The United States is proud of its freedoms, but it is also – and increasingly – a country of the easily – and proudly – offended. Being offended has become something of a political badge of honor: if I find sexist (or racist, or anti-gay) jokes appropriately offensive I am an enlightened feminist (or champion of minority groups or gay tights). And I am an even better and more enlightened person when offended on behalf of a less privileged other.
But taking offense is a complex act with many consequences: not only does taking offense often become a substitute for political action addressing the very problems that underlie offensive attitudes, but, when taken on behalf of some larger community, it often reflects the position of self-appointed guardians of community standards rather than a general community consensus (not that general consensus can’t be scary and violent).
Of course, when you are offended, you just want the offender to shut the fuck up, free speech be damned. After all, even the First Amendment is not an absolute and does not protect threats, defamation, obscenity, etc., an ever evolving list which mirrors changing social attitudes. So haven’t we evolved enough to show our respect for others, our care for minorities, our opposition to discrimination, and our maturity as a society by adding some socially respected limits to offensive and discomforting speech?
The problem is, the goal of making ourselves comfortable in the cocoon of non-offensive speech depends on a willful blindness as to the fact that our need for comfort would brutally silence a whole lot of voices and ideas. When a high school principal in Pennsylvania cancelled Monty Python’s Spamalot claiming scenes involving homosexuality would make student actors uncomfortable because they may conflict with their personal beliefs, was he thinking of the gay and lesbian students whom such a decision would further marginalize? When police in Trenton, NJ had a mural of Mike Brown (the teenager shot by police in Ferguson, MO) painted over because it made them “uncomfortable,” were they thinking of other black teens who fear police brutality?
The very recent and very heated controversy over the Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’ opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, which opponents compared to Nazi propaganda and called “hate speech,” reveals what taking offense is really about: it is about controlling whose story is told and how it is told. Those protesting the opera simply did not want to hear about Palestinians and their grievances, even with the caveat that recognizing such grievances in no way justifies murder.
While it pervades society, the fear of offense and discomfort has made its largest strides in academia, which is no surprise given the academic origins of political correctness. The latest development is the spread of calls for trigger warnings to be put on college syllabi. At Oberlin College last year, faculty were advised to provide trigger warnings for “anything that might cause trauma” including “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” The policy (currently tabled pending review) further advised professors to “[r]emove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” Otherwise, it recommended a warning like this one: “Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.”
Those who lobby for trigger warnings express concern for students who would be inordinately affected by some material. By couching their request in the language of trauma, they see themselves as validating the painful experience of vulnerable groups, whose experience is not always recognized or acknowledged. Given the relatively rare presence of students diagnosed with PTSD (who need and get treatment and support), this is less about mental health and more about emotional comfort. But, really, how comfortable should students be? A student’s feeling may be hurt when their logic is challenged or when a film questions their belief in the benevolence of US military interventions; the nudes in art history class may provoke discomfort and so could images of lynching or the holocaust. Education is about knowledge, and knowledge, as we know does not spare ignorant innocence. Not always a comfortable process.
Yet the banners of comfort are flying over more and more colleges. Potential student discomfort was the explanation offered to justify the withdrawal of a hiring offer to Professor Steven Salaita this past summer. The University of Illinois reasoned that the very existence of Salaita’s angry tweets about Israel and Gaza would make some students uncomfortable in class and cancelled his appointment. Some claimed that the problem was not the content of the tweets, but the way they were voiced: their tone and lack of civility.
I have nothing against good manners, on the contrary. But bad manners, anger or offense should not become a reason to fire professors, censor curricula or shut down performances. Excising all that is hateful, offensive or discomforting to some group or community is impossible and necessarily biased towards those with power. Worse: it is mind-numbing. To silence what discomforts you means you don’t have to argue with it. Delightful as it may be to lounge in the echo-chamber of comfortable consensus, this is not how a lively and viable political culture can grow. Plus it would be so boring.
This article was originally published on spiked as part of NCAC's collaboration with the UK group's Free Speech Now campaign in America. NCAC co-sponsored the New York debate 'Should even hate speech be free speech?', which took place on October 30. Listen to a recording of the debate here.