Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory, by Josie Appleton

Category: Public sphere

‘Just call me “ze”.’ The trouble with gender-neutral identities

Genderimage A friend’s 14-year-old son goes to a south London comprehensive. Two of his classmates identify as neither male or female: one has two personalities, between which he alternates; the other is a ‘non-binary non-cis-gendered woman’.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with people going against their gender or primarily considering themselves a person or a human being. Nor is there anything wrong with androgyny. There is more freedom than ever to be or look androdynous: women can wear suits, men can wear sarongs and jewellery, with hair as short or long as you like.

But the gender-neutral identity is quite different. It is not an indifference to categories, just being yourself, ignoring demands to fit in with models or roles. Instead, there is an obsession with categories (gender neutral, genderqueer, gender fluid, gender questioning, agender, bigender, or many many others). The quest for the right category is the quest to establish a basis for the self. Your identity box and pronoun become as important as your name. One formerly gender neutral man introduces himself: ‘Hi, my name is Sam. My pronouns are “he” and “him”, how about you?’

This means that the formation of the self plays out not in an interior world, nor in relation to close others, but in relation to reified categories that a person has invented or found on the internet. People go in search of an identity box that ‘fits’, in the way that in the past they might have sought a religion or vocation.

When Facebook announced 71 different gender categories for UK users, an adviser said that Facebook ‘will finally allow thousands of people to describe themselves as they are now’ and ‘allow future generation of kids to become truly comfortable in their own skins.’ Your feeling in your own skin; a website’s drop-down menu: there is no difference.

Traditional social categories, such as man or woman, or nationality or class, were based on some generally accepted physical distinction or division within social structure. The new categories, by contrast, exist apart from someone’s position in society or the social relations they enter into, as well as their physical reality. Your identity box can be independent of your appearance: you can identify as black though biologically white (as with Rachel Dolezal, who claims to be ‘trans black’); or identify as a woman though you have the body of a man. Your identity category can even be independent of your relationships, with one woman saying that she identifies as queer while in a long-term relationship with a man.

Gender-neutral websites always advise on never assuming someone’s gender, never assuming anything about someone on the basis of how they look or who they are with. The identity box is only incidentally related to social or biological reality. The box is both arbitrary – someone can choose anything they want – but also strangely naturalised as if they haven’t chosen it at all. Therefore, it is a private relationship with some sort of external determination.

Gender neutral identities involve a kind of grating at the social, an objection to being touched by anything social or universal in content. After all, a regular pronoun describes an individual as something general: to be called ‘he’ is to say that this person, Tom, is something universal, a man. The new identities express a dislike at being part of any general group or category, at being touched or judged by frameworks that are commonly accepted. One gender-neutral student said:

Every time someone used ‘she’ or ‘her’ to refer to me, it made this little tick in my head. Kind of nails-on-a-chalkboard is another way you can describe it. It just felt wrong. It was like, “Who are you talking to?”‘

The gender-neutral pronoun is a violation of language and the meaning of words. To ask other people to use ‘they’ or ‘it’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ is to make them twist their tougues into unnatural shapes, and use words in ways that violate their actual meaning. A person is called either a plural, or an object. It is worse with invented pronouns, such as xe/xem, zie/hir, e/em, fae/faer, and co/cos, because people do not understand what they mean. People are asked to use words that don’t mean anything.

(The problems are accentuated in gendered languages such as French or German, where things such as job positions are also gendered. A Humbolt university professor uses ‘x’ instead of gendered endings, replacing Professor (male) or Professorin (female) with ‘Professx’. Another man complains that his gender-neutral German pronouns are not being understood: ‘By using “xier/sier” most people think that I try to say “sie” with a bad German pronunciation, and if I use “nin” (although I quite like the sound of it), no one understands anything.’)

The pronoun-based identity is something that can only happen in public, through requesting a particular, unnatural treatment from the world. You find yourself by asking people to call you something different. One man says: ‘For two years I used “ze” and “hir” pronouns, and it’s kind of a process of trying them out and having other people try them out to see how it feels and sounds.’

A man (not a ‘cis-man’, just a man) can be relatively independent of his pronoun. His pronoun can be incidental to him; he does not think about it, which means that the individual is free to go his own way and do his own thing. In accepting a general category, the individual can go their own way as something distinct from this. Indeed, early philosophies of individual independence encouraged an indifference to the outside world: Stoicism, for example, recommended remaining steady on your inner axis through a cultivated immunity to anything anyone said about you or anything that happened.

