The Tyranny of Trigger Words and College Safe Spaces
By Richard Ebeling
The media has been full of stories recently about the new sensitivity on college and university campuses concerning the avoidance in courses or assignments of the use of “trigger words” or phrases that may have a “hurtful” affect on students when thoughtlessly used in the teaching environment.
Student and other groups on campuses have insisted that professors provide advanced warning when a particular subject or words connected with it are likely to be discussed in the classroom so any student participants who might be offended or traumatized by the use of such words or subjects cannot attend.
In other instances it has been proposed – even demanded – that certain topics or word uses be avoided or banned because it might awaken sad, disturbing, or emotionally depressing memories or thoughts.
“Safe Spaces” to Protect from Hurtful “Trigger” Words and Ideas
One notable example happened last year at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. It had been announced that a debate would be hosted on the campus devoted to a discussion of “rape culture,” the claim that too many colleges and universities are insensitive and unresponsive to the extent to which acts of rape are condoned, ignored, or not sufficiently condemned and counteracted at institutions of higher learning.
The debaters were Jessica Valenti, founder of a feminist group that focuses on such allegations and attitudes, and Wendy McElroy, a well-known libertarian feminist who has questioned and challenged the presence and extent of such a rape culture on campuses around the country.
Both women, of course, consider all such physical acts of violence, assault and humiliation against women as intolerable in a decent, humane, and ethical society. But Wendy McElroy has argued that too many feminists use the reality of such unacceptable and immoral acts as tools to advance various ideological and political agendas that have little or nothing to do with rightly focused opposition and condemnation of such brutal and intimate acts of aggression.
Furthermore, McElroy has challenged both the existence of such a pervasive “rape culture” on college and university campuses, and how unsubstantiated accusations and charges have been used to advance those ideological agendas while in the process destroying the lives and reputations of innocent young men.
According to an article in The New York Times (March 21, 2015) a student on the Brown campus, with the support of a “Sexual Assault Task Force” of which she is a member, met with the university president and demanded an appropriate response to what – before even hearing McElroy’s presentation – was declared likely to be an argument “damaging” and traumatizing to others on campus.
The university responded with setting up a “safe space” that “was intended to give people who might find comments ‘troubling’ or ‘triggering,’ a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”
The need for “safe spaces” to protect sensitive and traumatized students extends beyond “hurtful” words. It, apparently, includes ethnic and racial sensitivity, as well. The “Racialized Students’ Collective” at Ryerson University at Toronto, Canada, representing “students of color,” insist that there must be “safe spaces” in which their members are free to associate and share their discriminatory experiences without the intrusion of “white people.”
The purpose, as reported on the Huntington Post blog (May 18, 2015), is to allow “marginalized groups” who have experienced racial discrimination to have a place to share their histories with similar people outside of a world “controlled by individuals who have power, who have privilege,” which clearly means “white people.”
Oppressed groups of various types, it is explained, have “a right to claim parts of the campus, parts of the world . . . to collectively work through the challenges society had imposed on them . . . in hope of creating broader social change.”
I Need Protection from Anti-Freedom “Trigger Words”
I view myself as a member of more than one oppressed group, and I, too, need protection from “trigger words” and secure and exclusionary “safe spaces.”
You see, I am a libertarian, a classical liberal, who strongly believes in the sanctity of the individual and his inalienable right to his life, liberty and honestly acquired property (meaning property gained through peaceful production and trade, and not through private aggression or political plunder and privilege).
I have discovered that I am emotionally and psychologically very sensitive to a variety of what for me are “hurtful” words that generate fear, anxiety, and depression whenever I hear them or when the concepts and ideas behind them are discussed in any public forum or setting.
These are “trigger” words and ideas for me that I think must be banned from all public utterance, discussion and mention:
“Collectivism,” “socialism,” “interventionism,” “welfare statism,” “social justice,” “wealth redistribution,” “altruism,” “self-sacrifice” for the group, tribe, society, or nation, “public interest,” “common good,” “general welfare,” as well as the display or verbal or written support for any symbol or emblem of any government and its agencies, departments or bureaus.
Only when these negative “trigger words,” concepts and symbols are either banned or at least restricted in their use and appearance, only then will my emotional balance, self-esteem, and sense of not being oppressed, discriminated, or abused be assured.
