“Triggering” is the New Censorship

The fish rots from the head down, as the old saying goes. Similarly, a culture rots from its intellect on down. Case in point? The latest from the University of South Carolina.

The University of South Carolina’s (USC’s) marketing materials claim “No Limits” on the student experience—except, it seems, when it comes to constitutional rights. That’s why today, student Ross Abbott and the campus chapters of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) and College Libertarians filed a First Amendment lawsuit against USC with the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Last fall, the student groups held an outdoor event displaying posters with examples of expression that had been censored on campuses across the country. Three other students filed formal complaints, claiming that some of the posters were “offensive” and “triggering.” In response, USC served Abbott with a “Notice of Charge” letter and launched an investigation for “discrimination,” threatening him with punishment up to and including expulsion for his protected speech.

Censorship on campus is nothing new. But what I find interesting is the increasing reliance on the concept of “triggering” to justify censorship or any other form of repressing dissension of any kind.

Triggering refers to the alleged creation of emotional trauma by giving a speech, or writing a book, blog or paper which will upset people. Interestingly, triggering is applied conditionally. People who find President Obama’s speeches, or Bernie Sanders’ or Hillary Clinton’s ideas, upsetting or even traumatic are not offered trigger warnings (“This speech may be hazardous to your mental health”) or post-trauma counseling. But people with anything right-of-center/non-leftist/non-progressive in their viewpoints are obliged to provide “trigger warnings” to potentially upset students on campuses. Go figure.

Of course, before getting angry, consider the self-refuting and insulting implications of such a discriminatory policy for “victims of right wing hate speech” these policies are intended to protect. If it’s reasonable to provide trigger warnings and censorship justified by “emotional trauma triggers” to left-wing students who cannot bear to hear non left-wing ideas expressed, then what does this tell you about the mental state – not to mention the underlying ideological content — of these left-wing students?

I love the ideas of Ayn Rand and detest the ideas of Karl Marx. Yet I can manage to hear the ideas of Karl Marx uttered every day, through much of the media, the government, academia, and by Hollywood celebrities. Despite this relentless onslaught of ideas and attitudes I do not share, I still find a way to carry on, emotionally. Apparently, those who love the ideas of Karl Marx and similar progressive icons cannot be expected to do the same. This tells you more about them, than anyone or anything else.

What is it about an essay by Ayn Rand, or a speech by Ted Cruz or Donald Trump, that requires those who disagree to be rushed to the nearest psychiatric urgent care center? Why are the ideas and attitudes of some upsetting enough to qualify as creating mental disturbance or mental illness, while other equally provocative or potentially disturbing ideas—from an opposite perspective—are merely accepted as matter-of-fact truth?

When I express an idea you do not like, you are free to ignore it. You are free to have nothing whatsoever to do with it, or me. It’s your loss, so far as I’m concerned. Yet that’s not what triggering implies. Triggering implies that the mere fact of hearing an idea which you find disagreeable, disturbing or upsetting makes me – the one who expressed that idea – fully and totally responsible for your resulting emotional state. Imagine if marriages or families worked this way. Imagine if offices worked this way. If someone else is responsible for your emotional states, then you’re lost. You have no control over your own mind or your own life, if you cannot (or will not) initiate and exercise the thought required to cope with your own emotions. You become 100 percent dependent on people never saying or thinking things which bother or offend you.

Disagreement is one of the best ways to learn. It helps you clarify, challenge or correct your present views, or — through seeing another’s errors — you better understand why you hold the position you do. If this isn’t obvious to the professors and administrators who run these insanely overpriced college campuses, then higher education as we know it is done. And, since the ideas on these campuses often become the everyday practice of tomorrow, civilization as we know it—to say nothing of free speech—is gone as well.

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