The gender-neutral person has no point of independence, no point apart from the world on which to stand. They are their identity box; they are their pronoun. And the content of this identity box is nothing but the violation of the commonly accepted category. It is an identity founded on the negation of the categories of social life, declaring them ‘binary’ and null and void.

Therefore, the gender-neutral identity means the effacement of the independent individual, as well as the universal social category – both of which are collapsed into the drop-down menu and the pronoun ‘ze’.

Josie Appleton is talking about ‘Self, society and alienation’ at The Academy on 15 and 16 July.

5 lessons from the French elections

1. The post-war political arrangement has broken down. For the first time, the Socialist and Gaullist parties were both absent from the second round of a presidential election. This means that France is the only major country where the parties of left and right have been pretty much wiped out, removed from the political scene. (The Gaullists came third but were nearly pushed into fourth place by a leftist party formed only last year, while the Socialists scored a paltry 6%). Throughout the election campaign, there was a great deal of instability, with parties rising by 9% in the space of a month or two, or falling correspondingly. Fourty-four percent of the vote was gained by parties formed in the past year. This wipe out of left and right is about time: it has been well known that these labels meant little for the past 20 years or more. It is in principle a good thing that the illusion of ‘zombie parties’ has been removed.

2. There is a public hunger for political representation. All the candidates were forced to respond to public exasperation with the political system and appetite for something else. One watchword of the election was ‘ras-le-bol’, an expression of being fed up, someone who has had it up to here. All the candidiates had to play the card of being outsiders and against ‘the system’, however much they were in fact part of it. There is a palpable political tension: a feeling that the current set-up is unbearable and has to change, and a desire for people’s concerns to be represented in the public sphere.

3. This sentiment has not yet found an adequate form of expression. The names of the parties in this election read like something out of a revolutionary uprising: ‘France Unbowed’; ‘Together!’, ‘The Republicans’; ‘France Arise’. Emmanuel Macron’s ‘En Marche!’, or ‘Forward!’, has now cranked it up to become ‘La Republique En Marche!’ for the legislative elections. But this populism is largely a question of dressing up, mouthing words, with members of the political elite changing names and parties and putting on new costumes. The inside of the book is different to the cover. Emmanuel Macron’s best-selling book is called ‘Revolution’, but the inside is full of bland Blairite homilies. The Front National, meanwhile, has settled for a pick-and-mix of policies, embodied by the fact that it wants to have the euro and franc circulating simultaneously.

4. The French elite remains stable. Macron and Le Pen have accused each other of being part of the establishment, which of course they both are. (Macron calls Le Pen ‘l’héritière’, the heiress, while Macron was educated at the prestigous elite school ENA and is a former minister). The cohesion of the French elite and state has always been more important than that of the volatile party system. This is why many Gaullists and Socialists have been flexible and rallied around Macron, offering their services for the legislative elections and ministerial positions. He is similarly pragmatic: he won’t even force them to leave their other party in order to stand for his. So even though the French elite is showing signs of corrosion, it remains stable in comparison to Britain.

5. The most significant shifts are the establishing of the Front National, and the rise of the ‘vote blanc’. FN: With nearly 11 million votes, the Front National won more than double its score from the 2002 second round. The party’s appearance in the second round was neither a surprise nor a shock: the FN is now an established part of the political system. Since Macron doesn’t really have a party (he is advertising for candidates on the internet) this means that the FN stands as the primary developed political force in France.

Votes blancs: Meanwhile, blank or null votes in the second round reached a record level of 12%. There are ‘vote blanc’ movements, which pose the casting of a blank vote as a political statement (‘I want to participate but the options you propose don’t suit me’). In a way, the blank vote is perhaps the most adequate expression of the anti-system feeling and the inchoate desire to be represented. The blank vote sees through the fake slogans and says these are not what it is looking for, but it doesn’t withdraw or not bother. Someone made the effort to go to the booths; they wanted to vote, but refused to affirm any of the options available. Ultimately, the the blank vote points towards the future – to the development of political forms that are adequate to public frustrations and desires.