As an Austrian Economist, I Need “Safe Space”
Furthermore, I am a member of a “marginalized” and “oppressed” school of economic thought known as Austrian Economics. The vast majority of professional economists in academia and in government all share the “positivist prejudice” of only viewing as “scientific” economic theories formulated in complex, higher mathematical models, which are claimed to be empirically “tested” by reducing all market activities to the purely measurable and quantitative.
Those who follow the “Austrian School of Economics” begin with common sense understanding that everything usually considered the central aspects of economic activity – producing and consuming, buying and selling, competition and rivalry, innovation and technologically improved ways of manufacturing – all begin with individuals and the ideas in their minds.
They consider the “subjective” or personal perspective essential for any real and meaningful economic analysis. How can we know what people consider to be various “consumers goods” versus “tools of production” unless we understand the uses and meanings people see in these physical objects, given their purposes and goals in mind?
How can we distinguish between acts of peaceful exchange versus acts of theft – a “taking” without mutual consent – unless we appreciate and interpret how the actors see these interactions with others from their own personal perspectives?
Everyone knows that there can be “unintended consequences,” outcomes from our and others’ actions different from what was intended or desired. But how do we even distinguish between an observed outcome in some social or market setting as been “intended” or “unintended” if we do not attempt to understand and appreciate what the actors had as their goals, purposes or ends in comparison to the actual result of their actions and interactions?
But under a prejudice that the only “real” scientific method is one that apes or copies the presumed characteristics of the natural sciences (mathematical modeling, purely quantitative and measurable data open to statistical classification and analysis), Austrian Economists are ridiculed, looked down upon, and even made fun of as practitioners of an out-of-date or phony economics that is not too be taken seriously.
They are treated as outcasts and discriminated against in the world of scholarly publications and in academic job hiring. They are made to feel “small,” and “wrong” and, well, not “real economists.”
Clearly, Austrian Economists need “safe spaces” where they can meet with like-minded people to share their “hurtful” and psychological traumatizing experiences without the presence or intrusion of mainstream academic and government-employed economists who can never understand the harm that has been done to them, or the sense of “marginalization” they constantly feel imposed on them by the “ruling” and “dominate” power structure of the mainstream economics profession.
I need my “space,” man! You can never understand how an Austrian Economist feels, since you deny the relevancy and place of the “subjective” and “personal” in economic analysis, and reduce me to a mathematical “utility” function controlled by the other variables in your ever-present and oppressive system of equations and statistical measurements.
I would hope that anyone who has just read my demand for a ban or restriction on anti-libertarian “hurt” words and concepts, or for exclusionary “spaces” in academia or public arenas for Austrian Economists have seen in them the satirical absurdities that they are.
Discussions and defenses of the principles of a free society, or improvements in our understanding of how markets work and the best ways of formulating our scientific tools for understanding the economic system all require and can only flourish in social settings of freedom of thought, expression and argument, and open debate with no restrictions on the logic of the arguments.
In my opinion, the only non-coercive rules that serious people should practice and advocate in such discussions and debates are a devotion to intellectual honesty, the desire to move closer to truth, and the common courtesies of human discourse.
Totalitarians Wish to Control Words and Ideas for Power Over Others
Only in authoritarian or totalitarian societies are words, conceptions and ideas banned, restricted or prohibited. It is done precisely to prevent people from expressing and conveying their thoughts on, especially, political, economic, social and philosophical ideas that those in power view as dangers to their own ideological and governmental control over society.
Those in academic and other circles in America who wish to impose “trigger word” prohibitions and restrictions on public discourse, in the classroom and in the wider social marketplace of ideas, wish to isolate and insolate their ideas and ideological agendas from the public arena of debate and discourse.
By banning or restricting the use or discussion of certain words, concepts and ideas they implicitly control the terms of any remaining debate, since they succeed in limiting public discourse to their concepts, words, and ideas, and to which, then, the rest of us must conform and accept.
It is an attempted monopolization of the mind and its ethically and socially permitted conceptual content. And it should not be tolerated or placated, as too many academic administrative authorities seem to be increasingly doing.
It is a closing of the mind in the name of a manipulated and false sense of sensitivity to individuals and groups who have their own anti-freedom ideologies and agendas.
