an addendum on social justice and free expression

I’ve gotten a lot of good responses to my post on free speech and the social justice left. I appreciate both the praise and the criticism. I would like to take a moment and respond to one line of criticism, which is part of a particular frustration of mine: when I am told that attitudes and opinions I encounter myself don’t exist. It’s an interesting dynamic right now– some of the people I’m talking to about this are arguing that there in fact should be no right to express what they see as hate speech; some people claim that no one opposes free expression. I wish I could introduce the latter to the former. When I point out that I am actually encountering this attitude in my day-to-day life, the goal posts are moved, and the implied message is that nobody who matters thinks that way. Which is a different objection altogether.

Please believe me when I say: it is not at all unusual, for me, to encounter liberals and leftists who speak out about issues of social justice like feminism and racism and similar who do not believe that controversial speech (what they call hate speech) should be legally expressible. You are free to question how prevalent that view is. But I encounter it all the time, and not just online. Being in a PhD program in the humanities, I have regular exposure to people who feel that the right to free expression does not or should not include racist, sexist, or homophobic ideas. And their definition of racism, sexism, and homophobia tends to be expansive. Indeed, I was motivated to write in large part because I just came from a large, national conference. I met lots of cool people, like I always do, and came away inspired, as I always do. But I was also disturbed, because of the casual way in which some people asserted their belief that people who express beliefs they abhor– that I abhor, that I hope all good people abhor– should be shouted down, should be coerced into silence, should be barred from entry into public forums, should be legally or otherwise prevented from expressing those beliefs. I cannot tell you how small their relative number is. I can only tell you that they exist, in my communities, and they are not alone.

Academic left-wing culture frequently is a leading indicator of the broader social justice left. I am not at all saying that left-wing ideas only come from college campuses, but there is little doubt that academics help to popularize and spread fashionable political ideas. They were talking about intersectionality on college campuses long before there existed the social media spaces where such talk is now ubiquitous. Sometimes, this tendency of campus politics to lead to broader discussion is an unmitigated good, such as in the nascent movement for trans rights, which again was not started on campus but which has benefited from discussion and advocacy on college campuses. Sometimes, this tendency leaves me ambivalent. I am happy that talk of privilege has become widespread, because it’s essential that we understand the ways in which systematic inequalities shape our world; at the same time, as privilege talk has become unavoidable, it has lost much of its meaning and descended into a signalling mechanism of a certain strata of our postcollegiate professionals. Sometimes, this tendency is flat out bad, as I believe the spread of anti-hate speech attitudes are, if indeed those ideas are spreading.

I should not have conveyed the impression that this is all about one bad moment from one professor. My assumption was that people reading here would be aware of the evidence of these problems, but I should have been more careful. I would cite, for example, the rise of “free speech zones” on college campuses; of protesters shouting down invited speakers and preventing them from speaking, rather than of protesting those speakers while allowing them to speak, offering a rebuttal, or inviting a counter-speaker; increasingly heavy-handed trigger warning policies for college instructors and similar efforts to regulate course content; and harsh crackdowns on student activists, such as the pro-Palestinian activists at Northeastern University. You might well say that pro-Palestinian activists are the kind of people who would be working alongside those who push to regulate speech on campus, but that’s just the trouble. Are Jewish students who claim to be unfairly affronted by pro-Palestinian demonstrations that different from students who claim that Things Fall Apart triggers them? When you let the genie out of the bottle, there is little telling who and what it may harm.

Academics are my people. Leftists are my people. I have been around both my whole life. I am unapologetically a member of both tribes. I have no desire to slander or misrepresent them. I would love to tell you that the notion of a declining commitment to free speech in their quarters is a conservative fever dream. And like all people, I am constrained by my own personal experience, which is necessarily limited and biased. But I can only honestly represent to you both my personal experience and my read of the current journalism and literature on this subject, and both tell me that there is a distressing current of antagonism towards free expression within the social justice left. If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize, and there will be little harm done. But if I am going to err I’d rather err on the side of defense of free expression, which I truly believe is not an impediment to the fight against systemic inequality and injustice, but the most important tool we have for winning it.

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57 Responses to an addendum on social justice and free expression

  1. “But if I am going to err I’d rather err on the side of defense of free expression, which I truly believe is not an impediment to the fight against systemic inequality and injustice, but the most important tool we have for winning it.”

    This is simply wrong. And man, do you need to learn the medium is the message:

    http://fredrikdeboer.com/2014/03/24/is-the-social-justice-left-really-abandoning-free-speech/#comment-5258

    • j@shell says:

      No, stating that the earth is flat would be “simply wrong.” If you want to show that FDB is wrong in this quote, then you’ll have to articulate an actual argument.

      • pls click the link, I didn’t want to cross post.

        • Alex says:

          So to make your point that the Internet is the crucial factor, you took Freddie’s list of successes predating the Internet (which you even quoted: feminism, anti-racist, gay rights), and replaced them with Internet-era successes (gay marriage and drug legalization).

