Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory, by Josie Appleton

Tag: public sphere

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

Gay/bi/top/bottom…fake identities and the structuring of public life

One of the first questions gay men ask each other is: ‘Are you a top or a bottom?’ A person’s preference of sexual position becomes what one is: a top, or a bottom. The question of subjective preference in the context of a relationship becomes hardened into different categories of people – as if, one gay man said, ‘two entirely different species of gay male humans’.

A similar process is at work in many other areas of life. Indeed, it is such stereotyped categories of identity which to a large extent provide the structure for social life now. These categories both form personal identity, group individuals together, and structure their relations to one another and to other groups.

We can see this in the process of electoral campaigning: there is a pink battle bus for women, an Operation Black Vote, Operation Disabled Vote, Operation Muslim vote, and so on. This is the way in which an electorate is categorised and structured: not Labour v Tory, Middle England v Welsh pit towns; not constituencies of interest but categories of individuals.

With the end of the political party and association, some social theorists imagined that social life would be without structure. Zygmunt Bauman talked about the endless ‘fluidity’ of life, individuals moving into temporary and structureless connections with others: his ‘liquid modernity’ is formless and insubstantial. Jean Baudrillard imagined the post-political society as like a ‘mass’, a silent, expressionless and immobile lump which absorbed all meaning.

Yet what has happened is not this, but the emergence of a new social structure based on the category. Society is becoming an interlocking series of boxes, which break down into endless subdivisions. A person is male/female; gay/straight/bi/BDSM; top/bottom; versatile top/total top…and so on.

These categories have a rigid, caste-like quality. Even if you choose to be gay or straight, Muslim or non-Muslim, there is a way in which the category takes on a life of its own and seems to structure you. A study of the relations of top and bottom quoted men saying: ‘I sort of fell into this image of myself as being a very aggressive bottom’; ‘There’s a mindset about being a top’; ‘I hate to say it, but I’m a bottom … I don’t like to be identified like that because I feel it turns me into something all the way from my feet up to my head.’

Having chosen a box, they found that the box then ‘turns me into something’; it took away some of their individuality and made them a stereotype of a person, as well as determining their relations to others along stereotyped lines. The identity category, like the old social structures of caste, or feudal estate, is experienced as something foreign and external to the individual, as determining them.

This is quite different to the relationship of the individual to a  political party or association of which they are a member. As a party member, subjective interests are channelled into social forms, and in turn structured by them. An individual is part of the living body that is the association: one makes and is made by it. In the life of a voluntary association, the individual and the social group are in constant relation, forged by one another.

The category is more like a box: a box as an external form within which the individuals sit as separate items. It is a social form based not on dynamic interrelation between individuals, but on some common quality possessed by them: a genus. These categories have the appearance of something very private and personal to the individual – their sexuality or preference – but in fact they are ossified and hardened, and take over the inner life.

As part of a category, one’s actual personal and subjective life is eclipsed. You start to become your category, and to relate to others not as yourself but through it.

It is striking how the different identity groups are so hostile towards one another. The gay/lesbian/bi/trans community is taken up with fractious bickering between the different sections; a jostling for priority, and arguments about who is ‘included’ or ‘excluded’ in any particular initiative.

This can even reach the level of ‘trans’ people demanding that lesbians ‘accept them as sexual partners’; and lesbian feminists in turn defending the ‘safe space’ of their toilets against these trans invaders. The question of who has sex with whom, and which toilets people use, takes the strange form of a negotiation between tribes, as if sex again is a matter of endogamy or exogamy. There even appears to be a certain hostility between ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’.

This hostility has a different quality to past relations of social antagonism between, say, different professions, classes, or religious sects. In these cases, the antagonism was the consequence of the internal life of the association – it reflected the extent to which the interests of the association came into conflict with those of others.

By contrast, today’s identity categories lack this genuine internal life and real social existence: they are not an association but an aggregation of individuals. In a way, therefore, a category only comes to life in conflict with opposing categories. What one is is therefore defined primarily in the moment of conflict, set against what one is not.

A person is increasingly only really ‘trans’ or ‘Muslim’ when they are complaining about Islamophobia or the ‘lack of trans representation’. Only in the moment of opposition is a category-identity constituted – albeit in a shallow and stereotyped fashion – which is why these conflicts seem to be sought out as an opportunity for self-constitution.

This explains why individuals who have almost nothing to complain about spend all their time complaining. People have an opportunity to be who they want, love who they want, follow the religion they want – yet they seem to be prisoners to their labels, and locked in relations of mutual hostility with different labels.

The proper war now is not between the fake categories of identity, but of people against the categories. ‘We have to stop letting these titles wear us’ writes one gay man; another calls the divisions ‘stupid’: ‘whatever happened to love, chemistry and falling for a person?’

