be reserved for heterosexual people. Again, I must stress that I personally reject that belief – discrimination based on sexuality is premised on an entirely arbitrary characteristic, and is thus unjust and should be unlawful.
Because as usual, there’s a background issue that needs to influence our reading of a case like this, and that issue is that Eich is a Christian, who believes that marriage is something ordained by God, and reserved for a man and a woman. And for as long as we (or in this case, the USA) respects freedom of religion, that’s not only a legitimate belief to hold, but also a legitimate position to campaign for, and to donate money to defending.
Perhaps we should weaken our respect for freedom of religion, and insist that a church or a minister who wanted to marry anyone should also be willing to officiate marriages for gay couples. If you won’t marry a gay couple, you can’t marry anyone. Perhaps we should argue that if you get tax breaks from government, you should lose them if you discriminate on arbitrary grounds such as sexuality, or race, or gender.
But that’s not where we are, yet, and (some) churches are still operating in a grey zone where their archaic morality is grudgingly accommodated, even in progressive democracies. Maybe it shouldn’t be – but for as long as it is, Eich has a warrant for believing (on his, archaic, standards) that it’s not unjust to deny homosexual couples the right to marry, and that it should be unlawful for them to marry.
This is the cause that Eich was supporting, in that he gave a $1000 donation, in his personal capacity, to a campaign in support of Proposition 8 (that sought to outlaw gay marriage) in California. He wasn’t alone – Proposition 8 passed, meaning that over 50% of voters voted in favour of it, before it was later overturned by the courts.
All of those people who voted for Prop 8 were – and no doubt, still are – wrong. But of those thousands of people, Eich might be the only one who was hounded out of his job, after his donation came to be public knowledge. The dating website, OKCupid, displayed a banner to Mozilla Firefox users, telling them to change their browsers because of Eich’s position. This and similar moves (e.g. Rarebit apps, who pulled their apps from Firefox), as well as sustained criticism on social media, led Eich to resign (or so we’re told – he might well have been pushed, judging by the Mozilla chairperson’s statement that “We failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community”).
So, in essence, Eich lost his job for being a Christian (of a certain sort). One of my closest friends would (I think – I haven’t checked this detail) hold the same view regarding gay marriage, and is certainly no homophobe in any other sense. I think he’s wrong about marriage and who it should be reserved for – but I would think it even more wrong if he were not able to hold the view he does, for fear of losing his job.
Yet, of course we should be able to express our dissatisfaction, even sometimes outrage, at the things people do and support. As I said at the top, I don’t know where we draw the line. But Eich operating in his personal capacity is a separate thing to his role at Mozilla, and his personal democratic choices are legitimate ones until the law says they are not. He was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs, which are constitutionally protected.
If you think that’s wrong, you need to campaign against freedom of religion, not against Eich.
(Related – an earlier piece on the Chick-fil-A homophobia.)
A few nights ago, Ken Ham and a few of his fundie friends went to go and watch Aronofsky’s new film, an adaptation of the Biblical story of Noah. Ham’s blog makes his attitude toward the film clear – it’s “disgusting”, “evil”, and left him feeling “unclean”. It was allegedly also “boring”, which it pretty much the only complaint of Ham’s that might hold some water.
It’s in the review that TIME magazine somehow thought worth printing that Ham turns his irony-meter completely off (assuming irony is something that fits with his rather alien worldview, that is). He says:
Except for some of the names in the movie, like Noah, his sons’ names, and Methuselah, hardly any remnant of the Bible’s account of the Flood in Genesis 6-9 is recognizable. Yes, there is an Ark in the film that is true to the massive biblical proportions, but it did not look like a seaworthy vessel. There were many animals that came to Noah and went on board the Ark, but there were far too many creatures crammed inside and certainly many more than were needed.
So, you’re upset about a lack of realism in a Hollywood movie? That’s par for the course – especially with a big-budget blockbuster. Furthermore, complaining about the number of animals in an ark that supposedly held thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of animals seems pretty rich. Even on Ham’s version from Answers in Genesis, the ark held around 16 000 animals, and Ham’s version is a rather conservative reading.
But regardless of the exact number, the point is that the story is a fable, and you’re a little deluded if you think it literally true, regardless of whether it’s 16 000 or 60 000 animals. And on a more trivial matter, if the film version of the Noah pictures “far too many animals crammed inside”, then Ham seems to be a really quick – and eerily accurate – counter of animals, because I’d imagine that even 16 000 would look like “far too many” when pictured on screen.
Most amusing of all is Ham’s closing observation:
“Noah” is an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah, and most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible. As a result, I believe Hollywood will have a much harder time in marketing future biblically themed movies to Christians.