          • No, Obama is an Internet accomplishment, and if we had the Internet in 1945, we would have had a black President sooner, and likely wouldn’t have needed Civicl Rights acts – we’d likely not have needed Roe (basically in line with Ginsburg, I think the issue would be far less divisive if left to states). I also think Afghanistan would be full of bikini clad women by now…. which is good, right?

            Generally, again, I’m not belittling what refrigeration, radio accomplished, by pointing out the TV meant more more to women (or minorities) and the Internet means everything.

            But the human cause, the speech, the agitation, the correct argument… those are important, the speed of history (how fast we get to X) dances to the beat or tech.

            The POINT is: Freddie rightfully has a very solemn and solid argument about Speech. But being blind the massively more important thing that TECH > GOVT, it puts his greater cause – social justice at risk.

            Dance with the one who brung ya. He’s a geek, not a politician.

        • Don O'Neill says:

          So, the internet is to thank for Obama, pot liberalization, gay rights advances, and the left owes the internet a big debt?

          I’d argue that the left, especially in the USA, has suffered an major decline that has coincided with the internet. Look at the difference between life in 1954 and life in 1984. How much progress was made? Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, union membership, anti-war movements, tangible increases in living standards…the left made a lot of progress. As it did in the 30 years before that.

          But in the last 30 years, what have won? Gay rights stands out, but that movement was well underway before the internet and was delayed by a plague. Otherwise…compare the anti-war movement of the Iraq years to the Vietnam war opposition. The civil rights movement was more potent before the internet, and the women’s movement has actually *lost* ground since the internet became popular. Our two “liberal” presidents have been Clinton and Obama, and the Democrats are hell bent now on electing a pro-war, pro-Wall St. mediocrity.

          Living standards have gone down since we’ve had the internet. Government power has increased. I don’t see the basis for your notion that we are currently in a period of “awe-inspiring movement of culture” for the better, let alone that internet is somehow responsible.

  2. j@shell says:

    I had assumed you had more substantial examples of people on the left actually arguing against freedom of speech and expression. Many of the examples you’ve presented here (a random Gawker commenter, a random incident at an anti-abortion rally, some 18-year-old kids at Brown trying to make trouble) don’t seem to me to add up to a trend.

    Granted, the new “trigger warning” discourse is obviously an actual trend. It’s been written about in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, the Guardian, etc. But talk of instituting trigger warning requirements has mostly been campus-bound — the idea being that course syllabi ought to have trigger warnings. I (like most in the academy) think this is a pretty bad idea. But it’s worth noting that in academic classrooms, free speech norms don’t really apply anyway. I can kick a student who embarks on a racist rant out of my classroom. The best argument against requiring trigger warnings on college course syllabi is that this practice would be detrimental to higher education, not that it would infringe upon freedom of speech norms.

    • Freddie says:

      Again: my substantial examples are my lived experience, and the lived experience of many, many people. I don’t understand why or when so many people became convinced that “I haven’t personally witnessed this, ergo it isn’t true” is a responsible way to go about the world.

      • j@shell says:

        I didn’t say it wasn’t true. But you haven’t provided enough information for readers like me to determine whether this is a phenomenon extending beyond your immediate circle and therefore meriting wider attention.

        I recall that shortly after 9/11, war hawks (e.g. Andrew Sullivan) were claiming to personally know leftists who were pleased by the attacks. Maybe these hawks were lying about their personal experience. Or maybe they were keeping somewhat volatile, non-representative company.

      • Metatone says:

        You do know that the plural of anecdote is only data when you get to really big plurals?

        My lived experience is that people like you (since you are quite easily typecast) make a great performance over your experiences, but rarely are able to pony up with examples…

        Now it would be wrong of me to dismiss your argument on those grounds, I’m sure you can see that. But you might want to look at your own statements a little more carefully.

        • Freddie says:

          Who has claimed that this is not anecdotal? Hmmm? Show me. You do see the question mark in the original title, right? I get it – you don’t like what I’m saying, so you attack the method instead of the substance. But please. Don’t try to get methodological by flagrantly and intentionally misreading.

          • Alex says:

            I do wonder if there is a method of automated linguistic analysis that would let us identify broad-scale trends. My guess is that the technology isn’t even close.

        • Carol Marano says:

          My God, how many anecdotes do you need when you have a group of college students writing a petition that states: “We also put pressure on administration and the Office of Student Life to re-evalute rules and regulations that allow outside community members to so heavily trigger [with graphic images of aborted fetuses] and target students and faculty on this campus”? Doesn’t that in itself establish that there is excellent reason to be seriously troubled? Doesn’t the phrasing strongly indicate that this notion–the idea that one has a right to be protected from triggers, even if it means suppressing speech–is now considered normal? The authors of the petition do not feel that they need to defend or explain this assumption of a rightful claim to “trigger protection.” They assume their readers will understand. That alone provides an enormous amount of information about attitudes toward speech on campuses. In and of itself it’s not enough to prove that there’s a trend here, but a few more equally illustrative examples should suffice, and you don’t have to look far to find them. You don’t necessarily need a large body of data to draw a conclusion. A prosecutor with a thousand pieces of circumstantial evidence does not necessarily have a stronger case than one with four.

          https://www.change.org/petitions/ucsb-students-staff-faculty-community-administration-and-chancellor-yang-support-and-be-in-solidarity-with-ucsb-professor-miller-young

    • Steve Sailer says:

      James D. Watson, Jason Richwine, Larry Summers, etc etc

  3. G. Angeletti says:

    Anyone who advocates publicly for a free speech zone on a college campus should be required to do so only in a free speech zone.

