Why we need trigger warnings

Posted below is the link to an article that recently popped up in my newsfeed (TW: sexual violence, rape, Islamaphobia, sexism):

http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/claire-fox-the-fear-of-giving-offence-is-killing-democracy-and-stifles-truth-a3245226.html

You’ll notice that for the above post (and for the content that follows), I included trigger warnings. This may seem ironic, considering that the article in question is arguing against the use of trigger warnings. In it, author Claire Fox contends that trigger warnings are creating a generation of overly sensitive, politically correct “special snowflakes” that need to toughen up.

One of the first examples she references is the recent terror response practise in Manchester, in which the actor playing a terror suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he detonated a fake bomb. Claire Fox is derisive of the backlash to this, saying that instead, Manchester Police should be praised for preparing so vigilantly for a potential terror threat.

In this she is right: the police should be praised for being prepared. After all, sources indicate that the security services believe that the UK is at high risk of potential terror threats. What was not acceptable, however, was the use of religious language during the bombing. Such language spreads fear and prejudice: it lends credence to the idea that “all Muslims are terrorists” or at the very least “all terrorists are Muslims”, both of which are patently untrue. Islamaphobia has been on the rise in the UK in last few years, with The Sun recently claiming (misleadingly) that 1 in 5 British Muslims are “sympathetic” to jihadis and reports that hate crimes against Muslims (and in particular, Muslim women) have risen by nearly 70% in London alone since 2014.

The use of Islamic language was also incredibly offensive. Either Fox doesn’t realise – or doesn’t care – that the phrase “Allahu Akbar” has actually been co-opted by Islamist jihadis as part of their crusade against the West. However, the phrase has roots much deeper than that. Literally translated, the phrase roughly means “God is great.” It is said during Islamic prayers, as well as after the birth of a child. To use it as a “prop” during a fake police siege is in poor taste.

Next, on to Claire Fox’s main claims: that trigger warnings make us weak and overly sensitive. As her first example, she references Oxford law lectures, which have been given trigger warnings for content such as rape and murder. Fox laughs this off, ignoring the very real need for trigger warnings. Fox completely fails to acknowledge the effect that rape can have on the women (and men) subjected to it. Around half of women who are raped experience PTSD. This can include – but is not limited to – depression, anxiety, nightmares, trouble sleeping, and numbness. Now, imagine you are a survivor studying at Oxford University. You walk into your lecture, maybe chatting with your friends about what has happened over the weekend. And then, the lecture starts, and you are exposed – without any prior warning – to images and words that could be deeply distressing. To suggest that trigger warnings are “weak” and that students need to be “thicker skinned” is the height of callousness and thoughtlessness.

Fox also has a lot to say about the idea of political debate needing to be offensive. Of course political debate will often become heated: of course, people will have clashing opinions and different views. But why does that imply that those views need to be offensive? One could have a rational debate, for instance, about whether or not equality legislation is the best way of achieving feminist goals without either side being offensive. Conversely, Donald Trump referring to numerous women as “fat pigs” and “slobs” is extremely offensive, but hardly politically radical. The problem is that the kind of people who shout the loudest for “free speech” and “open debate” are always the ones who benefit from those structures. They are the people who don’t mind being offensive: because they have no concept of how it feels to be on the receiving end. As a woman, I don’t have that luxury. Neither do other marginalised groups. Rape survivors at Oxford do not need trigger warnings because they have a right not to be “offended”, but because they have the right to protect their mental health. For those who have never needed to do that, the distinction may be lost.

It is not “weak” or “sensitive” or “politically correct” to be a decent human being. Don’t utilise religious language for staged terror plots. Don’t mock sexual assault survivors. Don’t needlessly offend other people just to make your point. To sum up: don’t be a dick.

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