“Hollywood” must be quaking in their boots, wondering how to cope with the loss of custom from fundamentalist creationist folk. As for me, I’ll skip Noah, and wait for Noah II, “the story of how two koalas get from Mount Ararat to Australia” (as a Twitter friend put it).
I have no objection to trying to make science cool, so long as that doesn’t come at the cost of making it simple. By which I mean, for every Cosmos – rightly praised for its engaging treatment of cosmology, evolution and more (the first episode needed nachos to cope with all the cheese, but the second episode – on evolution – was superb) – there are a dozen painfully obscure, but no less important, attempts to convey the results of research in one field or another.
Or, attempts to convey the fact that research didn’t achieve any results, but that it was nevertheless worthwhile, even though it cost truckloads of money. My point is that much of science involves a slow, long slog, and is conducted by people outside of the limelight, often not even seeking the limelight because they are geeks/obsessives of some sort rather than wannabe celebrities.
This is why the advertorial insert on FameLab in Friday’s Mail&Guardian newspaper became the subject of a little rant between a friend and I over the weekend. The FameLab website carries the following quote from Dr Alice Roberts - “You are making something entertaining but not dumbing it down and I think that is absolutely what FameLab is about.” But take a look at the presentation from one of the finalists from last year:
In summary, the argument is that obsessive dieting can lead to women messing up their metabolisms, and can also impact on the health of their children. A British Medical Journal that Google found for me says:
Mother’s diet in pregnancy has little effect on the baby’s size at birth, but nevertheless programmes the baby. The fetus adapts to undernutrition by changing its metabolism, altering its production of hormones and the sensitivity of tissues to them, redistributing its blood flow, and slowing its growth rate.
Fine – if the challenge is to take some area of science and quickly summarise its findings in a compelling fashion, then FameLab could be described as a success (in general, rather than with reference to the talk above). But the science is of course being dumbed down, in that very few scientific hypotheses or theories can be explained without dumbing them down in 3 minutes (the length of a FameLab presentation) – and many can hardly be explained at all to non-specialists.
And that’s fine. It’s as it should be – because the difficulty inherent in some fields is exactly what motivates us to work so hard to find the answers to questions posed in those fields. If it was easy, anyone would be able to do it – and perpetuating the misconception that science is frequently about “fame”, and can be explained in a 3 minute performance, detracts from the reality of most science and scientists.
Here’s what the insert reported about Raven Motsewabangwe, South African’s winner of the 2014 round who will now go to the international finals in the UK:
Raven Motsewabangwe (North West University) compared viral infections to an attack by aliens and conveyed information to the audience about medical responses through vaccines and antivirals.
The clip isn’t available online, but the analogy is not new, and the rest sounds like science journalism of indeterminable quality. Quite the contrast to what the advertorial insert tells us about FameLab’s purpose:
Forget what you think you know about scientists. Do yourself a favour and meet the new generation. They’re fired up and they’re out to change the world.
[Insert deity of choice] help us, if that’s all there is to the new generation of scientists. We’ve got a difficult enough time of it as it is in the universities, simply asking students to read a few pages of text before coming to class, or expecting a modicum of attention for 45 minutes. It’s the Pop Idols approach to science that allows Nature News, Diet Doctor, Dr. Oz and all the other hyperbolic peddlers of oversimplification to capture audiences and sell books. Should we be encouraging that?
What we need at present are more reminders about the dangers of thinking science is about a persuasive presentation or a three minute summary. We need reminders that there are experts, and that the work they do is difficult, and important. We need reminders that the truth is often not demotic, and thinking that it is can contribute to things like near-record numbers of measles cases in the USA in 2013, as conspiracies and quackery take the place of scientific authority.
In the closing piece of the same insert, titled “Pop Idols for scientists”, we’re told a little more about our winner:
It was a 25 year-old microbiologist from Mafikeng in the North West Province – Raven Motsewabangwe – who emerged the judges’ favourite. His casual pop-star looks, engaging smile and the ease with which he explained the concept of viral infections using little more than two coloured balloons also won the hearts of many of the female audience; and when his name was announced as the winner, they rushed onto the stage to pose with their hero – South Africa’s Pop Idol of science.
In short, science is about looking sharp, and using short sentences (and props). Get it right, and the babes (if that’s what you’re after) will flock to you. Sounds about right, right?