  4. Freddie, your experience in academia and the internet mirror mine in publishing and the internet. As for people who say they haven’t encountered the phenomenon, the proper response is, “You lucky, lucky bastard.”

  5. I’ve been working on some writing for a while that tries to characterize one prevailing posture or approach in Africanist scholarship. The problem is partly that this strain in my view is most clearly voiced (and most powerfully influential) in very ephemeral contexts: in questions and comments at conferences, in advice given to graduate students, in footnotes, in framing critiques that don’t directly name the predicate they’re opposing, in peer review, in decisions made about what a digital archive will and will not include, and so on. I shared one part of what I was writing with a few really sharp graduate students a few years back, and they said, “We’re not sure that what you’re talking about really exists–it seems to have back in the old days, but not so much now, maybe.” A month later, one of them sent me a link to a brand new essay by a significant scholar in the field that absolutely directly embodied almost everything I was trying to describe; another reported they’d received a savage drubbing in peer review that spoke from the direction I was concerned about, and a third said that they’d been told by a senior scholar they couldn’t continue to work on one aspect of their dissertation because it would “raise concerns” of the kind I had referenced.

    I appreciate it when someone says, “Look, I just haven’t encountered what you’re talking about in my own experience”. That’s important: it’s possible sometimes that it’s just me, or my sensitivities. I appreciate it when someone says, “I’ve seen what you’re talking about, but I think you are overinvested in thinking it’s important” for the same reason. I get frustrated when someone says, “You’ve never really seen it, it’s just your imagination” or “Give me a formal citation where someone made this point as a scholarly argument, otherwise it didn’t happen”. That’s like asking someone who has just experienced a microaggression to show where the aggressor said that in print.

  6. Thomas says:

    My experiences as a lawyer within the young, liberal, professional set in DC (of which I count myself a member) harmonizes with yours, Freddie. Like you, I worry about what damage this does to the general progressive movement right now. And, like you, in my historical awareness of the ways in which oppressions of the most terrible kinds go hand in hand with silencing the oppressed, I am a vociferous proponent of free speech even for those whose ideas I find repugnant.

    Still, stories like the following remind me that there may be the need for qualifications, and I wonder what your take on it is.

    http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/03/25/us/politics/humor-and-other-rarities-emerge-in-a-case-about-lying.html?_r=0&referrer=

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  9. Skye Winspur says:

    Yesterday in one of my grad school classes an American Indian activist said that she tries to promote conversations in which ugly things can be spoken in order that they don’t become louder. I am in complete agreement with this principle.

    Among “progressives” (as the name they / we call themselves might suggest) there’s a lot invested in seeing society and human relations as getting progressively better. When someone makes a racist, or sexist, etc. remark, this worldview is challenged, and the response of trying to silence that kind of expression is often easier than adjusting one’s worldview.

  10. Cindy says:

    I’m not sure your contention that there is a “rise in free speech zones” on university campuses is correct. In my experience at two different California universities, one in the CSU system, the other in the UC system, is that free speech zones are a leftover creation from the protest movements from the 60′s and 70′s. At the CSU campus, the idea of a free speech area on campus was removed from campus policy in the early 2000′s. On the other, there is no stated “free speech zone” policy. There are areas where tabling by campus groups and non-affiliated groups is focused, but they aren’t called free speech zones. I’d be interested in seeing if you have any other data besides a link to a wikipedia page to support your statement.

    I’d say there’s little doubt that there exists a subset of academics that state that hate speech should somehow be forbidden. I’ve certainly experienced those individuals as well. I’ve also been around those that strongly support all free speech, even that which they find abhorrent. The only course of action, of course, is to remain strong enough to remind those that would like for certain types of speech to be suppressed that there was a likely a time that the speech they do support was considered abhorrent and worthy of suppression. Suppression never works for the long term, but overcoming with better arguments and persuasion does. It is no easy task sometimes to be that person, but it is vital that you, me and others do so. Freedom of speech is worth the discomfort of confronting your peers.

  11. Josh K-sky says:

    What people should be allowed to do and what people should do are two very different things. People should not be allowed to shout down assholes on their college campus, but assholes should very often be shouted down. Practiced civil disobedients know that the question of taking your lumps is a tactical one. The willingness to stand the occasional charge of hypocrisy can make for a much nimbler ruckus.

