Morality Politics Skepticism

(tw) Trigger warnings

As Libby Nelson recently observed, “There are probably more articles on the internet arguing about trigger warnings on college syllabuses than there are actual trigger warnings on college syllabuses”.

Even if their prevalence at universities is often overstated, they are frequently encountered on blogs, Facebook and other social media as a device for warning people that the ensuing discussion might contain distressing content.

fears-and-phobiasAs I’ve argued previously, trigger warnings can serve as a way to infantilise an audience, especially at universities where part of the point is to be exposed to challenging ideas. But they can equally serve a similar role to advisories on films, where an audience is forewarned that they might be exposed to violence, profanity, and so forth.

We’ve become accustomed to these warnings for films, and I’ve never heard of anyone finding them problematic. In fact, I suspect many more of us would be bemused – whether or not offended – to unwittingly purchase tickets for a movie featuring extreme violence without having been forewarned of this.

So one response to the issue of trigger warnings might be to say, why not include a simple (tw: violence) or somesuch before a discussion or link to an article describing the potentially “triggering” thing?

First, because there’s no consensus among psychologists* that this is the best way to handle the issue, even for people who might potentially be “triggered”. In fact, because “trigger warnings emphasize a victim rather than survivor role for the potential reader”, they “potentially increasing distress in the long-term via reinforcement of avoidance behaviors.”

And second, which is my focus here, they can treat us all as unable or unwilling to deal with stumbling upon content that might be distressing, and I worry that over-sensitivity of this sort might dampen expression of and debate on controversial topics.

Anything is potentially distressing for someone, so it’s difficult to see a logical (as in, necessary) end-point for trigger warnings, where there is some content that would never need a warning. And if everything gets a warning, that’s one less thing we need to think about – we don’t need to try and make certain judgments about who the speaker is and the context of the discussion, because that work has been done for us in advance.

The problems are at least two: what if that work has been done poorly, and we’re warned against things we don’t need protecting from? And second, making those judgements might well be a skill worth exercising and preserving.

Of course I’m aware that it’s easier for me to question the value of trigger warnings (to restate, given that I do think they have value: for me to question whether they are sometimes or often overused). And I’m well aware that much questioning of the value of trigger warnings comes from folk who have a profound insensitivity to the distress suffered by the people who often argue for trigger warnings.

But speaking from a position of relative sympathy for selective and thoughtful use of trigger warnings doesn’t mean I’m not concerned at what appears to be thoughtless use of them. To return to threat of over-sensitivity, mentioned above, we have to be able to tolerate occasional, accidental and/or marginal threats to our comfort, because any other world is practically impossible to arrange.

It would be impossible to arrange for even one person, never mind all of us. So the trigger warning conversation, and sensitivity to it, is a bi-directional negotiation: people who are speaking might need to try and avoid certain surprises (what? when? etc. are questions I’ll leave aside), but people who are listening also need to be as fair as possible in not placing undue responsibility or blame on a speaker.

As I say, I don’t know what we need to be sensitive of, or when. Well, that’s not quite true – I know as well as you do that we socially negotiate rules of conduct with the people we encounter, in a dynamic way. And the trigger warning debate does highlight that the game in question isn’t equitable, in that it privileges those of us who find little, if anything, sufficiently distressing to want to be forewarned of it.

But an equal and opposite overreaction isn’t desirable either. Here’s an example of what I mean, to finish this off. Last night, a friend Tweeted a link to an article in the guardian, headlined “Sudan’s security forces killed, raped and burned civilians alive, says rights group”.

He was criticised for not including a trigger warning, and his protestation that this was a headline that served as its own trigger warning for the article that followed didn’t satisfy the critic.

This is an overreaction first because, if the word rape appearing in a headline is triggering to you, it’s difficult to understand how you can survive on the Internet at all – there seems no way to arrange for an Internet that isn’t triggering in this way, and the requirement that we do so seems unduly onerous.

Second, and on another practical note, a Tweet is limited to 140 characters and at that sort of length, most of us would take in the Tweet at once, rather than parsing each word. In other words, there’s little or no time for a (tw) to do any substantive work in a headline like that – I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that anyone can see (tw) and then the word “rape” a few characters later, where that (tw) has had a chance to cause you to stop reading, or prepare yourself for that word in any way.

At this point, the trigger warning becomes less a thoughtful application of sensitivity to the interests of others, and more a thoughtless application of a disputed protocol. If we want our social justice concerns and interventions to be meaningful, I don’t think it sensible for us to turn them into clichés.