And that problem is stigma. Addiction is a biological mechanism, where the desire for a certain stimulus is reinforced through (among other mechanisms) a dopamine “hit” in the nucleus accumbens. It’s a chronic brain “disease” of sorts, influencing your reward system and your motivations. Despite this, many folk continue to think and talk about it primarily as a moral failing, or – on another end of the spectrum of unhelpful interventions – dilute the significance of addiction by using the term to refer to the fact that we enjoy certain foods as evidence of “sugar addiction” or “carbohydrate addiction”.
As Salon puts it in a piece on why addiction carries such a stigma, “the idea that those with addictive disorders are weak, deserving of their fate and less worthy of care is so inextricably tied to our zeitgeist that it’s impossible to separate addiction from shame and guilt”. And that shame and guilt, in turn can sometimes stop people from seeking out treatment while there’s still time to do so.
In Cape Town, we have a significant drug problem – from tik and its association with poverty and gangsterism, to the alcohol abuse that helps to fuel road death statistics. Besides taking responsibility for your own substance-use and (perhaps) abuse, there is one other simple thing we can all consider doing to contribute to alleviating Cape Town’s drug problem. Even if each individual contribution is slight, the collective contribution could be significant.
That contribution is in helping to end the stigma, thereby encouraging people to seek treatment and support. A wider public understanding of what addiction is can remind us to not be unnecessarily judgmental, nor to be overly simplistic about it in referring to social media or sugar addictions as if they are in the same league as a tik addiction. We can also inform ourselves about what the Government is doing (which includes a rapidly-expanding outpatient programme for opiate detox, an emergency helpline, and a significant annual spend on treatment and rehab.
This post was part of a City of Cape Town substance abuse awareness campaign.
If you’d like to add your voice to the Cape Town community and help deal with the substance abuse problem that affects the city, you are invited to share your own story. Post your story of how drug abuse affected your life in The City of Cape Town, and share it on Twitter by using the hashtag #ihaveadrugproblem. If you or someone you know needs help with substance abuse, phone the free 24hr helpline on 0800 435 748.
That title, because I do think it an implausible and potentially unreachable goal to convey (relatively) subtle points about epistemology when the points in question relate to an emotive topic, namely our health and diet. According to a few folk on Twitter, my blog posts on the topic have amounted to “rabid attacks”, which I find distinctly odd, seeing as the only ad hominem - and emotionally animated rather than merely critical – engagements I’ve seen have been directed at those of us who dare to say challenge anything related to the LCHF diet and its proponents.
So, in bulleted points to try to minimise confusion, here are my concerns and positions. These are the same concerns and positions I’ve expressed from the start, contrary to what some “rabid” comments have claimed in response to my posts and columns on the topic.
- Regardless of the efficacy of the LCHF diet in treating various conditions, and regardless of the truth or falsity of hypotheses assumed by the LCHF diet, we should all have a concern for good scientific thinking, and clear reasoning in expressing the conclusions we’d like to see adopted. Science does not work in absolute truths – it’s an inductive process, whereby we chisel away at falsehoods to arrive at a clearer understanding of what’s most likely to be true.
- That project of triangulating on the truth is harmed by expressing scientific claims in absolutist language, and by creating movements akin to cults, where people are more likely to forget that anecdotes aren’t data, that being wrong in the past doesn’t guarantee you’re right now, that emotional commitment leads to confirmation bias, and so forth.
- My criticisms of Noakes have mostly been that – whether or not he’s right – he doesn’t present his case in a way which demonstrates sound scientific reasoning. We reveal ourselves when we “show our working”, and it’s not reassuring to see anti-vaccine quacks and evolution-deniers quoted approvingly when arguing for LCHF. It demonstrates a desperation to make a case, and a lack of sound judgement.
Likewise, not focusing on the details, or the evidence, is a bad sign. Take this tweet as example:
— Tim Noakes (@ProfTimNoakes) March 16, 2014
- It references the UCT Health Sciences Centenary Debate between Dr. Jacques Rossouw (my father) and Noakes. But notice how it references it – by dismissing me as a latecomer who somehow rushes in to defend my father’s cause. However, the evidence shows that I was writing about this 9 months before that debate, and that Rossouw père hasn’t been engaged with Noakes at all for around 20 years, and only got involved in this debate on an invitation from the Medical School when an ex-colleague had learnt that he was coming here on holiday. It misrepresents (a truly rabid critic might even say “lies”) to further a particular narrative.
- Likewise, it’s misrepresentation to tweet (as Prof. Noakes regularly does) links to Noakes’ SAMJ article criticising the WHI study that Rossouw directed without acknowledging that there were at least two responses to the Noakes article, arguing that his criticisms are misguided.