  12. Schedlinski says:

    I graduated from Brown University in 1994, during the fervor of the original Political Correctness debate. During my freshman year, a student was expelled for directing an overtly racist statement at specific minority students. (I believe he yelled “my father owns you people”). At about the same time, my freshman roommate hit me on the side of the face when I complained that he had spilled food and beer on my bed while I had been out. He ruptured my eardrum, causing permanent hearing loss in my left ear. I was not invited to participate in his disciplinary hearing, and he was not expelled. Instead we were each moved to separate dorms at different parts of the campus.
    I recognize that words can hurt people, sometimes seriously. But the double standard–where actual physical violence is excused and offensive speech is punished–has left me to be permanently disenchanted with my undergraduate university. Students today who believe that their colleges are doing them a service by taking this stance will find their opinions change soon enough.

  13. Cervantes says:

    I happen to be on the Brown faculty and I can tell you that the incident with Ray Kelly was met with very widespread disapproval here. I agree with the commenters who say that you have hardly provided any evidence of a trend — just some isolated incidents, some of which have nothing to do with the “left” or progressives. Is suppression of Palestinian activists really a relevant example? Or ‘trigger’ warnings, which for better or for worse are just an effort to be considerate? Also, I wouldn’t outlaw hateful expression or bullying but I certainly have a right to ban it from my symposium or classroom.

    And there is a fuzzy boundary between hate speech and threats of violence — e.g., hanging a noose on the statue of Medgar Evers. It is perfectly defensible that the action merited expulsion from the university, it was intended to terrify and intimidate. We can argue about where that line should be drawn but the right to express yourself is not absolute, that has been well understood in both liberal philosophy and First Amendment jurisprudence for a long time.

    • Was the noose on the statue of one of my heroes intended to terrify and intimidate, or was it a stupid joke by clueless college kids? Why shouldn’t the suppression of Palestinian activists be relevant—do you think incidents like the censoring of Norman Finkelstein at Clark are irrelevant? And last, are “trigger” warnings only an effort to be considerate, or are they also being used to silence? Almost every supporter of censorship has said that they’re just trying to be considerate of someone’s feelings, after all.

    • Schedlinski says:

      The points is not whether the incident was met with “widespread disapproval,” the point is that it happened. (I wonder, were any of the students who occupied the hall and shouted down Mr. Kelly disciplined? Would a group of libertarian students who shouted down a union leader have been?).
      When an institution punishes speech but does not punish actual physical violence it sets a double standard. Brown was there twenty years ago and appears to be creeping there again.

  14. Nick says:

    US readers who question how widespread are the views Freddie describes might be interested to learn of the situation abroad, where his point is surely incontestable.

    Lacking an explicit constitutional right to free expression, members of the Australian left seem to lack even basic comprehension of its worth, let alone a principled commitment to it and a desire to defend what remains of it after anti-terror laws. They don’t even embrace it inconsistently, or rhetorically wave it about as a value while violating it when it suits them.

    Thus this week Australia’s conservative Attorney-General attracted near-universal rebukes from the liberal left, respectable media commentators and from within his own party, for remarking in parliament that: “People do have a right to be bigots, you know. In a free country, people do have rights to say things that other people find insulting or offensive or bigoted.” (His right-wing government is trying to repeal a statutory clause that prohibits speech that “insults or offend” members of any racial or ethnic group).

    The tone of this criticism can be fairly described as moronic: “This is the first time that I can recall, where a Senior Minister has directly endorsed (and thereby encouraged) having bigoted views. There’s no reading between the lines here – Brandis has specifically said that “people have the right to be bigots, you know.” This is somewhat unprecedented.”

    Left uncorrected went the reply of the Labor Party’s leader: “No one has a right to bigotry.”

    Here’s a about a poll measuring the attitude of Australians on this topic. I’d be willing to bet that the residual 18% is made up almost entirely of self-identified progressives.

    Radicals are content with the following blithe sort of slogan, which allows them to : “To have genuine free speech, we need a media not controlled by the privileged few, but organised democratically by the majority.” Until then, why worry, right?

    My impression is that the British left is just as bad.

  15. Zain says:

    I see a few people saying your examples don’t correlate with how prevalent you suggest free speech policing is becoming on the left. You’ve replied that you’re only mentioning your lived experiences, and I believe you’re writing out of a long, hard experience seeing it around you but not citing specific examples per se, something I share with you.

    The expanding nature of support for free speech restrictions amongst people on the left can be seen at campuses in the UK clearly (and other countries where progressives have wider support than the US). From the LSE student union kicking out Jesus & Mo T-shirt wearing students to the same union passing a motion that all cases of Islamophobia (they had a wide definition and considered members of the Atheist and Secular alliance wearing Jesus & Mo T-shirts as Islamohpobia too) should be dealt with by the university. There are of course dozens of other cases, not all related with Islam and as a Muslim but an ardent free speech advocate, I balk at the ever increasing support for hate speech laws and curbing ‘hate speech’ altogether. In Australia, where they are trying to repeal their hate speech laws, the Attorney General’s comment that ‘people have a right to bigotry’ has been met with opposition and horror from the left.