Microaggressions – fostering the alienated self

enhanced-buzz-1002-1386285201-29-2The current trend of identifying ‘micro-aggressions’ is not about social categories of exploitation or dominance. Nor is it just about personal touchiness or sensitivity. Instead, it is a prism through which social life and the world is experienced, as something set against and hostile towards the self.

This was shown in a perceptive satire of microaggressions by University of Michigan student, Omar Mahmood, in character as ‘womyn of color’. The satire captures how the experience of aggression structures every aspect of a person’s relations and environment. Even the falling snow: ‘The blistering cold did not turn my eyes from all the white privilege falling around me.’ The ‘womyn’ slipped over on to some steps and was approached by ‘a white cis-gendered hetero upper-class man’; she detected the ‘patronising sneer’ behind his words, ‘Cold, isn’t it?’; and when the man offered her his hand she observed ‘a manifestation of the patriarchy patronizing me’. In the end, the womyn realised that it was not about her colour but her left handedness (an awareness triggered by the cis-man’s comment, ‘I was just trying to do the right thing!’):

The right thing… The right thing… I became so aware at that moment of the left hand that I had thrust out before falling, and suddenly my humanity was reduced to my handydnyss. The words rang in my eardrums, and my blood throbbed.

The satire captures the arbitrary nature of the categories being employed. Categories such as ‘WOC/cis-male-hetero’ are detached from social structure: they do not represent groups or their relations, any more than does left-handedness or snow. Some of these categories are taken from past relations of inequality, but they exist as utterly transformed (which is why they use different terms and are described in an often unrecognisable jargon).

Instead, micro-aggressions represent the polarisation of everyday relations. The offer of a hand, or a consoling comment, is experienced as an act of hostility. In micro-aggressions, to be black, or female, or gay lacks much positive significance; there is little celebration of black or gay pride, or feminist sisterhood. The role of the category (of women, colour, handydnyss) is to give form to the feeling that social relations undo us, are aggressive. That others are set counter to us.

A glance, a question, the direction of someone’s gaze is experienced as a devaluation or an aggression for the individual. One Latino student complains about the way another student ‘noticed my Frida Khalo lighter and was more concerned about her appearance than the actual painting on it’, which was representative of ‘white supremacy at work’ and the exclipse of Mexican art by Eurocentric art. Another student complains that cashiers are not sufficiently cheery with them, perceiving a greater cheeriness with white people before and after them in the queue.

Often, the reality of the situation shines through: you can see the ‘aggressive’ person is just being curious, or making conversation, or making a guess, or a mistake. They ask why you don’t speak Spanish or whether you can read a Japanese character. They call you Jaime Garcia rather than Jaime Rodriguez. A person is offering you their hand and the gesture is transformed into an aggressive act, only because everyday sociality is experienced as a form of hostility.

It is sometimes the case that genuine acts of racism and sexism get called microaggressions, but these are in the minority. The essence of the category (which is why it has a new name) is the individual experience of dissonance with the world. This is why many of the complaints are highly subjective: you can sense a person’s upset and anger, but you cannot understand what the problem was. Why is it a problem that someone said ‘you do not look like the type of person that is interested in watching sports’? Why is this an invalidation?

Groups of all kinds are experienced as toxic, hostile, uncomfortable and painful, even those of one’s own identity category. One gay black woman complained that:

The queer community on this campus can be so incredibly toxic & policing, especially for womxn of color. Identifying as queer is such a hard experience on this campus because of all the heavy internalizations of queerphobia, but not feeling able to sit fully and comfortably with my qwoc self in queer/qpoc spaces is the most painful.

It is notable that the category of micro-aggression is authored by the victim. In effect, they are authoring the narrative of their own non-subjectivity, and the cis-hetero-male aggressor is constructed as a part in this narrative. The cis-man is holding his hands up, saying hey, I was only trying to help, I didn’t mean anything by it.

This means that the category of microaggression doesn’t only express the individual experience of dissonance with the world; it also actively fosters it. Experiencing the world in this way means that someone becomes attached to their alienated condition. A person starts to cultivate dissonance, to almost to revel in their non-identity with the world. The self becomes attached to the experience of alienation; it creates itself as alienated.

This new basis of identity is the reverse of the classical individual, who was based on the extent to which a person distinguished themselves. The personalities of ancient heroes were defined in the extent to which they left established boundaries, and went out seeking voyages, quests, ordeals. By contrast, the micro-aggressed self is defined in terms of what has been inflicted upon it. Therefore, they stake themselves upon their unfreedom, upon their object-character to the wills of others.

