In praise of emotional discomfort

Hearing speech that offends you is good – it makes you argue back.

Svetlana Mintcheva

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Topics Free Speech

The United States is nation that is proud of its freedoms, but it is increasingly becoming a nation of the easily – and proudly – offended. Being offended has become something of a political badge of honour. If I find sexist, racist or anti-gay jokes appropriately offensive, I am an enlightened feminist, a champion of minority groups or of gay rights. You even get extra points when you are offended on behalf of a less privileged other.

But taking offence is a complex act with many consequences. Not only does taking offence often become a substitute for any political action that might address 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 genuine community consensus.

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; it does not protect threats, defamation or obscenity, and its ever-evolving list of caveats mirrors changing social attitudes. So, isn’t adding some limits to offensive or discomforting speech simply a way of showing our respect for others, our care for minorities and our maturity as a society?

The problem is that it’s never that simple. Cocooning ourselves off from offensive speech would mean the brutal silencing of a range of voices and ideas. Last month, a high-school principal in Pennsylvania cancelled a school production of Monty Python’s Spamalot because he claimed the show’s scenes of homosexuality could make the student actors feel uncomfortable. Was he thinking of the gay and lesbian students who would be marginalised by this decision? When police in Trenton, New Jersey had a mural of Mike Brown (the teenager shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri) painted over because it made them ‘uncomfortable’, were they thinking of the other black teens who fear police brutality?

The heated controversy over the New York Metropolitan Opera’s current production of John Adams’s opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, which opponents have compared to Nazi propaganda, reveals what taking offence 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 recognising such grievances in no way justifies murder.

Given that political correctness had its origins in academia, it should come as no surprise that America’s growing fear of offence and discomfort has become most ingrained in our universities. This is reflected in the spread of calls for ‘trigger warnings’ to be put on college syllabi. Last year at Oberlin College in Ohio, faculty members 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 ‘remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course-learning goals’. Here is an example of one of the recommended trigger warnings: ‘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 they assume will be inordinately affected by certain material. By couching their request in the language of trauma, those calling for trigger warnings see themselves as validating the painful experience of vulnerable groups, whose experience is not always recognised or acknowledged in society. Given that the percentage of students suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is relatively small, the call for trigger warnings seems less about helping those with genuine mental-health problems, and more about protecting all students from the feeling of emotional discomfort. But, really, how comfortable should students be? A student’s feelings may be hurt when their logic, their ideas and their sensibilities are challenged, but education is about acquiring knowledge – there is no space for ignorant innocence.

The banner of ‘comfort’ is flying over more and more colleges. In the summer, the University of Illinois withdrew a job offer to professor Steven Salaita because they argued his angry tweeting about the Israel-Gaza conflict might make some students uncomfortable. Some went on to claim that the problem was not the content of his tweets, but their tone – their apparent lack of ‘civility’.

I’m all for good manners, but bad manners – angry or offensive speech – should not be used to justify firing professors, censoring curricula or closing down performances. Excising all speech that is hateful, offensive or discomforting is not only impossible, it is necessarily biased towards the views of those with power. Even worse, it is mind-numbing. To silence the ideas that discomfort you means you don’t have to argue with them. Delightful as it may be to lounge in the echo-chamber of the comfortable consensus, this is not how you create a lively and viable political culture. If nothing else, it would be so boring.

Svetlana Mintcheva is the director of programmes at the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), our partners for our New York debate ‘Should even hate speech be free speech?’, which took place at the headquarters of WNYC on 30 October. Listen to a recording of the debate here.

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Topics Free Speech