Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Good The Bad And The Triggering: Making The Case Against Trigger Warnings

In the recent Guardian article "Trigger Warnings; what should you be told before you read this piece?" Victoria Finan addresses critics who, "say trigger warnings wrap people in cotton wool," by asking, "But don't suffers of post traumatic stress disorder deserve to be warned if content is disturbing?" Using this question as a guide she states he position, in citing three main points: (1) trigger warnings are already used within society, (2) trigger warnings are for those who are sensitive to graphic material, especially after they have suffered or experienced trauma in real life, (3) and overall trigger warnings are an extension of courtesy and good will, thus they are morally and ethically necessary if we want to express our solidarity and care for another person's experience.

Finan is correct to address "trigger warnings" in everyday life. If there is a particularly gruesome scene, a television show will most likely state, "viewer discretion advised." A judge will surely inform the jury when horrific evidence will be displayed to the court. However, even though both of these instances inform the viewer of the graphic image, a juror cannot just get up and turn off the television. To be on a jury you must be selected and undergo being a jury candidate. You are questioned before you can even view any of the ghastly evidence that could possibly trigger you. If you just so happen to be triggered by the questioning, then you will not have the privilege of being part of the jury. Any lawyer worth their salt will make sure to remove someone who has a crippling traumatic experience while being prone to having triggering emotional events by evidence. A juror's judgement may be tainted due to their prior traumatic experience. As for television, these stations are capitalistic, as they work to provide a wide array of channels that will suit specific tastes or in this case triggers. Are we to assume that a company provides multiple channels because they are worried about someone becoming "triggered" by a particular program? No, they care about complaints, bad press, and their bottom line. According to Finan the virtue of tolerance or consideration is what fuels trigger warnings in everyday life, but I beg to differ. Again a juror when part of a court preceding must (if they wish to have an informed decision) view all the evidence presented. Television stations have multiple programming, and in all honesty don't care if a person suffering from PTSD is triggered by a war documentary, but they will inform the viewer of the graphic content, just so they will not be bothered by any complaints as they cross their fingers and hope you visit one of their sister stations. Fundamentally, these graphic warnings are usually meant to alert parents with children present that the material may be unsuitable for a child's age group. It is as if we assume most adults are capable of viewing the material and not being triggered, unless of course you are a college student but we will get to that later.

The second point seems be her best point given that it is hard for the average person to grasp due to its emotional foundation. It usually begins with questions such as, how would I know how someone with a crippling feels when viewing something that even slightly reminds them of a traumatic experience? Shouldn't we do what we can for those within our society who are sensitive to graphic material? Isn't that what we would do for our family, friends, and loved ones? It is here where people lose themselves into an answer that is nothing but unclear, fuzzy, and gray. As a society we want to help those around us who are enduring hardship, especially those who of no fault of their own have to engage with the world around them. A world which can be in many instances cruel and unforgiving to their sensitivities. What must be noted is that if someone does suffer from a traumatic experience that causes them to be triggered by words, or reenactments of actions, or a heinous actions that are displayed to a general audience, this person is needs help beyond a trigger warning. What is ignored by Finan and others, is that we live in a society that does care, so much so that there are doctors, medical facilities, treatment programs, etc, whose purpose is to help those with PTSD so that they can live in a pluralistic and democratic society that will not take into account their sensibilities. Treatment is for the restoration of some normalcy to the life of the victim. Many people understand this treatment as helpful, so it should come as no surprise when I liken trigger warnings to a children's band-aid on a severe gaping wound.