Yet of course, this is not an individual at all, but the eclipse of individuality. The same act that estranges the individual from the social, also estranges a person from themselves, from their individual abilities and qualities. Someone becomes not Carol or Jane, a specific individual with a specific inner life, but a ‘qwoc self’, with the self as a composite of queer-woman-of-colour-etc etc. As the satire put it: ‘Suddenly my humanity was reduced to my handydnyss’. Such a person is, at base, uncomfortable – with others, with themselves.

Therefore, the new phenomenon of micro-aggressions reflects neither exclusion nor oppression; nor is it merely the over-sensitivity of people who must be told to buck up. Instead, it reflects a new social structure; a new alienation in social relations, which is reaching into the most everyday encounters and people’s experience of their own personalities.

The solution can only be in combating these structures, and posing against them the truth and innocence of the everyday encounter, the person who is just offering you a hand up or asking about you because they are curious. We must also affirm the individual who is comfortable with themselves, who is not a category but a person, and who is not glowering and counting offences but throwing themselves into the curiousities and delights of our varied social world.

In defence of borders

blake-god-creating-the-universeEveryone is breaking down borders now. They are crossing lines, breaking down distinctions between academic disciplines or categories. Everything is trans this, inter- or multi- that. They are opening up things that had been closed, celebrating the virtues of visibility or transparency: buildings must have glass walls and open doors, offices must be open-plan. The virtues of the day are mixing, fusing, crossing.

Any kind of line draws objections: anything that says, ‘this is A, that is B, they are different’. There is no difference between men and women, art is not distinct from life, or life from art. Any category or line is an invitation for it to be challenged, questioned, overcome.

Many of the distinctions that were fundamental to the modern nation state are being broken down. In the eleventh century, church canon lawyers developed the distinctions between church law, state law, and personal morality. They drew lines. They said: this is a matter for the individual and their conscience; this is a religious offence and a matter for the church; this is a crime and a matter for the state (1). Thus the domains were established; the different arenas with their different actors were marked out. (This contrasts with primitive or tribal law, where everything is mixed up and crimes are listed alongside moral or religious offences or violations of etiquette.)

Now the state is deliberately crossing the line between law and morality, violating domains. Officials make laws about matters of etiquette: in several councils, it is now a crime to shout or swear or to be rude. The state is breaking down the distinction between law and life, between crime and rudeness, such that there is a general difusion of coercive instruments into the interstices of everyday life. When two categories blur in this way, both are lost.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed that social phenomena of many kinds are escaping their bounds, diffusing from their own domain into every other sphere. ‘Every individual category is subject to contamination, substitution is possible between any sphere and any other: there is a total confusion of types. Sex is no longer located in sex itself, but elsewhere – everywhere else, in fact’ (2). The same goes for sport, for art, for politics: everything else is aestheticised, politicised, sexualised, or sportified (turned into a sort of performance or contest). The spread of politics or art into every sphere was pursued as a progressive and heady act. People had jobs taking art practice into science or science into art. They had jobs putting cyber cafes in libraries or museums in cafes.

Yet how could we be so against the border per se? The first law, said Aristotle, is the law of non-contradiction: A is not-B. A man cannot be a man and not a man at the same time. Thought starts with the question of distinction, of drawing lines: of saying this is A, that is B, they are different. The Chinese categories of Yin and Yang separated the phenomena of the world into two polarised categories: male and female, hot and cold, wet and dry, active and passive, and so on, with elements of human character mixed up with physical forms in this drawing of an essential line. The Pythagoreans of ancient Greece traced all things to 10 oppositions, including finite and infinite, odd and even, good and evil, square and parallelogram.

An excellent book by the French philosopher Régis Debray, In Praise of Borders (3), stands against today’s blurring of categories. As he points out, the frontier was the basis of a community: Romulus’ act in the founding of Rome was to draw a line on the ground with a plough. A city is marked by its walls; a home by its threshold. Debray notes how the shapes of communities and the domains of social life have been marked out physically on the ground, with gates, walls, bridges, doors. A space such as a tomb is separated from the everyday; it is isolated and concentrated, made sacred and not profane.

It is the line that makes something itself and not something else: something has an essence, and an autonomy from other things. Many creation myths conceive of the moment of creation as one of separation: of separating day from night, the earth from the sky. In Greek myth, Kronos forced his father sky away from embrace with his mother earth: the sky fled upwards into the heavens. In Genesis, God divides the light from the darkness, the heavens from the waters, the waters from the land.

This can be seen even at the level of the molecular cell, says Debray. The cell exists because it has a membrane, which makes the distinction between inside and outside. Indeed, the progress of evolution draws a line more and more between inside and outside: to have a skin, to maintain one’s own body temperature, to bear one’s young inside one’s body, to feed them one’s own milk. The characteristic of a more developed organism is that they are more distinct from their environment: they are more autonomous, more self-regulating; they maintain themselves apart to a greater degree. The higher the level at which they exist, the sharper becomes the line between an organism and its environment.

Debray also makes the point that a distinction or a frontier is also a relation – it is not an absolute separation but a means of passage. The cell membrane, just as the city wall or river, are lines that provide a means of transport from one side to another. Indeed, it is because of the separation that there can be a relation: it is because of the division between states, or households, or cities, that these cities can have a hostile or friendly relation.

Having said all this: it is also the case that many of the best thinkers in the past sought to show the provisional nature of categories. This is the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, with his statements that ‘hot and cold are the same’ and ‘wet and dry are the same’. But this meant not that these things are actually the same, but that they exist in a relation of opposition (hot is only hot in relation to cold); and also that they exist in a state of transition (things that are hot are becoming cold).

Hegel, who loved Heraclitus, sees every social form as existing as part of a totality: so morality, or law, or art, exist as elements of a social body, as interrelated, just as the leaves of a tree are related to the trunk and cannot be detached from it. Hegel also sees every form as existing as a moment in a process of transition, as a stage in a series. And yet he has not abolished categories or distinctions: the categories of the individual and state, morality and law remain cut out in sharp distinction from one another. He is showing the relations and transformations of distinct things.

Today, categories are being overcome not by universalism or revolutionary change: instead, lines are being crossed for the sake of it. Just as Isis is driving its bulldozers over the Syrian/Iraqi border, people are breaking down disciplinary boundary stones or crossing social spheres as an end in itself. They make a project out of the crossing of lines,  declaring lines null and void. We are left with formlessness and confusion. At base, this is making the process of intellectual and social corrosion into a virtue and a project.

(1) Law and Revolution, Harold J Berman, Volume 1, Harvard University Press, 1990

(2) The Transparency of Evil, Jean Baudrillard, 1990, p8

(3) Éloge des frontières, Régis Debray, Gallimard, 2010

Kicking babies off trains: the heartlessness of proceduralism

 A much-shared video shows a woman carrying a baby being denied a seat by first-class train passengers. An elderly lady had her bag on a seat; the mother asked her to move; an argument ensued and the other passengers joined in.

What was striking about the exchange was the absence of any humane or civic lines of reasoning – as in, here is an empty seat, here is a woman with a baby who needs to sit in it.

Instead, the dispute pitted various formal rules and procedures against one another. Some passengers insisted on the santity of first-class: the woman didn’t have a first-class ticket, therefore no rights to the seat. Other passengers said that they heard the train’s first class had been ‘declassified’, which means the woman now did have a right to sit in the seat. Finally, the mother herself noted that it was a ‘priority seat’, reserved for groups such as mothers with young children.

The question of right or wrong – and of our obligations towards one another – appears as a competing series of procedural rules. People on a train are as bubbles, surrounded by a forcefield, and their relations are only made possible by the pecking orders handed down from above. These procedures are not something we have made, apparently – there is no intuitive sense of everyday ethics – but something handed down, written on the train walls or announced over the microphones.

To be ‘civic’ today is often to care disproportionately about the correct enforcement of the rules. It is not the case that everyone is just sitting there and ignoring each other: they are policing, watching, comparing each other’s behaviour with that specified. Even if it doesn’t affect you then there is an impulse to survey and insist that procedures are correctly followed.

This can mean that the majority of a train carriage (on a train to Brighton!) can shout at a woman with a baby to leave what had been an empty seat. The public sphere can be a hostile place; you do not know how people will behave. Mothers with young children was one of those groups intuitively helped out, assisted, but now any ‘special treatment’ is only condoned if specified. You do not have to give up your seat unless you are in a specially marked ‘priority seat’: only in these seats do babies have a (quasi-legal) ‘priority’ over others.