    Some of the support seems to be over-compensation for real victimization (expanded anti-Islamophobia hate speech patrolling eg, sometimes leading to cases where I’ve seen people trying to suggest only Islam committed no historical injustices – this from white western lefties obv) to simply the desire not to hear or be bothered by opposing ideas (which is born in the absolute isolation that academia inculcates for many).

    There is this idea on campuses that the state hasn’t done enough to protect the victims of many crimes, and so within our own walls, we can do what we can best. So restrict free-speech against hate speech, lead a ‘democratic’ vote against a student organization inviting a speaker on campus (cases of student bodies using councils, or plain influence, to cancel event reservations at buildings to not give a speaker the opportunity to speak), to creating parallel legal systems (see the issue of campus rape eg). Some of the rather bizarre cases seem to be campus feminist associations intervening in the male rights association events (when they invite a speaker). Opinion on MRA movements should not matter in this case. Their right to invite a speaker, and let him address them, is as absolute as your right to protest it.

    I feel the left is digging a hole for itself. The loss of relevance and power leads to loony ideas. I am saddened and feel isolated at the left as a free speech absolutist. I wish it could be better.

    • Zain says:

      And to add a few words more to my original comment:

      I also feel the whole lynchmobbing of people whose views are deemed unacceptable is wrong. On social media and the Internets in general, ganging up to lead advertisers to drop a reality TV star for saying something, or ‘report’ a professor to the university faculty, to trying to get a person fired from their job b/c they posted something stupid on Twitter or said something you don’t think is okay, is an everyday thing now. The Adria Richards brouhaha comes to mind.

      I don’t see how trying to take away income from people whose speech you categorize as ‘hate speech’ is okay. I can understand when people say that advertizers should not be patronizing an unworthy person and making him rich because he says hateful stuff, but as long as there are people who like your views, and it’s within the Brandenburg test, it should be okay.

  16. “Academic left-wing culture frequently is a leading indicator of the broader social justice left.”

    Gandhi was a lawyer. Martin Luther King was a preacher and the marchers he led were lower middle and working class churchgoers. Second wave feminism began with angry housewives and secretaries; the first wave was led by angry debutantes. The Stonewall riot was led by angry drag queens. Leaders may or not be highly educated but academics at their best are fellow travelers, except of course -and these days more than ever- in their own imaginations.

    • Freddie says:

      Of course, you’re deliberately ignoring the part where I explicitly said that, for what reason, I don’t know. If you really don’t that academia is frequently an incubator for the language and theories that later become popular among the left, you’re just wong.

      • My parents were both academics and bourgeois leftists but they didn’t get their politics from the library. They had respect for law, and worked in law, but they also had respect for people who broke laws, depending.

        Most of the people involved in the release of the COINTELPRO files were academics, none of them were in theory or philosophy, unless you count religion. http://www.cla.temple.edu/religion/seeking-justice-the-journey-of-john-raines/

        Chomsky is a linguist not a political philosopher. His fame outside the academy comes from his reportage, no more, no less. When he tries to sound philosophical he speaks in generalizations and platitudes. And as I wrote on the other thread, those seriously involved in politics as intellectuals have a great sense of irony; they acknowledge they’re elitists who’ve chosen to defend democracy.

        Some people use books to bring focus to their world; others use the world to help them focus on books. I don’t care which one you choose but you should be honest with yourself about the choice.

    • I think that’s a bit over-simplified. I prefer bottom-up politics, but in general, successful movements are a mix of classes. Second-wave feminism, for example, included a lot of middle-class secretaries and housewives. I haven’t studied Stonewall the way I should, but were they really only working-class drag queens?

  17. John says:

    Almost nobody will work to support freedom of expression for views they dislike. It was true at the country’s beginning (e.g., the Alien and Sedition Acts) and it is true now in venues outside of academia and the social-justice left. The First Amendment’s protection is limited to publication and speech in a demonstrably public sphere, and the sort of antagonism you’re talking about can manifest elsewhere (e.g., class discussions, permission to assemble and speak on private campuses, faculty hiring decisions) without penalty for the antagonists. But there will always be a way for unpopular speech to get out despite antagonists of any political persuasion, so long as the First Amendment and its related case law is unchanged.

  18. Lirael says:

    Being a PhD student in the sciences and a primarily-outside-the-academy activist, rather than a humanities grad student, I won’t claim that I know exactly what it’s like in the humanities. And certainly, I have no regard for free speech zones on college campuses or crackdowns on student activists (though I would question whether leftism and social justice are the primary factors there – do you think it was leftist social justice activists behind the pepper-spraying of UC Davis protesters or the shutting down of Northeastern SJP? Social justice activists protested the shutting of Northeastern SJP).

