More on trigger warnings

…since this could stand to be expanded, and since I made this thing with the intention of keeping to a daily schedule.

This NYT article about the introduction of trigger warnings dropped a few days ago; the topic is, of course, controversial, and the actually-existing arguments on both sides seem, of course, shoddy and unconvincing. It may be that they are hiding their real objections; it may be that their arguments were cut due to space concerns.

There are people in whom the relevant reactions are brought about by the relevant cues. While their numbers are probably unknown and difficult to measure, it is certain that they exist; and it may appear that accommodating them would have no effects other than accommodating them, or that the benefits are so obvious as to outweigh whatever minor negative side-effects it may have?

But why has it become such a major issue? Mere bureaucratic trivia rarely merit NYT articles, so this instance is probably not in that class. What’s going on here?

First, there’s the strong-horse effect: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” Thus spoke Osama, anyway; but this is a key point of formalist analysis. I will assume it here.

A corollary to the strong-horse effect is that, if a faction gets a policy implemented, that necessarily signals that the faction is powerful enough to get the policy implemented—and if a policy is implemented that is strongly associated with a particular faction, that also signals the power of the faction. The implementation of trigger warnings would signal that the factions backing them have enough power to get them implemented; and who backs them?

A draft guide from Oberlin, quoted in the article, provides the answer:

Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.

So, progressives.

Until now, the strong-horse corollary (Osama’s second law?) had no name, but it’s intuitively understood. Consider the phrase ‘power grab’. But there’s also the thedish concern: things that signal a certain thede will be opposed, will bring about disgust reactions in, members of thedes to which the aforementioned thede is elthedish. That is: if the Blues don’t like the Greens, they’ll respond to, say, music that signals Green with disgust or anger—or however they respond to being signaled against, which, by hearing Green music, they are. (Garth Brooks, Soulja Boy, Twiztid, Andrew Jackson Jihad—pick whichever applies.) Trigger warnings signal progressive; trigger warnings signal the same faction as speech codes, so it’s no surprise the president of FIRE doesn’t like them. And it’s no surprise progressives tend to like them. (Note that factions need not be organized; the decentralized Cathedral architecture is more common than its absence. Factions need not even have names; they exist nonetheless. Note also that thedes are commonly named by outsiders. Even neoreaction.)

The strong-horse effect, thede-signaling—and also ideographs, and their repetition. (I’ll write a typology of ideographs later, but for now, I’ll note that they cover both applause lights (positive and negative) and fnords.)

If you assume that things that don’t conform to progressive ideals are potentially triggering—as the Oberlin guide does—and label them accordingly, that does three things.

First: it reinforces the perceived reality of the terms used. Trigger warnings appear neutral and authoritative: more like a nutrition label than Scientologist propaganda. (Ex cathedra.) We see ‘saturated fat’, ‘dietary fiber’, and ‘protein’ on nutrition labels, so we take the terms as real and add them to our language; if we see ‘racism’, ‘cissexism’, and ‘ableism’ on trigger labels, we become more likely to do the same.

Second: it creates connotation-patterns. Connotations bleed over; this is the point of ideographs. If a columnist in America calls bacon jerky racist, if a columnist in the USSR calls bacon jerky capitalist, if a columnist in Nazi Germany calls bacon jerky artfremd, what the columnist intends is to bleed over the negative connotation of racist, capitalist, or artfremd onto the both the term and the referent bacon jerky, causing it to take on a negative connotation in the mind of the reader. (I have a bag of bacon jerky on my desk. It’s actually good. This still surprises me.) If a book is labeled with a trigger warning for racism, cissexism, or ableism—possibly if a book is labeled with any trigger warning at all—the negative connotations of the trigger warning will bleed over and associate themselves with the book. And if books that do not conform with progressive ideals come to take on more negative connotations than books that do, that will strengthen progressivism.

Third: it amplifies preëxisting connotation-patterns. Consider Whig history: “In the past everything was bad and scary and everyone was dumb. Old things are bad and scary, and old people are dumb. As time goes on, everything gets less bad and scary, and everyone gets smarter. You should not take things from the past seriously, because the past was worse, scarier, and dumber than the present.” Progressivism is recent, and our society has drifted to the left over time; so the aforementioned connotation-patterns play into and amplify this one.



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