Sleepwalker by Toni Matelli 
Personally, I have never met anyone who both suffers from PTSD and wants trigger warnings to be used throughout academia, media, and anywhere else their sensibilities may be bruised. Nevertheless, everyday we find more instances where trigger warnings are being used to diminish academic freedom and limit freedom of speech rather than what those in favor of trigger warnings contend. The American Association of University Professors when addressing trigger warnings, cited an incident where Wellesley College students objected to "a sculpture of a man in his underwear (entitled Sleepwalker) because it might be a source of 'triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault.' While the student's petition acknowledged that the sculpture might not disturb everyone on campus, it insisted that we share a 'responsibility to pay attention to and attempt to answer the needs of all our community members' Even after the artist explained the figure was supposed to be sleepwalking, students continued to insist it be moved indoors." Although Finan acknowledged that trigger warnings are treated as a joke, and that in some cases trigger warnings hinder free speech, she writes, "but being triggered emotionally, psychologically, is not the same as simply not liking something." She thereby concludes that Time's columnist Mick Humen's statement in which he compares trigger warnings to "wrapping people in cotton wool" as insensitive, "insulting, and dangerous." To this I must ask, what is more dangerous, displaying a public statue of a man in his underwear, or taking the statue down because someone felt it may psychologically harm someone else (of whom they have never met)? In my case, as someone who finds academic freedom to be the foundation of a ideal university, the latter is extremely insulting and dangerous to the function of a University. Are Universities the appropriate venue to treat PTSD? A reasonable person would answer no. The problem with Finan's argument is the assumption that (1) a person who has suffered traumatic experiences will be triggered, and (2) that people will not take advantage of the relative nature of definitions and construe the phrase "trigger warning" to mean "anything I personally find objectionable." Is Finan going to be the one to condemn college students, feminists, the illiberal liberals among us who have decided to push trigger warnings out of the realm of the Internet and into academia? No. This seems to be a task for those of us who promote freedom of speech and intellectual diversity, which I guess is superseded by more important issues such as being offended by a Disney movie because it isn't as feminist as you would have hoped.

It should come as no surprise that Finan's last point slightly offends me, because not only is disagreeing with trigger warnings just an intellectual dispute, it has caused many to label those in disagreement as hateful unethical or immoral people. The devolves into questions of, "We care, why don't you? Aren't you part of a society that wants to treat victims with respect? Do you want to increase the suffering of others?" These questions present a lose-lose scenario, where if you acknowledge them as legitimate you are descending into the realm where feelings formulate the list of inappropriate trigger words, and if you don't answer these questions you will be deemed uncaring, unjust, and even unfit to work in certain professions (such as college professor).

Since I don't care much about losing, I will answer the question with one of my own, are trigger warnings moral? For the purposes of this article, I will concede that they may be ethical, given the nature of society where we must at least act in a way that promotes consideration of the emotions and sensitivities of others. As for the moral worth of putting up a trigger warning, I find that there is none. It is neither moral or immoral to display a trigger warning, but the intention behind the trigger warning is what I find immoral. I understand that trigger warnings may be likened to information about a book. If it is the case that a book contains domestic violence placing a trigger warning could be viewed as just information so the consumer can make an informed purchase, but this is not what trigger warnings are being used to do. Trigger warnings are a means to dissuade a person from purchasing, reading, or engaging in material that would be offensive to others or themselves. Trigger warnings define the action of purchasing, recommending, or viewing material that is categorized as racist, sexist, or homophobic, an immoral action. To put it bluntly, it is pretentious censorship by those who claim moral superiority. For example, if a professor tells their students that in order to participate in classroom discussions you must read F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and the book is accompanied by trigger warnings such as suicide, domestic abuse, and graphic violence, wouldn't the progressive among us say the professor is acting immorally? They would shout that teacher is promoting rape culture, domestic violence, and possibly suicide. The question then becomes if you are promoting the purchase, or reading a book that has trigger words are you also promoting those triggers? This then extends into the author's intent, which will consist of two options: create a piece without triggers, or have triggers within the context of a message that we (progressives) wholeheartedly agree with.

To this I will state something that I have mentioned many times to those who are obviously care more than I: there is no such thing as an evil book. A book, movie, video game, picture, etc, has no agency. Only people can have moral agency. When you are offended at any creation enough to proclaim that the it is sexist, homophobic, misogynist, and/or racist, you're actually implying that the creator is sexist, homophobic, misogynist, and/or racist. Is the creator actually all of those horrid labels and more? Who cares when their creation is going to be held up as the example of their obvious immoral outlook on life. Was it the intent of the creator to create something that offends you? As we can see in the case of Wellesley College, the sculptor's opinion on their creation's triggering nature did not matter in the slightest to those who were offended. To be fair, although the creator's intent would shed some light on why the creation was made, but within the context of determining the morality of the object, I don't believe this matters. A creator has no moral obligation to create something that does not offend someone. If this was the case nothing would be produced. People with the intent to use trigger warnings as a means of hateful disagreement are people who lack the prudence to accept simple truth: there is no evil book, and subsequently no need for trigger words. Therefore the illiberal liberals among us are not just promoting trigger warnings for the purpose of protecting the sensitive as Finan suggests, but for protecting all of us from our own unethical, immoral, and imperfect nature. After all they care, and we don't.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

When Solving the Trolley Problem- I Choose Not To

Let us imagine there is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Up ahead on the tracks there are five people tied up and unable to move, and the trolley is headed straight toward them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. The other choice would be to pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the correct choice?