*Disclosure of potential bias, and a little shameless promo: the author of that post is a friend and my co-author of the forthcoming book Critical Thinking, Science, and Pseudoscience: Why We Can’t Trust Our Brains.

Daily Maverick Free Speech Morality

More on dealing with trolls

As submitted to Daily Maverick

(Note to pedants: I realise that the previous post – and this one – uses the word “troll” atypically. This is both because I think the definition could usefully be broadened, and because it’s a useful, evocative word).

If you don’t believe that hostility (or sometimes, something more accurately describable as abuse) on Internet comment threads is a problem, then this post will be of no or little interest to you. I say this to let you know that you should cease reading, rather than skipping to the end to leave a hostile comment. You always have that option, even though people seem more and more reluctant to exercise it.

But if you do think this a topic worth discussing, you’d most likely recall that last week I discussed what appears to be a marked decrease in civility on the Internet. What used to be localised has arguably been generalised, and we’ve now got a significant chance of encountering a troll in the comments thread of Daily Maverick, never mind their ancestral homes of News24 and PoliticsWeb.

One thing that we can all do about this is to temper how we respond to provocation, whether perceived or otherwise. This is part of the remedy for situations in which we might be perceived to ourselves be the troll, or perhaps where we provide one of them with a useful provocation. The advice to not feed trolls remains sound, but it perhaps doesn’t go far enough.

This is because what I’ve always understood as not feeding a troll is simply not responding to their provocations. While mocking someone who seems deserving can provide pleasure – both to other commentators and to spectators – it’s mostly just a way of feeling superior. It usually won’t change anyone’s mind, and serves simply to affirm a group identity as one of the smart, sophisticated set (or so you might think of yourself), rather than the sort of person represented by the ingrate you’re now making fun of.

In other words, directing your scathing wit at a troll might be encouraging another sort of negative aspect of character, while doing nothing to modify the target’s behaviour – except for encouraging him (sadly, it usually is a him) to try harder. It’s perhaps these sorts of considerations, among others, that led Jean Kazez, a philosopher at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, to offer what I thought to be three quite useful prescriptions.

The first prescription she offers has already been addressed, above and last week, and calls for some reflection on appropriate uses of our time and energy – particularly for those of us who do act like trolls online. The second and third, however, call for a complete disassociation from those who do, rather than the more typical exhortation to not encourage them.

Kazez suggests that we should cease any participation in fora where significant bullying takes place, and also cease from interacting with people who do participate in those fora. In summary, both those who bully and those who enable the bullies need to discover that they will lose their “seat at the table” of adult debate.

In a local context, perhaps this could mean never even attempting to engage in a comment thread on certain sites, or promptly removing oneself once certain commentators arrive to hijack the discussion. If the chances are high enough (and sometimes they seem certain) that the usual race-baiting will ensue, what’s the point of yet another attempt to call for a nuanced consideration of how (for example) neo-liberalism is being used as a catch-all term meaning “an economic stance that I don’t agree with”, and is therefore not a useful contribution?

My primary concerns around the advice to disengage involve the potentially instructive role that more sober comments can play. Even if it’s true that engagement typically encourages, because trolls love being given attention, there are nevertheless some fence-sitters lurking who are potentially receptive to productive disagreement.

Withdrawing entirely from debate costs us those opportunities. Limiting or ceasing interaction with those who do participate is even more radical, and involves forsaking the opportunity to set an example, persuade or encourage others to be more reasonable. But perhaps this is the point – we are still too optimistic about how often such opportunities arise, and about how often there’s any reward from taking them.

As someone who has by now spent more than two decades at a university, it’s perhaps easy to accuse me of naiveté here – maybe this is just how people talk in the “real” world, and it’s the Socratic dialogue that was always the fantasy. If it is civilised conversation you want, in other words, have it with carefully selected friends or in a filter bubble you’ve created for that purpose.

Outside of those environments – which bring with them a limitation on our own capacity to learn from difference, and from debate – it sadly seems true that most of the time, our engagements with abusive elements of the Internet are doing nothing to stem the tide of anger and misunderstanding. In the meanwhile, though, they do give the trolls something else to scream about.

Daily Maverick Free Speech Morality Politics

On dealing with trolls

As submitted to Daily Maverick

One of the things that the Internet has been good for is broadening the range of perspectives in any given conversation. Of course certain barriers need to be overcome: to participate, you need an Internet connection and a suitable gadget. Nevertheless, conversations have been democratised, thanks at least in part to being able to more easily discover who is interested in talking about the same things as you, and the fact that it’s relatively inexpensive to join in.