The video ends when a man offers to give up his seat for the mother. Such acts of assistance are no longer the enacting of general civic assumptions and normal forms of comportment. Instead it is strangely touching, personal; an act of personal kindness, one-to-one. It is a moment that breaks through the proceduralism that has become our hollow civic virtue.

The ‘trigger warning’ school of literary criticism

Why are ‘trigger warnings’ now stamped on everything from the Great Gatsby to Ovid?

The notion of being ‘triggered’ by a book or film is an extension of ideas of ‘offence’ or feeling ‘uncomfortable’. In all these cases, the individual’s encounter with a cultural product is experienced as somehow harming or impinging upon that person. The work or idea is experienced as hostile, corrosive of the self and their identity.

These new terms replace the idea of disagreement or critique, which formed the basis of people’s relationship to books or works of art in the classical public sphere. Each work was held at arm’s length, scrutinised and weighed, probed in all its elements. A disagreement was stated precisely: this work is incorrect or flawed for x or y reasons.

Now, a person’s disagreement with an argument or a book is experienced as an unravelling of the viewer. The dissonance between individual and work is experienced as an affliction: rather than probe the work, the individual is undone by it.

Over time, the nature of the harm supposedly inflicted by an artwork has become increasingly subjective, wordless, and automatic.

The idea of ‘offence’ came first. Offence still contains something of the idea of disagreement – the notion that a person’s specific opinion or belief has been contradicted – even if only in an emotive form. Then came ‘uncomfortable’, with students saying that a particular book or particular ideas made them feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is a more degraded form than offence, because it is inexpressive and purely subjective. When people say they feel uncomfortable they are expressing only the subjective feeling of being infringed or unsettled.

‘Triggering’ is the end point of this process. Here, the unravelling of the individual in an encounter is much more extreme. Being triggered is a form of total breakdown, like a panic attack or another point when the self is entirely undone. The ‘trigger’ is like a sudden attack, and the breakdown of the self is instant and automatic, like the firing of a gun or flicking a switch. ‘I suddenly and quite dramatically feel all-encompassing panic spread through my entire body’, said one woman, describing her experience of ‘being triggered’ (the passive verb form indicates the passive role that the individual is playing in relation to the object).

Trigger warnings began in relation to sexual assault victims on discussion sites, and have spread to every possible phobia (spiders, small holes), negative experience (violence, mental illness, self-harm), and then further to the content of opinions with which a person disagrees (sexism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia). In this process, trigger warnings moved from a specific context to the wider public sphere, to structure the way in which people engage with cultural products.

Sexual assaults and phobias have started to take on a general and metaphoric resonance, as being in some way emblematic of people’s encounters in the public sphere. Sexual assault becomes a metaphor for our encounter with books or films with which we disagree: we are being undone, violated in the most intimate manner.

The trigger warning moves beyond the subjective perspective of the person being triggered, and starts to become an actual system for organising cultural products and people’s relationship to them. Websites such as ‘thiscouldbetriggering’ or ‘whatsthetriggerwarning’ have begun the encyclopaedic project of organising the works of humanity according to their specific trauma-causing qualities.

Works are given tags, labels: the Great Gatsby gets ‘violence against women’ and ‘sexism’. A Streetcar Named Desire gets: domestic violence, suicide, homophobia, rape, statutory rape, and mental illness. The tendency over time is for these categories to escalate, and people are encouraged to write in suggesting new tags or new areas of cultural life to consider in this manner: Can you add a transphobia tag? Can you add ableism? Can you also do songs? The answer is always yes.

Therefore, with the trigger warning we see how the subjective feeling of offence, or discomfort, has been raised into a system in public life: it becomes a school of criticism, a way of systematically reading a work and categorising it. While the triggered person is undone, wordless, the author of the trigger warning is clinical and systematic. One US student had the perseverance to read the works of Ovid and count the number of sexual assaults: she clearly maintained her wherewithal throughout. People work their way through whole television series, or literary tomes, systematically allotting works their respective labels.

These trigger warning critics have the same indifferent clinical approach as a state board of film classification. Everybody recognises that the board of film classification tells you nothing about a film: the statement that a film ‘contains moderate nudity and extreme language’ is a category slapped by officials on the world of culture.

Trigger warnings, by contrast, are produced by the public itself, and become part of the way in which people engage with and categorise artworks. As a result, trigger warnings start to transform the meaning of a work; they are not seen as an external imposition, slapped on, but rather start to become a system that structures interpretation and evaluation.

A novel or film is tainted by its trigger warning in a way it was not by the Board of Film Classification. One novelist described how his reading of Lolita had been forever tainted by his literary professor’s statement that it ‘represented the systematic rape of a young girl’. A work he had looked to for inspiration was reduced to this single negative dimension. A work that ‘contains’ sexism or racism, as opposed to nudity or strong language, becomes subsumed by that negative judgement. In the novelists’ phrase, the trigger warning is a ‘pre-emptive defacement’. A novel or artwork becomes its label; it cannot be looked at in the same way again.

This ‘trigger warning’ school of literary criticism has the peculiar detachment of state censors, whose only concern in a love scene is the precise parts of the anatomy revealed. A book about slavery is found to ‘contain racism’, even if it ultimately is a condemnation of such oppression. The dimensions of the work are flattened out, so that an essentially humanist text can be turned into its opposite.

The trigger warning is a tag which dissuades people from encountering the art object. The warning is there so that you can leave the room, put down the book, turn off the television. Therefore, the individual need never undergo the experience of dissonance with an artwork; they need never encounter the things they find disturbing or the views with which they disagree. The trigger warning, as a system, becomes a guide through the world of culture, such that dissonance can be avoided.

The individual is defined by their tags, the specific elements in the world which undo them. Their exchange with the cultural world can be negotiated, such that clashing tags need never meet. People who are triggered often have friends who watch films for them, test them out, before they are declared safe to be viewed. They move through the world like a paranoid king who fears that every food item or gift contains poison and must be tested first.

The university professor Todd Gitlin criticised his students’ dislike of anything ‘uncomfortable’ and defended the importance of discomfort in teaching. It is the experience of dissonance which takes us out of ourselves, shocks us with another view, and so forms us; it is in the encounter with our contrary that we are developed. This is why negative experiences can often teach us more than positive ones. One psychiatrist argued that trigger warnings even go against treatment of genuine trauma and phobia: it is in repeatedly encountering the object of their fears that the person is reinforced, made self-sufficient, and eventually can face the world again.

The works of art and literature should be cleaned of these defacing warning signs – we must defend the free encounter between individual and artwork, and the developmental value of dissonance.

‘Gay cake’ wars and the eclipse of conscience

An Oregon baker has been ordered to pay $135,000 damages to a lesbian couple after refusing to bake a cake for their wedding. A Colorado bakery was ordered to fulfill gay wedding orders and to send its staff for sensitivity training. The ‘gay cake’ wars show the lamentable position into which the idea of conscience has fallen.

These cases are not about an actual conflict of interest: the couples could have found another baker who was happy to fulfill the order and attend the wedding with good heart. Instead, a battle of conscience is being sought where it could have been avoided, brushed over. One person is taking the case in order to force another to affirm their values or way of life.

Indeed, it appears that in some cases gay activists are searching out traditionalist bakers in order to ask them to bake wedding cakes. They had specifically chosen the bakery that they knew would not want to make the cake. In a similar spirit, Christians are seeking out liberal bakers to ask them to make cakes bearing slogans such as ‘God hates fags’, and going to court when they refuse. The cake becomes a means to make someone else voice your views; the case plays the role of the victory of one conscience over another.

These battles show how sorely we are missing the idea of conscience – one’s grounding in a private life or belief, and one’s respect for other people who are similarly grounded. When the idea of conscience emerged in the 17th century it was as an almost sacred faculty implanted by God. The one and only rule of ethics was: do not go against your conscience and do not violate the conscience of another. The primary value was sincerity, and your rights to free expression were derived from your duty to be sincere, to only say things you sincerely believed (1).

In the view of philosopher Pierre Bayle, it was not a sin to err, only to go against one’s conscience;  the ‘erring conscience’ had rights to respect and toleration as much as any other. The notion of conscience at heart implied a reciprocity, that ‘each could recognise in the other the sincerity of their convictions, even if the truth that he sustained differed from ours’ (2).

