Notes on Freedom

Tag: free expression

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.

Charlie Hebdo: The crisis of the public sphere

Charlie Hebdo embodied the spirit of the early public sphere: the negative-critical consciousness, which questions every authority and holds nothing sacred. This is the scurrilous, anarchistic principle that defined the early French Revolution, with its sudden explosion of critical pampleteering and obscene caricatures.

The universality of Charlie Hebdo‘s targets is shown by the fact that anti-Islamic Michel Houellebecq was mocked on the front cover the day the editorial team were shot for insulting Islam. This is satire pursued with a kind of Socratic diligence, revealing the pretensions or limitations of every position.

Such anarchistic universal irreverence was characteristic of the early public sphere, but has now largely been eclipsed. Therefore, Reason magazine is correct when is says that Charlie Hebdo wasn’t representative of a general culture of liberty, but rather its solitary bearers.

The attackers, by contrast, who were Parisian born and bred, did not represent some strange and foreign principle, even as they employed barbarous and extraordinary methods. Instead, they were enacting a principle that has become a mainstream, even constituting part of public life in Western societies.

This principle is the way in which the use of coercion has become an ordinary way of relating in public life. Virtually every interest group now invests the primary part of its energies in seeking to ban or restrict its political opponents. Gay rights organisations become organisations for the prohibition of homophobic opinions, just as Islamic organisations invest their energies in prosecuting anti-Islamic points of view (including Charlie Hebdo).

Indeed, French republicanism itself has increasingly been defined through the suppression of ‘anti-republican’ points of view or symbols. The debate about republican identity takes the form of definition by exclusion. This is why over the past decade there has been a growing restriction on the Islamic veil. Jacques Chirac said there is ‘something aggressive’ about the veil, and politicians heralded the niqab ban as ‘constitutive of our collective history’, a ‘founding principle of our republic’ . Left liberals now call for a ban on the headscarf in private crèches, which they say ‘puts collective life in peril’.

On the other side, French republicanism is also defined by the exclusion of the National Front (who were in effect barred from the Charlie Hebdo march on Sunday), as well as critics of Islam. In 2012, then foreign minister criticised Charlie Hebdo for ‘provocation’ of Muslims, and recently foreign minister Manuel Valls criticised Michel Houellebecq’s new novel Soumission about the Islamic takeover of France. Yet Manuel Valls was himself sued for ‘provocation of discrimination and hatred’ for comments he made about Islam in 2013.

This dynamic of offence-coercion is a universal and reciprocal way of relating: everybody is trying to prosecute or ban everybody else. In this sense it is distinct from previous forms of censorship – such as obscenity, blasphemy, or sedition – which were about enforcing dominant mores against a minority.

There is a way in which any particular political position cannot bear the existence of its opposite, and experiences any criticism as an unbearable ‘provocation’ and offence. But at the same time, its own position is only defined through the act of coercion exerted over its opposite. One’s own identity, one’s own position in public life, is increasingly defined only through the attempt to suppress opposing points of view. Only through the suppression of an opposing view is one’s own view given shape.

This routine use of coercion – to the extent that it becomes one of the primary ways of relating and of arguing – short-circuits the public sphere. The public sphere which formed in 18th century England and France consciously disregarded relations of status or economic dependence, which stood one person over another. The new public composed of private persons, as Jurgen Habermas says, met as equals, the ‘parity on whose basis alone the authority of the better argument could assert itself against that of social hierarchy…’.

Now, when people meet in debate they are always trying to stand one over the other. Censorship occurs through non-violent means of court cases, online petitions or twitter storms, but there is a violence to the use of coercion which ultimately seeks to eclipse a person or a publication from public life. The plaintiff seeks not to counter an argument in the independent realm of public debate, but to annihilate the argument with which they do not agree, to deny it the right to exist in the public world: to withdraw or destroy a publication or to imprison a speaker.

There is a way in which the terrorists enacted this principle of coercion through violence by their own hands. With Islamic extremism, the dynamic of offence-coercion is mediated through a consciousness of otherness: people who feel themselves to be outside of and hostile to mainstream society. The offence-coercion dynamic is experienced not as a relation between individuals or groups within a society, but between Muslims as outsiders, and that society. So they feel themselves to be their own authority, to do with their own hands and guns what others may seek to do by judicial means. They sought the eclipse of their adversary in fact, firing the shots that left dead bodies: ‘we have killed Charlie Hebdo’.

In the attacks, we see how these men – weed-smoking petty criminals and irregular mosque attenders – constituted their faith primarily through the act of violence against critics. In these terms, their Muslim identity is primarily founded on the eclipse of the ‘insulters of Islam’; it is through the act of violence that they constitute their faith.

Therefore, the truth of events is in some ways the opposite of the way it appears. There is an appearance of the unity of society against the terrorists, everyone is Charlie, whereas in certain ways it was Charlie Hebdo who were the marginal figures, representative of an outdated public spirit, and it was the terrorists who represented the mainstream principle of coercion, albeit in extraordinary and barbarous manner.

On the French radio station France Info on Sunday an artist said that it amused him to see so many ‘hommes politiques’ who have ‘nothing to do with liberty’ lining up in the Charlie Hebdo march. Others noted the presence of Islamic groups who had sought to take the magazine to court, as well as the statesmen of countries without a free press.

And yet in the spontaneous demonstrations of support for the magazine there was something of the nascent sensibility of the public sphere: a sense of ease, conviviality, face-to-face dealing with fellow citizens. In France these demonstrations sprung up in small towns and regional cities as well as Paris. The revival of public spirit should be the correct response to events. That is, not to further restrict the internet, or to limit French citizens’ right to travel overseas – as some are suggesting – but to eclipse coercion from the sphere of public debate.

Another interviewee on France Info said that the demonstrations wouldn’t change everything in themselves, but they would provide a benchmark, something by which people could be held to account next time they called for a publication to be banned or a group to be taken to court. ‘You can hold them to account for the things that they have said today.’ In this respect, we should start with the 54 people being charged for the offence of ‘apology for terrorism’, including the comedian Dieudonné who briefly posted a satirical message on Facebook mocking the Charlie marches.

Are we really all Charlie? If so, this would mean nothing less than the reconstitution of the public sphere in Western societies.

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