- A summary of the problem might be this: Noakes’ audience is primed to believe, and primed to think that critics are deluded, because of the narrative they’ve been told, and because their anecdotal experience (in the short-term, at least) confirms that narrative. And then, the way in which Noakes responds to critics (e.g. “I ignore what I consider not to be evidence“) seems to do little to help them think critically about science, because criticism starts – and sadly, also ends – with the charge that traditional views of diet are deluded.
- It’s entirely possible that the long-term harms of high meat or fat consumption are overstated, and therefore that Noakes is right. But I can’t imagine him saying that it’s entirely possible that we don’t yet know if there are long-term harms from following his advice, or that it’s entirely possible that a moderate diet, involving a focus shift away from any single or particular macronutrients, might be best for most people. Nothing seems possible, except that he’s right.
- Then, the LCHF crowd get relationships and potential taint utterly wrong in any case – just because someone works for “Big Food”, the FDA, the South African Heart Foundation or whatever – or is someone’s father/son – doesn’t absolve you of the need to make and respond to arguments. Sure, the connections can lead to the increased probability of some sort of bias, but you still need to show the bias, and not simply evade challenges by asserting it.
I’ve written at length about logic, epistemology, scientific reasoning, anecdotes and their irrelevance, and other issues to do with Noakes’ warrant for presenting his case with the degree of certainty that he does. I’ve said very little about the diet itself, because that is not my focus – and it doesn’t need to be my focus.
The retort that there is “bad science” on the other side is not compelling, in that it’s a) bad science (if it is) mostly because the LCHF people think it reaches entirely the wrong conclusions; and/or b) because it uses poor data. My accusations of “bad science” are premised on the selective quotations, dubious authorities cited and so forth as demonstrated in social media, rather than being about “bad science” in the sense described in (a) and (b) above.
To capture the essence of the only things I have ever said about diet specifically
- I’m concerned about the affordability of the LCHF diet for poorer populations.
- I can see how people might be concerned about animal welfare and an increase in the farming and killing of animals. I eat meat, but think it’s a moral failing that I do – and furthermore, I think that the immorality of meat-eating will be the subject of a moral consensus in my lifetime.
- Independent groups like the Harvard School of Public Health continue to caution against excessive consumption of saturated fat.
- I’m not at all persuaded by what LCHF folks assert as evidence of the failure of the so-called “prudent diet” – first, because it’s not at all clear that people have ever been eating that way (in general); and second because it caricatures dieticians as having recommended a diet that they claim they aren’t recommending at all. A series of blog posts at Nutritional Solutions are worth reading in this regard.
- In short, the increase in obesity and the like still seems mostly explicable by the advent of television, increased access to motorised transport, desk-bound lifestyles, and excess consumption of food.
- Yes, it certainly seems true that fats (in general) have been demonised far more than they should have, and that some of us might have started eating too much of other things (including carbohydrates, especially in the form of sugars) to compensate for a flavour-deficit after shunning fat.
This doesn’t, however, automatically lead to the conclusion that carbohydrates are in general bad, nor to the conclusion that we need no longer be at all concerned about the long-term effects of a diet with significant levels of saturated fat. “Real food” is good, sure – and refined carbs are “bad”. And what that means is, when you carry on eating your modest portions of a balanced diet (which is surely what you eat, right?), you should continue to be wary of including too many processed and refined foods.
That’s what I’ve always been told. What’s “new” is that fats aren’t as bad as we thought, and I (along with many of you, no doubt) were misinformed when we were told that they were rather evil. The truth is probably in the middle somewhere – and why replace one exaggerated position (“fats will stop your heart!”) with another (“carbs will give you diabetes!”).
As Oscar Wilde had it, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple”.
Much of what I end up writing here has to do with the nuances of some or other situation. Whether I get things right or wrong is your call to make, but hopefully many of you read what I post because you at least agree that the simple or instinctive reaction is often wrong, or incomplete at best. And in another example of how hype and hyperbole can people to switch off their brains, this morning I heard a caller to Redi Tlhabi’s show trying to make the case that his human rights were being violated, as he was unable to watch or listen to all of the Oscar Pistorius trial.
I don’t know the details (I’m not following the trial, except through the occasional summary recap or meta-commentary like 6000′s archives of the “insight” our journalists are occasionally displaying on Twitter), but some things can be seen and some not, some can be live and some delayed, and so forth. Cricket bats sound like gunshots, and if you’re a white model, you get to have your “dignity” preserved in death in a way that Anene Booysen never could.
