Warning: This post will probably offend a lot of people. If you are thin-skinned, you might want to move along. I’m also going to use some very explicit “bad words”, some of which wouldn’t be allowed in an X-rated movie. If you read this post, you may get really torqued. Comment if you want. I’ll approve any comment that has any real content, but calling me a doodoo-head won’t make the cut.
I’ve been hearing about “trigger words” for a while, now, and quite frankly some of what I hear sets my eyes to rolling. Simply put, I agree with those reactionaries who think people have gotten a bit too thin-skinned.
Look, there have always been what used to be called “fightin’ words”. I’m referring to pejoratives that are considered so foul that their use is objectionable to mainstream society, and which the objective observer would consider grounds for a punch in the face (hence the term). The list changes over time, of course, but I think I can enumerate a few that have had some pretty good runs. Some refer to sexual identity or sexual acts: cunt, motherfucker, pussy, fairy, and the like. Others are ethnic: kike, nigger, mick, wop, mongrel (when not referring to dogs), jew-boy, towel-head, and kraut. Some, such as horse-thief, water boy, peasant, or nabob, refer to a career or social station.
Sometimes these words are used in a “friendly” or “teasing” way, which rankles but stays just out of arm’s reach of the aforementioned punch. (Sometimes a group will appropriate an insult and use it as a badge of kinship. “Nigger” has acquired that usage, as did others before it.) Likewise, words that are in general not offensive can be given overtones that are intended to give offense:
Why doesn’t he work on Saturday’s? He’s Jewish. (Okay)
Why is he so stingy? He’s Jewish. (Not okay)
The word “boy” is another example of a word that, when referring to an eight year old male, is perfectly fine; but when referring to an adult African-American male is blatantly insulting. In the latter context it is a put-down—a very nasty one.
There are also some words whose connotations are somewhat murky. I was once asked if the word “Jewess” was offensive. My first reaction was that it is, indeed, offensive; but I was at a loss to explain why, even to myself. After all, it’s simply a somewhat archaic female form of “Jew”. Is it worse than “empress”, “creatrix”, or “priestess”? Perhaps the problem is that it was current during times in which both male and female forms were insulting. I still don’t know why it sets my teeth on edge.
As I noted above, what is considered pejorative changes over time. Some words that imply gender-specific expectations have become objectionable: “Chairman” and “chairwoman” have generally been replaced by “chair”. Thank heavens “president” is neutral, so we can evenhandedly use “Mister” or “Madam” President. Society (at least western society) now claims to perceive women as equivalent to men in most situations, so our terminology is changing.
A little levity, thrown in for no good reason other than that it amuses me:
Asked by an early campaigner for women’s suffrage as to the difference between a man and a woman, John Pentland Mahaffy replied: “Madam, I can’t conceive.”
So, what’s my bitch? [Oops!] I think that some people (and you know who you are, whippersnappers) have gone so far that they object to “boo-hoo” words.
I have no right to dictate what other people find offensive; and even if I did have that right, it wouldn’t work. The current obsession with negative “trigger words”, however, has gone so far into the weeds that it sometimes makes no sense. That’s right, I said negative trigger words.
Trigger words are words that evoke certain emotions or reactions. Positive trigger words are used all the time by salespeople, motivational speakers, and parents to encourage others to feel or do something:
This miraculous face cream will make you look years younger, but order now or you’ll miss out on this exciting offer.
See? Positive trigger words. In fact, if you Google “trigger words” it will take some digging to find references to anything else.
So, what’s going on now? Well, from what I hear and read it seems as though any word or phrase that evokes an unpleasant emotion is called, and condemned as, a trigger—a microaggression. Call a group of people “guys”? You’ve just triggered all kinds of negative emotions in those members of the group who are female, transgender, and so forth. “Violate” (as in “violate the law”) can cause distress among those who have been, or fear they might be, violated (sexually or otherwise). Asking someone where they were born implies that he or she is not a real American. (Excuse me, did I mean a native of the United States of America? Or did I mean someone not born in the western hemisphere? Who’re you talking to, gringo?)
Some groups on some college campuses want classes to display the equivalent of those warning labels on pharmaceutical ads:
Warning—Christian Studies 101 requires reading portions of the Bible that include misogyny, the sacrifice of animals, slavery, and severe flooding. There are also negative portrayals of an unidentified Pharoah (whose existence is unproven) and his court magicians, as well as demeaning references to the gods of ancient Egypt. Later sections refer to the possibly unintended pregnancy of a virgin and the torture of her child (described as male). May cause vapors. If fantods develop, retreat to a safe place and seek reaffirmation immediately.
Yes, I’m being sarcastic. If you want more lengthy (and less sarcastic) discussions of this, check out the commentaries (pro, con, and in between) at one of these more reputable sources:
- The Coddling of the American Mind (Atlantic Magazine)
- Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send (UCLA)
- Students See Many Slights as Racial ‘Microaggressions’ (NY Times)
- Apparently, just being in certain rooms is a microaggression (National Review)
- Racial Justice and Free Speech Are Not Mutually Exclusive (ACLU)
- Emory Students Demand Course Evaluations Include Rating for Microaggressions (Emory Wheel, Emory College)
My impression, after reading commentaries and articles, is that there is some reasonable discussion about what used to be called insults, slights, awkwardness, and thoughtlessness. Unfortunately, what I see and read about the conduct of college students indicates that some are more interested in protecting the right to be offended than the right of free speech. Here’s a quotation from an interview Henry Louis Gates, Jr. gave way back in 1998 (interviewed by Jane Slaughter):
People do bad things, things they know that are bad, for what they feel at the moment were good reasons. One is to institute speech codes. Trample all over the First Amendment, the right of free speech, because we decide that using certain language hurts our fellow human beings–it demeans their humanity. While that might seem like a good idea, the long-term consequences on the right to free expression are far greater than whatever immediate hurt or pain a woman would feel for being called a bitch or a black would feel for being called a nigger. If we’re talking about actual physical harm, laws against that exist already. It’s not worth it to me to assuage the pain by killing off the First Amendment.
Speech codes are symbolic acts. They let a group of people say, “This symbolizes that we at the University of Wisconsin are not the sort of community where we would tolerate someone saying the word ‘rigger.”‘ Well, big deal. But there are other symbolic consequences, like what’s the effect on freedom of inquiry. I think we’re all bigger and more secure than that. I think we have to allow people to say even unpopular things and nasty things in order to protect the right of us to attack our government and say whatever’s on our minds.
Professor Gates, by the way, is not known as an apologist for the privileged white power structure.
I have no doubt that microaggressions exist (I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty) but to a certain degree, that’s life. Anyone who thinks that there will be, or should be, a world in which their feelings are never hurt, that there will be no opinions that are at odds with their own, is not only chasing a will-o-the-wisp but is self-righteously trampling the rights of others underfoot in the pursuit.