Trigger Unhappy

Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.

(Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015, np)

Recent articles in The Atlantic (here and here), The New Yorker, and The Guardian, as well as presentations by political commentators Douglas Murray and Sam Harris, Bill Maher (here and here), and even President Obama have highlighted the disturbing influence upon academic life of Trigger warnings and Microagressions. Trigger warnings are alerts preceding a presentation (written, spoken, audio-visual, etc) informing the audience that the material therein may cause an unpleasant emotional reaction. Microaggressions are

the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group. (Campbell & Manning, 2014, p.343)

These are sound ideas in principle – it's why movies are rated by an independent body, restricting viewing access of mature or disturbing content to youngsters, and providing information for any potential viewer on the likely impact upon them. By knowing that challenging content lies ahead, the individual can enter into the experience prepared to deal with the emotional reactions that arise.  Similarly it is reasonable to point out to someone if their words or actions – though innocuous in intent – may be causing offence or harm to another. Indeed, most of us would prefer to be told if we are being clumsily offensive.  Further, the receptivity of the listener is an essential factor in the transmission of ideas and perspectives, and a speaker has an obligation to promote an environment of receptivity where reasonably possible.  This means being sensitive to inherent biases in the listeners (however irrational or immature they may appear), 'taking the pulse of the audience' so to speak.

However, good ideas become bad ones when they are applied without critical thinking.  We all seek to maximize our sense of well-being and safety, but it is an immature fantasy to believe that it can be achieved by protecting oneself (or others) from collision with antagonistic elements of life. The over-zealous policing of others' expressions to protect oneself or others from perceived offence reveals a lack of understanding of the mechanism of human experience.

Experiences in life result from the interaction of object and subject; of external reality and inner personality. The philosophy of Vedanta denotes the ever-changing world with the Sanskrit word dvandva, which translates as Pairs of opposites. The world constantly presents to the individual an admixture of gain and loss, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, praise and censure, war and peace – the list of opposites is endless. An individual’s subjective experience of the world is determined by the meaning that she places upon events. It is not the world per se that disturbs us, but our relationship with it. As Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda describes,1

Emotions arise in response to the meaning structures of given situations; different emotions arise in response to different meaning structures. Emotions are dictated by the meaning structure of events in a precisely determined fashion. ... It is ... the relationship between events and the subject's concerns, and not events as such [that count]. (p. 349)

To illustrate, consider the September 11 attacks in New York. One section of society mourned in shock at news of the event; another celebrated. Almost ten years later, news of Osama Bin Laden's assassination brought celebration to some, mourning to others. A singular event is experienced in diametrically opposing ways according to the structure and quality of the personality: our emotional-intellectual orientation, beliefs, and values.

The attempt to sanitize the world of antagonizing elements presumes the external world to be primarily responsible for the quality and nature of our experiences. It fails to place a fair burden of responsibility upon the individual. To curb others' expressions and otherwise excise potentially confronting elements from our field of experience is an example of wrong understanding leading to wrong effort.

We limit the invaluable opportunity to explore our human potential when we inhibit the healthy collision of dissenting ideas and opposing values that is essential for intellectual and moral growth. Consider the endgame of this push to privilege our emotional comfort as the most important thing. An open landscape of potential human experience will have barriers erected, peaks razed, valleys filled in; intellectual exploration will be curbed, while we remain unaware of the limits imposed. Everyone finds some aspect of life distasteful or upsetting. If everyone is given the right to silence the source of their upset, none will be left with the freedom to speak, and we all lose the freedom to hear. Wrong effort, poor outcome.

Rather than focusing primarily on external factors, efforts should be made to develop the intellect, the capacity for critical thinking, ensuring objectivity. Objectivity can broadly be described as intellect governing mind, and ensures that we are not affected by our emotional reactions. The idea of affectation is vital here, and is worth spending some effort to understand it. As an example, consider the experience of watching a tragic drama. We enter the theatre to watch first Romeo then Juliet commit suicide. Or we sit for hours to see the lovers Jack and Rose parted by death in Titanic. Why do we spend our time and money watching this? Because we long to feel the heartbreak of the protagonists. We live Romeo's anguish as he sees the (ostensibly) dead Juliet; Rose's isolation envelops us as Jack slips under the water and out of sight. Now pass the popcorn. That is, we actively enjoy the power and drama of the heartbreak we are feeling. Our participation as audience members ensures that we feel the heartbreak, but are not affected by it.

If these situations were to happen to us, we would be deeply affected: physically paralyzed, emotionally inconsolable, intellectually incapacitated. The grief pervades our entire subjective experience, shattering our mental peace, dictating attitudes and choices, leaving us unable to function normally.

Thus it is important for our own well-being and for our relationships with others that we remain objective to external circumstances and the reactions arising in the mind. Only when we are unaffected by our experiences can we can determine whether or not we (or others) are actually undergoing harm. An unpleasant experience may not be working against our best interests, a pleasant one may not advance them. However, in the absence of intellectual scrutiny, we conflate what we like with what is true and good, what we dislike with what is false and bad. We then act on that basis without a clear understanding of the consequences, of whose interests are actually being advanced.

Objectivity is gained by scrutinizing the mind's reactions, and permits the 'teasing apart' of personal feelings towards circumstances from conclusions regarding the most appropriate course of action to adopt. We may consider others' expressions or actions insulting or offensive, but this emotional reaction per se should not determine our response to it. The emotion itself is simply a fact of subjective experience, and reveals nothing regarding the best course of action to adopt.

It is important as we take this approach to ensure that we do not stifle the emotions of the mind, nor ignore their valuable role in human life. This can be illustrated by an analogy. The relationship between intellect and mind can be likened to that between parent and child. Young children lack the capacity for self-governance and healthy decision-making, operating purely on personal feelings and like-dislike. The mature parent's responsibility is to carefully attend to the child, guiding its activities towards its best interests.  So too, objectivity implies the intellect's deliberate attentiveness and caring responsiveness to the mind from a perspective that stands outside it. Objectivity is therefore a mark of our maturity. It allows us to remain self-possessed and psychologically balanced in the presence of unfavorable circumstances and unpleasant emotions. The personal aspects of our experiences do not unduly influence our consideration of the best course of action for the situation. This is where the efforts of schools and universities, parents and caregivers, and ultimately each individual should be deployed: in fortifying the intellect to ensure we retain our composure when confronted with an external reality that is offensive or disturbing.

Objectivity is developed through a structured study of the knowledge of higher values. The development of objectivity is therefore each one's primary obligation in life. This obligation is both social and personal: social because an objective individual naturally extends to all the freedom to explore their own intellectual and moral boundaries through self-expression; personal because the higher level of maturity ensures our mental peace and a stable sense of self independent of external circumstances and emotional fluctuations. As contemporary Indian philosopher A. Parthasarathy states,2

Your real duty in life is to remain self-poised, self-pleased. (p.61)


What is meant by higher values?

The Value of Being Offended

1 ^ Frijda, N.H. (1988). The Laws of Emotion. American Psychologist. 43(5), 349-358

2 ^ A. Parthasarathy. (2007). Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities.