The very first time I ever saw the phrase “trigger warning” I immediately flashed back to White Phase in Basic Combat Training: keep your gawtdamned trigger finger out of the gawtdamned trigger well, crazies! That’s what the Drill Sergeants would yell at us if ever they saw us walking around Hollywood style — our index fingers curled ignorantly in places where our index fingers shouldn’t be curled. Because that’s not a gun, that’s a rifle, and carelessness with a rifle is Very Bad.
Come 2014, and people want us to issue trigger warnings for all kinds of things. What we see, what we hear, and what we read. Or rather, what we might hear or see or read, and how this might touch off all kinds of unfortunate psychological and emotional pyrotechnics. Because (apparently) everyone is a wounded warrior now. Even people who’ve never been in the military, nor experienced any appreciable adversity of any sort. We’re all half a step away from having an episode. So the world needs to be “safed” for us, lest we blunder into hearing or reading or seeing something from which our glass-fragile psyches might not recover.
And it’s not just happening in academia. It’s happening at science fiction conventions too. Guests and panelists being kicked out because of what they might say or they might do, and which will mortally wound the minds of the attendees. Safety’s the thing. All spaces must be kept safe from all hazards, both real and imagined. Our eyeball spaces. Our ear spaces. Our mind spaces. All safe, all the time.
I mean, seriously, come on people. Grownups don’t demand that the world be “safed” for them. Grownups don’t demand the creation of “safe spaces” wherein they won’t have to fear being exposed to uncomfortable ideas or words. Part of growing up means you learn to deal with the fact that the world was not manufactured exactly to your personal specs. It’s bumpy. And even sometimes (gasp) crude. And you just sort of have to shrug and say, “Oh well,” and go on about your business.
That’s what being an adult is.
Case in point. The generation that dropped on Normandy and assaulted the beaches of the Pacific didn’t demand that the world be safed. They were too busy getting torn up by bullets and grenades and cannon shells. Stuff that’ll do a bit more to a man than hurt his feelings.
The great fighters and builders and makers of civilization didn’t espouse this safety crap.
So what’s our freaking malfunction??
Perhaps if there had only been one or two instances of late, of this safety madness, I wouldn’t be so cranky about it. It would be an outlier. But after seeing people demand that Mark Twain be safed and college guest speakers getting booted from commencements and a British celebrity being kicked out of the World Science Fiction Convention, and now even fans are being kicked out or denied participation based purely on rumors that they’re going to “unsafe” the con . . . this is not how adults respond to the world. I am sorry, it’s just not.
Time for some tough love.
Never at any moment in history has anyone ever paraded through life without being rubbed wrong. Because the world is filled with a spectrum of ideas held by a spectrum of people, not all of which (nor all of whom) are going to agree with each other. Putting your big-boy or your big-girl pants on means going out into the world regardless of whether or not you think it’s safe, and seeing and hearing all that the world contains, and learning to filter that content (for yourself) so that you are in charge of how you feel and you are the master of your own psychological state. Not others. You.
Today I got back to Utah after spending two weeks doing what the Army calls Master Resilience Trainer training. Like virtually all sound psychological science of the last 20 years, MRT is designed to empower individuals to be their own best helpers, when dealing with adverse situations and the fallout that comes from living stressful, perhaps even dangerous lives. MRT is part of a comprehensive soldier fitness program being implemented to not only help soldiers with PTSD, but to also help people prepare themselves before they become victims of PTSD. It’s a bit like mental combatives: be ready to tackle your thoughts and your feelings hand-to-hand.
Guess what? Not once — during the entire MRT course — did anyone ever utter these words: do nothing to change yourself, because it’s always someone else’s fault.
When you make it the job of other people to protect your feelings for you, you are giving other people power that they should not be given. It’s never going to work. The moment you tell yourself that you will be hurt because the other person can’t or won’t stop hurting you — with words — you’ve put the other person in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t matter if (s)he is a truly despicable individual, or maybe just someone who is careless of the sensibilities of others, or (dare I say it?) maybe you personally just don’t have a thick skin. Once you’ve surrendered your control over your own thoughts and emotions, you’re a casualty waiting to happen. Life is going to run you down or run you over.
So, while all this safing may be well-intended, it’s ultimately fostering immaturity. Nerfing the universe doesn’t build solid adults. It builds adult children running around in oversized bodies. You can hang a thousand literary reflective belts on every potentially offensive book in the library, and all that’s going to do is immediately separate a) the actual adults who want to be exposed to new and different things, from the b) large children who insist that the intellectual landscape never disturb nor upset them in any way, shape, or form. Ditto for safing guests invited to speak at universities. Or people who go to science fiction conventions. You cannot nerf these arenas without destroying the intellectual vitality of same.
Psychological foam padding and ideological wet floor signs cannot protect you from the fact that you are the captain of your soul. Attempting to freight others with what you are responsible for, simply won’t work. All it’s going to do is retard your personal emotional and mental resilience. Because sooner or later all of us run into situations where reflective belts and wet floor signs get ripped away by the tornadoes of life. You can either own your reactions and your feelings, thereby owning your actions and destiny, or you can let the tornadoes of life own you.
Blaming the tornadoes of life for being the tornadoes of life, is foolish. Yet that seems to be the au cuorant thinking: we must wrap the tornadoes of life in caution tape so that they magically won’t touch us when they come roaring through. We will spray-paint all the Bad Words and Bad Thoughts with day-glo yellow traffic dye, lest some unwary traveler run afoul of them. Likewise we will banish all the Bad People — yellow day-glo road worker vests upon their chests — so that their dangerousness is broadcast to one and all. No more unsafes!
Sorry gang, but reality just does not work like this. No matter how much we want it to.
More to the point, insisting that reality must conform — that we will bend the world to suit our theory — is the proverbial road to hell. We’ll exchange actual ideas for the faux ideas of conformity. We’ll burn (in effigy) original thinkers at the ideological stakes, because they are “dangerous” to the status quo — and make us uncomfortable. A society ostensibly dedicated to free speech, will become obsessed with telling us what we cannot and must not say. We’re getting very close to that point already, with speech codes and other encroachments on the spirit of the First Amendment. It doesn’t matter what the law says, as much as it matters what society actually values.
Do we defend and uphold honest inquiry, and the freedom to think and speak as individuals with free minds?
Or do we “safe the space” — and put ourselves to bed for an interminable period of stifling ideological slumber?