When I was growing up, it was common to hear the phrase, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.” Now, of course, we all know that words can hurt, and people often use words to humiliate and embarrass others.
Decent people in a civilized society will not intentionally go out of their way to do so. And we know it to be wrong and cruel when we hear it or see it.
Trigger Words and Safe Spaces are Part of the Marxist Bag of Tricks
But this has little or nothing to do with advocates of “trigger words” and their push to ban or restrict their use. Instead, it is an attempt to play upon the normal human sympathies and empathies that virtually all of us feel to advance an ideological agenda that has virtually nothing to do with proper politeness towards and respect for others in everyday discourse and conversation.
The same applies to the call for “safe spaces” for the “marginalized,” “discriminated,” or “exploited.” They need to be seen as variations on the old Marxian semantic trick that since society is divided into irreconcilable “social classes” (the exploiting capitalists and the oppressed workers), there can be no common ground. Members of both groups are bound to and restricted within a “class consciousness” defined and dictated by their property status in the society.
Only a worker who was a “traitor to his class” would attempt to understand and accept the capitalist “superstructure” of false ideas through which the property-owning exploiters try to control and manipulate the vast majority of those in society who are taken advantage of in the capitalist system. And as the “ruling class,” the capitalists use their control over the media and educational institutions to impose a mind control for acceptance and obedience by those they exploit for their own benefit.
Gender and Racial Versions of the Marxist Mind Games
In the post-Soviet era, the Marxian framework and mind games have been transformed into issues concerning “gender” and “race” as well as “social class.” Men can never understand a woman’s circumstances, life-problems and world-view. Men are only aggressors and exploiters to misuse, abuse and take advantage of women, as they have been since the beginning of time. “Gender conflict” is inescapable and irreconcilable. Either men rape women (physically, economically and psychologically) or women emasculate men (through social, psychological and if needed physical neutering).
Women must, therefore, have their own “safe spaces” where they are free and secure from the ever-present danger of male domination and abuse.
The same applies to racial and ethnic relationships. Being “white” defines you as a privileged group possessing wealth, position and power by oppressing and exploiting “people of color.” Securing “safe spaces” for “marginalized” racial groups “oppressed” by the white societies, in which they find themselves, is a way for racial collectivists to isolate and insolate their tribal conceptions of human relationships from open debate, discourse, and disagreement.
This has nothing to do with freedom of association, that is, the right for any group of individuals who share certain values, beliefs, goals and purposes to form clubs and organizations, and within which the existing members are free to decide the basis and criteria of accepting new or additional members, regardless of what that basis may be.
This, again, is the use and manipulation of a concept of human association that is integral and essential to any free society. But it must be understood that some groups, such as that “Racialized Student Collective” at Ryerson University, for example, clearly see the world through the “race” version of the Marxian playbook.
It is a way to compartmentalize people by making them think of themselves not as individual human beings, but “tribes” defined by racial or ethnic characteristics that do not and cannot live in peaceful collaborative society with all others as long as certain capitalist “power” relationships are present and at work.
The ultimate and real “enemy” and opponent of all such gender, racial and social class variations on the Marxian theme of irreconcilable group conflict is the political philosophy of classical liberalism and free market capitalism.
It is the political philosophy that explains that society is ultimately an association of individuals, each one of whom is a distinct and unique person, and deserving of respect in their rights to life, liberty, and property. It is a philosophy of economic interaction that demonstrates that as long as trade and exchange is free and voluntary all real notions of “exploitation,” “abuse,” “violence” are banished from the human conditions.
It argues that freedom of association and the potential mutual benefits from exchange make everyone members of one civilization, one global community of human beings able to gain from what others can do, while leaving each at liberty to follow his own path to happiness, purpose and meaning for his life.
It undermines the collectivist and tribal myths that some wish to use to divide and control people in society.
In its place, classical liberalism and free market capitalism offer a vision and a reality of free human beings politically controlled and manipulated by none, a society in which “diversity” emerges out of the purposes, values and goals that individuals select and may peacefully and voluntarily share in common with some others, and in which toleration grows out of the belief that no one should claim the right to tell others how to live, what to believe, or with whom to interact as long as it is done without violence or fraud.
These are the actual ideas that the “trigger word” banishers and the “safe space” demanders are most afraid of in a real unrestricted marketplace of ideas and discourse.