Shot in head vs raped and disemboweled, or raped, penetrated with toilet brush and killed. No sensitivities about these. White man's justice
— Tom Moultrie (@tomtom_m) March 10, 2014
The caller thought it grossly unfair – a rights violation – that he couldn’t follow the soap-opera, even though the outcome of it makes no difference to his life. Furthermore, the fact that two courtrooms had been set up for journalists to be able to observe proceedings was also grossly iniquitous – why them and not me, Lord? As I’ve argued in a different context, if you train people to expect sensation instead of subtlety, you should be surprised if they keep expecting more of the same, and eventually, become capable of understanding nothing less.
Those of you who frequent corners of the Internet that discuss prejudice against other human beings on the grounds of things like race, sex, sexual orientation, physical disability and the like would no doubt have come across the term “trigger warning”. For those who haven’t, a “trigger warning” is essentially an alert that the text that follows might contain words or ideas that “trigger” some negative reaction in the reader. For example, a victim of violent crime might be prompted to re-live their terror on reading a descriptive piece about an armed home invasion.
There’s no doubt that some of us can be insensitive to the needs and interests of others, some of the time. In fact, some people seem to take pleasure in being wilfully offensive, and might deliberately taunt others for some or other manifested difference (or even an imagined difference). Trolls are one example on the most egregious end of the spectrum, but more commonplace is the problem that for those of us – like me – who fit into the categories that have long been considered “normal”, it’s easy to find yourself offending others without realising it, and without intending to.
More worrying for us “normals” is the possibility that this social-baseline existence makes you blind (or contributes to blindness) regarding the privileged status you might occupy in life and social discourse. The relevant catchphrase here is “check your privilege”, and as I’ve previously argued, demands to “check your privilege” can sometimes be a complete nonsense, used to evade the responsibility of making and engaging with arguments, even if it is sometimes true that “privilege” can blind one to other ways of being.
But it can also sometimes be accurate, just as there might be – and are – situations in which we’d want to warn a potential audience that something they are about to read and/or hear could unsettle them. The concept isn’t an alien one – age-appropriate warnings for visual media rely on it, and news inserts are often preceded by a warning regarding graphic content.
Yet, we surely need to take some responsibility for ourselves, in that it would be unreasonably demanding to expect, for example, a support group for war veterans to precede every recollection of some event they witnessed with a “Trigger warning: violence” alert. Instead, the most obviously suitable place for trigger warnings (if we are to agree that they should be more prevalent, that is) would be on content or platforms where a responsible consumer of that content would be justifiably surprised to encounter that which they find triggering.
Take an unmoderated Internet discussion forum, for example – you cannot expect such a place to contain only things that don’t upset you. But you might more reasonably expect a discussion forum on how to raise children to not contain accounts of children or parents dying in labour – an unwritten social contract has arguably been violated in the latter case.
The broad point is that it’s impossible to protect people from all harms, and it’s also only morally expected of us to avoid causing foreseeable harms to others, and even then, it’s unreasonably demanding to expect that we take all such harms into account. I don’t want to explore the issue of which harms we’re obliged to take into account and which not (not today, at least), but for example, I know it might harm the feelings of a religious person to tell them that God is a fiction, but that shouldn’t prevent me from being able to say so.
In other words, both because the Internet is an unregulated place, and second because we can’t reliably predict what people might or might not be harmed by reading, the traditional distinction between what’s morally expected and what’s “nice to have” - supererogatory in philosopher-speak – needs to be maintained here. We might prefer for people to create a environment of type X, but might only be able to expect an environment of type Y.
Because the alternative – of always and only saying things that are guaranteed to not harm anyone – creates such a sanitised environment that it would run a serious risk of infantilizing us. We need to be able to tolerate different points of view, and that which we might find offensive, because that’s part of the way that we learn to cope with the slings and arrows of fortune.
Of course, this approach does advantage those whose points of view, or who – as people, are subjected to fewer of those slings and arrows. But at the same time, there are people who have endured traumas that prefer to talk about them openly, to not have them treated as a “special” topic that needs to be preceded by warnings, or confirmation that a certain conversation is permissible.
Striking a balance here requires empathy – and there’s no question that far more can and should be done by “normals” to be sensitive to the fact that they frequently win at life simply because they wrote the rules. But the solution isn’t to be found in swinging completely to the other end of the spectrum, and attempting to rule out all possibility that people might find themselves challenged, even hurt, by the things they encounter in the world.
The thoughts above were prompted by a worrying trend described in this New Republic article, namely that of college classes now carrying trigger warnings on class syllabi. If a class called “Histories of the Present: Violence” is expected to carry a trigger warning, then it seems clear that we’ve over-corrected – even if there’s a real problem at the heart of the motivation for that correction.