This is a claim both to be yourself, and to form meaningful relationships and associations with others. The war of people against the stereotyped and boxed forms of social identity would be the salvation of both the individual and the collective association – not to mention romance.

The censorious student and the corrosion of character

The growth of censorship in universities (highlighted this week by spiked) indicates that something fundamental has changed in human character in the past decade or two.

For the new generation of young adults, opinions are not things they hold privately as a matter of conscience, nor are they developed through argument and debate. Instead, opinions appear to be integrally bound up with their identity and sense of self. They experience the encounter of opposing views almost as a threat to their existence, as an unravelling of the self: as ‘unsafe’, ‘dangerous’, or causing ‘severe distress’.

This week a comedy act was cancelled after the threat of a picket from some women who disagreed with her views on ‘sex work, religion and trans issues’. The comedian wasn’t going to talk about prostitution, yet it seems that the female students objected to the presence on campus of a person with a different view to their own. For a campus to be ‘their’ campus, for that person to feel as if they belong in an institution, they attempt to keep off those who present a counter-point to these views.

The invitation of external speakers becomes a process fraught with risk: the National Union of Students has produced a guide on ‘managing the risks associated with external speakers’, with a lengthy and legalistic filtering process before a bearer of opinion can express themselves in the public space of the campus. The ‘safe spaces’ in universities are muted, restrained, free of conflict and the encounter with opposition: student unions ban items exuding a charge of controversy, including ‘racist’ sombreros or the ‘sexist’ Sun newspaper, as well as critical ‘hand gestures’ or sarcastic applause.

This means nothing less than the unravelling of the modern individual: the individual who forms opinions in the process of debate. In the late 1600s and 1700s people began to view the conflict of opinion as productive, and argued that it was in the contest between ‘for and against’ that truth could be discovered and one’s own view developed. In 1684, Basnage de Beauval argued for religious toleration on the basis that truth resulted from the ‘confrontation of dogmas’; the ‘opposition between two parties’ serves to ‘pressure and excite’ one another to virtue (1). He saw conflict as like a ‘sting’ which keeps one awake and shakes away ignorance, and argued that disputes between learned men were ‘advantageous and useful for the public’.

By contrast, in the Medieval period the moment of conflict of opinion was seen as singularly destructive, of both the individual soul and civic life. It was thought that heretical opinions undid the social bond: the moment of conflict undid the order of things, the unified trinity of faith, law and state. Social relations could only be constituted through a single faith and worldview: to relate meant to be of the same mind. The heretic dissolves the social bond, argued St Thomas Aquinas (2). Those who tolerated difference, it was argued, were those who did not really care about truth or the inner life (the pragmatism of the Roman Empire), or those who for reasons of weakness were temporally unable to constitute a proper social order.

So now, again, the self unravels when faced with the opposition of another, and the battle against ‘heretics’ is a fight to maintain one’s own integrity.

Yet this new censorious self appears to be a fragile sort of thing, lacking deep foundations in inner conviction or conscience. The opinions students and others are defending do not seem to have much private or authentic character, which is perhaps why they are so prickly. It is the instability of identity which means that people are unsettled by alternatives.

Opinions are bonded with the self, but this is not the inner core of the self, and more a shirtsleeve or a lapel. A YouTube video shows a speaker at the University of Galway trying to make the case against a boycott of Israel, drowned out by a student dressed in the colours of a Palestinian flag shouting ‘Fucking Zionist fucking pricks […] Get the fuck off our campus now.’  The student’s position seemed to be something like the shirt he wore: thin and constituted only in the view of others, which is why he might seek out the public occasion at which to stage this aggressive performance.

Therefore, the new generation also lack that other dimension of modern character: the inner dimension of conscience. The reflecting, private conscience, elaborated by John Locke and others in the 1600s, experiences opinion and truth as inner and personal, a conviction. This feeling of conscience developed in private spaces – private worship, private discussion, inner reflection. The public sphere of people debating and opposing one another presumed the inner world of conscience; conscience provided the space where a person’s opinions were grounded and the point to which they returned. The inner conviction is the counterpoint to the more transitive, provisional character of views developed in public debate, whereby an opinion held today can be changed tomorrow in the face of new evidence.

In today’s students, we see how these two dimensions of modern character have collapsed into something much more one-dimensional. Opinions are bound up with something like the outer shell of the self, which is neither developed through public engagement, nor is it privately developed or held.

The new dialectic is not between the public and private sides of the self: it is between the virulent hostility of someone screaming ‘get the fuck off our campus now’, and the ‘safe space’ of inexpression where individuals exist side by side in their separate shells.

That is, instead of private reflection and public debate, there is rage, and silence. Which should make us fear for the public sphere of the future.

(1) La Tolérance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, p71

(2) La Tolérance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, p21

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