    I really want to know, though, what is with the recent rounds of smug rallying cries against trigger warnings as a horrific threat to free expression, the academy, and all that’s good in the world. That Guardian article that you linked to is one of the more reasonable pieces that I’ve seen on the subject (though I have some quibbles – the “trigger warning: this talks about trigger warnings” joke is old and not funny or clever, and since when is war not a subject of trigger warnings?). It acknowledges the legitimate uses of trigger warnings in some contexts and the legitimate concerns of trauma survivors. The smarmy Chronicle article that you linked to, and similar pieces that see trigger warnings themselves, rather than certain uses of them, as inherently a problem, are not.

    I get the sense when I read some of these pieces that these people think being triggered means experiencing a fleeting sense of discomfort or disagreement. I have PTSD because of my experience with police brutality. A couple of times when watching documentaries, there have been scenes of police brutality in a similar context to what I’ve experienced, and I’ve bolted from the room with a full-blown panic attack and slumped in the hall shaking for several minutes, trying to get back under control. Other times when the triggering has been slightly less on point, I’ve managed to control my physical reaction before it turns into a full-blown panic attack, and have “just” had shaking, sweating, and elevated heart rate, followed by a few hours of being unhappy, irritable, and crying more easily than usual.

    In all of those cases, the reaction would have been mostly or entirely avoidable if I had known what was coming. The unexpectedness makes a big difference. I still act as a street medic at protests. I’ve had PTSD for close to two years now, but the last time I worked a protest with police brutality was less than two weeks ago, and I was fine, because I knew what I might be getting into, and was physically and emotionally prepared. The last time I was triggered badly enough for a full panic attack was less than a month ago, and that was only documentary footage, but my body reacted because I’d had no idea that content was coming, and that is EXACTLY the sort of thing that trigger warnings help with.

    While there are aspects worth debating or calling out (I am not sure that I see the point of general trigger warnings on course syllabi, and don’t agree with removing all potentially triggering material from classrooms), is it really such a big damned deal to have a community norm that professors should say “Hey, just a heads up, this book that we’re about to study has some pretty graphic depictions of combat, and here is a reminder about how to contact college mental health services, and if this is going to be a serious problem for any of you come talk to me” or similar wording? I’m getting really sick of all the attempts by people in the trigger warning debate to characterize people like me as weak, fragile, special snowflakes who expect never to experience discomfort. How many of them would be willing to do the work that put me in a traumatizing situation in the first place?

    • Freddie says:

      Well I guess this gets to a somewhat unspoken part of this: when we talk about trigger warnings, are we restricting ourselves to those who suffer from PTSD? And are we really talking about PTSD triggers, which (as many have noted) are almost never the types of stimuli that we can actually warn people about– a smell, a light pattern, the colors on a garment.

      My read on a lot of this is that people want to use the medicalized terminology of PTSD to give their arguments rhetorical force, but don’t want to have any type of actual medical requirement for the use of them. And, indeed, if anyone were to ask, in the context of one of these discussions, whether someone actually suffers from PTSD, they would be seen as terribly offensive. But the consequence of medicalizing the discussion without being allowed to question whether there’s been an actual medical diagnosis is that anyone can claim to have been triggered. So I’m not sure where to take questions like yours, as a practical matter. My experience is that some people do think trigger warnings should be applied to feelings of discomfort and disagreement, and are very, very angered if you suggest that a medical term should be utilized with care and discretion.

      • Lirael says:

        “Almost never” might be an overstatement there. I’m very familiar with the randomness of triggers. There’s an essay linked from the GeekFeminism wiki’s page on trigger warnings where the writer talks about how she’s triggered by calculus because she was taking calculus during the same year that she was being horribly sexually abused. I talked to someone at one point who was triggered by showers because she was raped outdoors in the rain. For a while (I managed to desensitize on this one) there was a particular song that was a trigger for me because I was singing it to myself right before something bad happened. And there is, of course, no way that you can warn for all that stuff.

        But that doesn’t preclude being triggered by more obvious things. The blogger triggered by calculus also stated that she was triggered, and more strongly triggered, by depictions of sexual assault. I might have had a song-trigger but two of my biggest triggers are visual depictions/footage of police brutality in Chicago, and police brutality involving protesters and overhead baton strikes. So, you know, subsets of police violence. Depictions of the things that caused the post-traumatic stress and/or other post-trauma psychological problems seem to be widespread triggers for people with those problems, even though many also have less obvious, highly individualized triggers. So you can cover a lot of people with a simple warning ahead of time that this film or book that you’re about to study in class depicts sexual violence/combat/torture/a hurricane devastating a town/whatever, a reminder of the phone number for the college’s crisis line, and a request for anyone with serious concerns about their ability to function in the class because of this to talk to you and the disabilities office.

        Incidentally, I have an undergrad friend – another protest medic who was present for the same weekend that had such a strong effect on me, and arguably had it worse – who was in fact triggered a year ago in a college classroom, by documentary footage in a history class. When telling me about it later, she said that she thought it was great that the prof was showing the documentary, she just wished that he’d said something ahead of time so that she wouldn’t have been caught by surprise and could have taken steps to prevent or mitigate the triggering. Which is consistent with my own experiences.