In these terms, belief was a largely private matter, something like one’s internal reckoning or inner relationship with God. When the formation of belief moved into the public sphere in the 18th century – with coffee shops, publications, salons – and people came together in discussion, these were independent consciences that were brought into dispute. The public culture brought together independent men and women, independent consciences, into reciprocal relation. The relation of argument or persuasion is one that respects this inner core: a person can be won only through reason, and of their own volition.

Now, this reciprocal relation has collapsed. There is at once a lack of respect for the conscience of the other, and a concomitant lack of grounding in oneself. This is why the refusal of a cake order is experienced as a violation or delegitimation of oneself. A man who had a pro-gay marriage cake refused in Northern Ireland said that this made him feel ‘unworthy, a lesser person’. The two Oregon women claimed 88 and 90 different forms of damage respectively, covering every aspect of their psychological and physical being, including: ‘acute loss of confidence’, ‘doubt,” ‘excessive sleep’, ‘felt mentally raped, dirty and shameful’, ‘high blood pressure’, ‘impaired digestion’, ‘loss of appetite’, ‘migraine headaches’, ‘pale and sick at home after work’, ‘resumption of smoking habit’, ‘shock’, ‘stunned’, ‘surprise’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘weight gain’ and ‘worry’.

If one is grounded in one’s own private values, then the encounter with alternative values does not lead to unraveling in this manner. There is no reason why the polite refusal of a cake order need make someone feel unworthy or shameful, or strike at the core of their being.

When a conscience lacks its own grounding, it is touchy and offended at every turn; it is also through overcoming opposing views that it seeks to ground itself. In forcing someone else to affirm your views or way of life – even, or especially, against their own beliefs – then your own values are apparently affirmed. By winning court cases against Christians, gay activists seek to establish the value of their way of life. The relation of mutual respect between independent consciences is transformed into a fight to the death, where one seemingly exists only through the violation of the other.

Yet in truth, the violation of the other turns – with all the justice of the dialectic – into the violation of the self. Ultimately, ‘gay cake’ cases strip these gay relations and weddings of their intrinsic meaning and value. By becoming the subject of a court case, these relations become a parody of themselves, just as a religion is emptied out when it is forced down the throats of heretics.

(By the same accounts, there is also a parody version of Christian marriage, defined against gay marriage: Christian marriage is not grounded in itself, but becomes not-gay-marriage, and defines itself by the question of the ‘compatibility of organs’ and the act of physical consummation. This may be the thing that separates it from gay marriage but it is an entirely brutalist account of the marital union which harks back to the primitive marriage ceremony, with the demonstration of blood on the sheets to the awaiting relatives. As Hegel wrote already in 1821 (3), modern marriage is primarily a ‘spiritual union’, and the physical or ‘natural character’ is downgraded.)

The demand that gay relations or families be universally celebrated is just as distorting of these relations as any criticism. The value of a family – gay or straight, single parent or step-parent, religious or secular or hippy – is that it is a private life-world, founded in the bonds among the members and their friends and extended family. The couple or family does not have to justify itself to society at large, nor does it require universal affirmation for its existence.

The principles of tolerance and formal respect in public life allow different people to pursue very different paths, yet to mutually respect one another. The urbanist Jane Jacobs argues that discretion is essential for public civility. She describes how people would leave their keys with a particular Deli owner for friends borrowing their flat: the deli owner owner combined a ‘feeling of good will with a feeling of no personal responsibility about our private affairs’. He did not judge who they had chosen to lend their flat to, and they did not ask for his approval. Mutual respect requires a certain formal distance, an understanding that people have their own lives to lead that are nobody else’s business.

Public coexistence requires a certain discretion and not forcing the issue. If a Jew cannot work a Friday night, or a Muslim cannot eat sausages, then they require neither condemnation nor enthusiastic affirmation, but merely an accommodation of their private position. It requires a certain tact and avoiding of conflict: this is how very different belief systems can coexist harmoniously.

Such formal respect is as vital to the freedom and equality of gays as it is to other groups. We should halt these absurd battles over the icing of confectionery – live our own lives, and allow others to live theirs.

(1) La Tolerance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Flammarion, Paris, 1999

(2) La Tolerance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Flammarion, Paris, 1999

(3) The Philosophy of Right, OUP, 2008

(4) The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, p78

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