However, the filter-bubble remains a problem. Not only do the personalisation features of search engines like Google give you results that reinforce existing prejudices; we also like it that way – it’s called confirmation bias, and too few of us take active steps to combat its negative implications (if we’re even aware of the potential need to do so). There’s another concern though, one that I’ve mentioned in the past but would like to explore a little further today: the question of online abuse and the extent to which it might cause some voices to withdraw from the conversation entirely.

An example from a few minutes ago will serve to illustrate: “screw u, u doos, first of 90% of big business in S.A is owned by whites and top man is white, so cry me a river!!!” is what someone just told me on Twitter after I repeated an overheard joke about members of the UCT Senate’s prospects of employability at Woolworths.

Now, seeing as some folk have been calling me a racist for a few weeks now, thanks to my defending  Woolworths and SAA’s affirmative action policies, we can be sure that the grammar-impaired person who tweeted that at me is clearly unaware of this context. That’s fine – I’d expect most people to be. However, just in case there is some context, one might think a little tempering of the hostility is merited when (over)hearing something that offends you.

Not so for this person, it seems, and increasingly not so for those who comment in these pages and elsewhere. And then there’s the next layer of trouble, which is where the filter-bubble ends up resulting in a congregation of these hair-trigger folks into one “room”, as it were. At some point, all possibility for debate ceases to exist because of the mutually-assured idiocy of a collection of angry people, each paying less attention than the next.

Because there seems to be no chance of changing anyone’s mind, some of those who might otherwise try to do so eventually resort to measures like turning off comment functionality, stop engaging in comment threads, and eventually – stop engaging with certain pockets of the Internet at all. This has two consequences: the collection of trolls and angry folk are made more homogenous, and thus apparently stronger, and likewise, the collection of those who consider themselves “virtuous” is furnished with another example of why they are special, and right – and their homogeneity increases too.

So, one day we’ll end up with half the Internet grunting angrily at each other, while the other half recites passages from Plato. Unless we find some way to arrest this escalation of hostilities, or unless I’m wrong about the trend (and I hope I am). In a future column I hope to explore potential legal remedies for online bullying, such as those currently being considered in New Zealand and elsewhere. But because less regulation is always preferable to more, we should also consider what each of us could or should do, simply in our capacity as members of the Internet community.

First, I’d argue that we can sometimes be accused of placing too little or too much emphasis on history, and not enough on our own conduct. Too little, in the sense of the tweet I quote above where zero effort was made to see if an interpretation is the correct one. And then too much, in the sense that we sometimes expect new entrants to a conversation to know minute and technical historical details of that conversation – and then abuse them when they get a detail wrong. There’s sometimes too little patience for any kind of induction period, and so-called “newbies” need the thickest skins of all.

To remedy this problem, I offer one suggestion: that when a debate gets heated, we should try to remember that no matter what’s come before, we’re constantly at a new decision-point, where we – and only we – are responsible for what we say in response to something we find provocative. Sure, someone else has committed a wrong, and we can be inflamed by that. But essentially juvenile questions of “who started it”, while diverting, seldom help illuminate the question of how it can be ended. In other words, I’m suggesting that we learn (or remember) some manners.

Daily Maverick External World

Is Google making us stupid?

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

It is not the Internet, or Google, that is making is stupid – it’s our brains. We’ve never been as smart as we’d like to think we are, and the current fashion of looking for reasons why we feel less clever than before partly amounts to a hope to find excuses – someone to blame – for our attention deficits.

It is of course true that there is more information available to us than ever before, and the amount of available information grows exponentially every day. But there has always been more information available than we can comfortably pay attention to, at least since Gutenberg made printed material available to the masses.

What changed are our cultural dispositions in terms of agency and blame – we used to understand that mastering a field took time and effort, and that work was required to filter signal from noise. Now, we blame the noise, even as we no longer invest the time and effort required for mastery of a field.

External World General

Passing the buck

Part of my routine, accompanying the second cup of coffee, is my morning browse through the 100 or so items that have accumulated in Google Reader overnight. As any of you who use it would know, it’s a very useful way to stay on top of peripheral interest areas, so long as you keep a firm editorial hand.

What I mean is that – as with most sources of information – if you don’t pay attention to filtering, the signals are soon drowned out by noise, and something quite interesting from one source can get drowned out by 10 links from some blogger who should really save his one-liners and links for Twitter (or keep them to himself).