        I wouldn’t necessarily restrict it to PTSD – PTSD isn’t the only disorder that people can end up with because of trauma, and you can also have the reexperiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress without the other classes of symptoms that would be necessary for a PTSD diagnosis. I think there’s an argument for including something non-trauma-related like anorexia as well, since IIRC – I am not well-versed in the literature about this, so I could be mistaken – it is possible to “trigger” anorexic behavior in someone who is recovering with certain content. I do understand that there are people who misappropriate medical terms. You see that in other arenas as well – my spouse, who has Celiac disease, is often frustrated with people claiming gluten intolerance to express a preference, and the resulting foods and restaurants that claim to be safe for people who need gluten-free food but aren’t.

        I just don’t think it’s that much of an imposition to mention if your course material is about to involve discussion or depiction of a traumatic situation (and you could even use DSM standards for “qualifying trauma” to figure out what should be covered), and refer students from there to resources like a crisis hotline or disability office. I understand that some people are arguing for more than this (removing books from the classroom. But a lot of what I’ve read from what I will call the anti-trigger-warning side (including that Chronicle piece that you linked to, but not including the Guardian piece) comes off as being against any sort of trigger warning under any circumstances.

        There are also content notes that aren’t about triggers in the medical sense. If I’m emailing an LGBTQ mailing list with a link that has a bunch of homophobia in it I will mention that in the email, somewhere before the link, so that people can make an informed decision about whether to click it. If I’m emailing my fellow crisis counselor volunteers at my local rape crisis center with a link to a victim-blamey sexual assault story, I would do the same. I’m not sure how well those practices would carry over to college classrooms. I think that’s what the Guardian article was talking about with the comments near the end that people can more reasonably expect feminist blogs to be safe spaces than college classrooms.

        • Freddie says:

          You’re right, I spoke far too casually there, and I shouldn’t have.

          I’m very willing to have these discussions– I just think we should all acknowledge that they are quite sticky, and that we can reasonably disagree about them while respecting these traumas.

        • Pat Bowne says:

          Can we draw a comparison with other medically defined conditions that students have to contend with? At my school, such issues are dealt with on individual cases — not to single students out, but because part of our job is to help them learn how to effectively advocate for themselves.

          In practice, this means that when I have a student with a diagnosed learning difference or sensory difference in my class she has worked with a professional to be tested and diagnosed, and to identify what accommodations will help her succeed in my class. She is responsible for approaching me to arrange them.

          If I were to make blanket accommodations for student difficulties that would be nice of me and probably improve my expertise as a teacher, but I question whether it would do the students as much good as the current procedure does. It certainly would not lead to the kinds of insightful discussions I have with my students, and I think those discussions are particularly helpful because they give the students experience of having their challenges taken seriously in a professional context that is still focused on how they can demonstrate the course outcomes. This often also seems to relieve their feelings of fear or shame around their need for accommodations. It certainly helps prepare them to discuss their situations with potential employers, if necessary.

          This sort of one-on-one approach may be only possible in a relatively small college, of course.

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  20. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Those anti-abortion protesters were right *on the merits*, and Miller-Young is really the moral equivalent of a Klansman trying to suppress a civil rights activist. I don’t care much about free speech as an abstract principle, but I care a lot when a cause which is good, right and just is howled down by unabashed defenders of prenatal murder.

  21. IT says:

    I am also on a university campus and like you naturally identify as left and academic. I too have been dismayed at the shut down of speech. Even on my campus, which is rather sleepy, there are loud arguments and attempts to shut down speakers on certain topics. There was just a case at Stanford where a “traditional marriage” (read: anti gay) conference was yanked temporarily due to “hate speech”. THis is not uncommon any more and a dangerous precedent (although in this case, the money came back). really, if dangerous or offensive ideas cannot be aired at a university then they cannot be aired anywhere. And I say that as a married gay californian who is active in the equality movement and an ardent opponent of Prop8.

    Additionally we see in the kerfuffle over the new Mozilla CEO who dared to donate to Prop8 6 years ago; now people are calling for him to be fired for his personal political beliefs, which demonstrably have nothing to do with his fitness to do his job. I call this political correctness run amok, and it is the same instinct towards a purity cult that we criticize heartily in the right, but are blind to in our own side. Specks and logs….

    As Leah Libresco writes in the American Conservative , This exclusionary approach raises the stakes of political conflict dangerously high. When the losing side of a debate is blacklisted, all disputes become wars of annihilation.

    • Erin Jonaitis says:

      There is a bright line between the government arresting or fining someone for speaking, on the one hand, and a non-government entity declining to give a speaker a platform, on the other.

      My university invited Jon Huntsman to be this year’s commencement speaker and some students are mad about that. (I’m not particularly; I’m the sort of lefty that was sad his campaign didn’t make it farther.) Do I infer correctly that you think it is illegitimate for these students to complain? Would they have a right to complain if the university had invited Ted Kaczynski to speak? Or Kim Jong-Un? How about if the speaker was an ordinary twelve year old? A flat-Earther? Someone they found loitering in the student union an hour before commencement?