Left: Fat Man Problem /Right: Original Trolley Problem
I've proposed the trolley problem scenario in many philosophy and political science classes, and for most people the correct choice would be to intervene, pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the other side, thus killing one person. Their reasoning lies with their belief in the normative ethics theory of utilitarianism, where moral actions are determined by maximizing utility. Although utility mean many things, here most people describe it as maximizing happiness. If they save the five their will be a greater chance of lack of suffering. As for the one person, well tough luck on being happy.

Suddenly once we add familial variables to the trolley problem utilitarianism dissolves, and what are left are reasons for choices which are wholly subjective. For example, if we describe the one person as their loved one, spouse, or family member, then pulling the lever to save the five vague persons seems to not matter. They want to maximize the happiness of either themselves and/or their loved one, while the five, well what about the five? They are just five people of whom remain nameless and begin to look unfavorable, unless of course you prefer to stick by the principles of utilitarianism, or if you just so happen to not have a love one.

Other variations of the trolley problem, such as the fat man problem, also leave students having mixed reactions. The fat man problem is as follows: a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You're on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? (The last question is usually inferred to be would it be correct to proceed?) In this case most students will not push the fat man because they would be directly killing someone instead of just pulling a lever and passively killing one person (who may or may not be fat). The class did not want to physically push and kill anyone to save the five, due to their feeling that if they engaged in this direct murder the action would be immoral and/or unethical. I highly doubt if the people tied up on the tracks below were loved ones that the life of the fat man would matter at all, but let's move on.

How do I answer the original trolley problem? Easy, I don't. It is a trick, and a somewhat cruel one at that (at least from my perspective). Firstly, the situation is purposefully vague. We don't know how or why there are people on the track to begin with. It is difficult to make such a specific and life altering decision, if we don't know why or how the situation began in the first place. Ignoring this point, however, we find my second issue, which lies with the word "correct." The question assumes there is a correct choice, when in my mind there never was. I say this because I've sat next to eager students, of whom strongly state that they would pull the lever because it is truly the correct choice. Does correct mean morally correct or ethically correct? Morality implies absolutism (within a set of universal principles) while ethics imply guidelines which are determined by a specific society. If a society favors saving one instead of saving five, then that would essentially be the correct ethical choice. As for moral absolutism, since students usually change their answer when we define the one person as a family member, I don't believe they are using an absolutist definition of "correct." So what exactly are these students thinking?

My guess is that they are engaging in consequentialism, where the moral action is one that will produce the good outcome. This theory can be summed up in it's extreme form by the phrase, "the ends justify the means." As for the definition of "good," since we now live in a world that supports (in many instances) the use of relativism as a means for determining the good. Allowing the good to be whatever you want it to be.

As for myself, if I was tied up to a trolley track and had to answer the question I would answer it by saying it would not matter, no action would be morally superior. If you're wondering if I'm a deontology (one who believes strongly in absolutism even when dealing with broad situations), don't worry I'm not. Just to set the record straight I would not kill the five to save the one (regardless of loved one because let's face it I'm too evil to have any), but I also would not say I acted truly correct, because I would have merely acted ethically or the way society would usually act, not morally. Most people within our society would save the five, but it should not be viewed as a correct action, especially one that someone is selfishly proud of. Why? Yes, you saved people, but did you do so for their happiness, or for your own? Regardless of my choice, I'm more worried with character or the soul of those students who proclaim their choice was benevolent, when in my mind killing the one so eagerly should be considered malevolent. Looking at the student's this way makes me wonder if the correct action is actually a selfish action of someone who has the power to end a life as well as save lives. The scenario presents no way in which you actually risk anything, other than what I view as your character or virtue, however students will not explain it that way. They merely state that it would be the correct action to take according to what they deem is "good."

Lastly, what is important to understand by this problem is that everyone who answers wants their answer to be correct from either a moral or ethical standpoint. It seems as though humans have an urge to make every action a moral action, regardless if that action has nothing at all to do with morality. This in my view is what makes humans so remarkable. Every action we engage in must be in such a way that reveals a moral purpose or catalyst. We can see that here with our examination of the trolley problem. If you would like to see how a feminist answers this problem (hint: they don't) then watch my video on the feminist republic.