      Hosting a speaker carries a strong implication that the host institution believes the speaker has something worthwhile to say in that context. I am quite certain that universities have many contexts in which it is not appropriate for just any speaker to be heard. For instance, you’d better believe the dean would be hearing from me if my math stat professor invited Gilbert Gottfried to give the remainder of the lectures for the semester. The newspaper would, too. Not all attempts to shut down speech are anti-intellectual. I would argue that intellectualism entails the belief that not all opinions carry equal weight.

  22. All this reminded me of something:

    A: Yes, well there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of …

    Q: At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?

    A: Well just watch me.

    I loved Trudeau

  23. Pingback: Government And Social Suppression of Free Speech | Alas, a Blog

  24. Neildsmith says:

    I’m a “leftist” working in corporate America so I can understand why some might say these attitudes don’t exist. I can count on one hand the number of political conversations I’ve had in the last 5 years with people I work with. We (all of us no matter our political views) self-censor because we know we must get along with our colleagues to accomplish our goals.

    People who do politics for a living – certain academics, activists, and politicians – are going to act silly. They are going to terrorize each other and fight the culture and political wars that the rest of us politely avoid in our daily interactions with other people. That’s OK. We need you to do that. I see no point in pretending that this this discourse isn’t going to be nasty and bitter. It always has been and always will be.

  25. Rob Chipman says:

    Freddie:

    These two blog posts are quite interesting, and I agree with you that free speech must be protected and not suppressed based on opinion.

    The question, however, makes me smile: is the social justice left really abandoning free speech?

    It’s almost as if you reason that free speech is good, the left is good, so the left and free speech must go hand in hand.

    I understand that you are “unapologetically a member of both tribes” (the left and academia), and that perhaps explains my amusement.

    From where I sit free speech has no relation at all to right or left. You can certainly point to many examples of left wingers supporting free speech, and it’s results (more freedom), but you would quickly have names like Stalin, Mao, [insert the name of your local university student union here] thrown in your face. There is a strong vein of conformist, conservative, moralistic finger wagging running through the left. It can’t be denied by anyone who stands back, takes a deep breath and takes a wider perspective.

    Those who deny this simply aren’t looking.

    So, to address your question: no, the social justice left is not abandoning free speech, because the social justice left and free speech were never inextricably entwined. There have always been some who identify themselves as leftists who value their conception of social justice much more highly than freedom.

    Its an age old theme: can we not both imagine the story of two social justice revolutionaries who begin arm in arm, and end with one imprisoning the other? Indeed, can we not both, easily, find many historical examples?

    Free speech is loved by those who prize freedom and reason but not by those who prize control and coercion. The left, including the social justice left that you speak of, is full of both types. I suspect that your unapologetic pride in belonging to a tribe may have partially blinded you to that.

    For any who actually want to argue that free speech should be suppressed when the ideas it expresses are distasteful, consider whether choosing coercion over persuasion is based on accepting that might makes right.

    Then consider why the benches in parliaments are just over two sword lengths apart. If you suppress my free speech with loud voices and numbers, what stops me from suppressing your free speech with escalated violence? (Hint: nothing).

  26. Rob Chipman says:

    Seth:

    Yeah, Trudeau was great, wasn’t he? He imposed martial law from sea unto sea unto sea over events restricted to one province. That resulted in hippies in Vancouver being locked up under provisions of the War Measures Act.

    There’s a reason why his name is still toxic in much of the country and why his son is such a mix of asset and liability. (For example, and apropos of this post, he was a great friend and champion of a favourite social justice left hero, Fidel Castro, who of course has a long record of imprisoning those who express unacceptable views, whether political or otherwise).

  27. mike says:

    Is this the sort of thing you’re talking about?

    http://gawker.com/arrest-climate-change-deniers-1553719888

  28. Rick67 says:

    Well, I wouldn’t be in the same (political) tribe as you. But greatly appreciate your posts and the principled stance you have taken. I am a little surprised no one mentioned FIRE (= Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) which exists largely to fight for free speech on campuses, and their work constitutes a significant source of evidence (which, oddly, several say you do not provide) – perhaps someone did and I failed to notice. I have taught college writing and teach ESL regularly, so am also interested in your work!

  29. Jones says:

    Kudos for addressing this. Frankly progressives are declining into a lynch mob. The Internet is certainly helping out, as is the complacency of living under Obama.

    I suspect there is a broader underlying cause: many of today’s young “progressives” were raised as such; progressive opinion was their mother’s milk, not some revolutionary discovery. Even as it grows in sophistication with education, there remains a puerile, pre-reflective conviction that can only come with having something taught to you as a child and never challenged.

    Moreover the level of ideological conformity on college campuses is bad for the mind. Views are accepted on authority, and never really challenged.

    We will see the continued decline of progressive thought, based on the current trajectory. Every pendulum swings.

  30. Pingback: Liberalism Schafft Sich Ab | Handle's Haus

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