Trigger warnings and run away safety culture

Safety is an interesting concept. What do you think you need in order to feel completely safe? What would make you feel safer? Here’s another question, would spending countless hours thinking about what would make you feel safer, make you feel safer, or would it trap you in a spiral of ever increasing anxieties?

The left has become obsessed with safety in a way we find counterproductive. This includes institutions like trigger warnings, and other ways of relentlessly trying to avoid triggers. Our critique will focus on institutions created around preventing triggering, particular the trigger warning. However it could be extended to some other forms of concern about safety on the left. This is not to say that we consider safety to be unimportant or uninteresting. We feel the left has gone out of balance on these issues, and consequently is harming vulnerable people.

The kind of focus on safety in interpersonal contexts that we are critiquing here about has no limit. There will never be a point where people stop saying triggering things to each other without trigger warnings. Instead we are left with a permanent war for safety, as futile as a puritan war on sin or the American war on drugs. In our opinion it is at least as counterproductive.

We say counterproductive because for us and many of the people we’ve talked to about this, nothing serves to reinforce our ongoing experience of trauma quite as well as endless fussing about safety. Every trigger warning, every discussion about whether or not something might be triggering, brings to the edge of our consciousness the experience of trauma, but doesn’t even give us the opportunity to face it head on. As we scroll through the Facebook pages and read:

Trigger warning- Rape

Trigger warning- Depression

Trigger warning- Suicide

Trigger warning- Violence

Over and over and over and over again we are constructed, over and over, as the vulnerable subjects of trauma. We are reminded of trauma by endless efforts to exclude it. Not only do the memories still come, but we are increasingly encouraged to see those memories as triggering. Past experiences that we may not have previously thought were traumatic begin to be experienced as trauma.

All we can say is that in our experience, trigger warnings have not been helpful. We suspect that this experience is quite common. We also suspect that many trauma survivors have been encouraged to think that trigger warnings are helping them cope with their trauma, where in reality trigger warnings have been counterproductive.

We recognize that there is a diversity of experiences, but tentatively propose the abolition of trigger warnings, and similar institutions which aim to exclude triggering experiences.

To put the case in point form:

1      Trigger warnings make us less safe by encouraging us to obsess over our safety. The more time we spend thinking about it, the more we begin to identify as unsafe. Things that were previously just at the margins can become quite threatening. Constant debate and discussion about safety won’t let it out of our minds, and so thinking about the concept begins to overwhelm us.

2.       Trigger warnings make trauma, and our recollection of trauma, eternally salient. Thus we encounter not just the word “rape”, for example, but a reminder that rape may remind us of our trauma, the association between our memories, and the traumatic experience of those memories, is strengthened. At the same time we never directly confront our memories full on, so we have the worst of both worlds, trauma is at the edge of consciousness, but not quite there. Trigger warnings seem to be helping, because they enable us to avoid full blown recollection of trauma in contexts where they are used consistently, but in the long run the practice strengthens the traumatic aspects of our memories.

3.       Trigger warnings enable us to avoid recollecting trauma. You may respond that this gives us the choice of whether to confront our trauma or not, but things are not so simple. When we are given the option of avoiding recollections of trauma, it can be hard not to take it. Trigger warnings can enable the self-destructive behavior of avoidance. We may not wish to engage in such avoidance, but the temptation is strong, and trigger warnings have the potential to enable that.


Written by a group of trauma survivors of which Tim is a part.


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Identity politics and materialism, the practical differences

To my delight, The Case for Class has generated considerable discussion lately, so I thought I’d try and expand on it a little, in particular to make clearer some of the practical differences, since the discussion is a little abstract at the moment.

The first thing you must understand is that identity politics and class politics are not simply different areas of activism. Identity politics does not mean “politics done around womanhood, queerness, disability and the rights of people of colour”. Class politics does not mean “politics done around worker’s struggles”. Rather within both class politics and identity politics there are approaches to every modality of struggle. Class, queerness, anti-racism, feminism, disability activism, indigenous rights and even the environment are all areas where both materialists and supporters of intersectional-identity approaches have developed approaches, each known as a “praxis”. Thus while there’s nothing necessarily incoherent about suggesting a balance between identity and materialist approaches, suggesting we do so that we can keep doing activism in every area is the wrong reason for it.

Nor does the difference of approaches necessarily result in an emphasis on directly class related activism by materialists, or non-class by intersectionalists. For example, at various points in time and locations some materialists have suggested that womanhood or ethnicity is the key points of possible rupture for class society. The differences in praxis are mostly about approach, not subject matter.

This is perhaps best illustrated with an example. During the Vietnam War, a struggle between American and USSR imperialism, a common slogan was “we are all Vietnamese”. Now why would anyone say this, given that almost all saying it weren’t –literally speaking- Vietnamese? In my view and the view of the protestors, the very same structures and people that created and led the imperialist war in Vietnam –the state apparatus and capitalism- oppressed them. What mattered directly was not their commonality or difference in experience, but the commonality of their enemy. Further, since that enemy wished to divide them, and had created over centuries a structure of races and nations to do so, it would be foolish to accept division. In their view, it was in their interests to seek the destruction of racism and nationalism.

Yes, in the short term they benefited from the higher wages and greater security of living in an imperialist nation. In the long run only the ruling class benefited. Of course they were better off than the Vietnamese in so many ways, in a sense this was the point of the slogan, it was a way of saying- “we see through your attempts to bribe us into inaction”.

The key question then, and one that spills over into debates about, for example, the relative importance of micro-aggressions* mostly within the class versus society wide structural disparities, is whether the working class ultimately has unified political interests (at least for the most part, or on the whole), or whether it doesn’t. With some reservations I accept the claim that the working class has the capacity to form a historic bloc, with the interest and power to destroy both the bourgeoisie and itself as a class, and to negate all identities. Moreover, I believe that politics founded on class struggle has the best shot at advancing the interests of the oppressed immediately as well.

*Obviously I don’t endorse the view that micro-aggressions don’t matter, or shouldn’t be challenged. I know of no one on the left who does.

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Our situation and its prospects, an appraisal

It’s widely thought that we live in a period of political apathy. I agree only as far as disgust and felt helplessness can mimic the symptoms of apathy.

More than ever, state and corporate power is perceived as unresponsive to democratic demands. Whether this perception exists because in an age of transnational capital, popular demands are by necessity or opportunity more likely to be ignored, or for some other reason I will leave to the side. Consequently we feel disgust (both at the actions of the state, and at its hypocrisy in claiming to be democratic) and helplessness (because the state never seems moved by our complaints).

In one sense disgust and helplessness are in perfect harmony, one doesn’t contradict oneself if one thinks that something is both disgusting and unchangeable. In another sense though, these two feelings stand in a performative contradiction. When we are disgusted by something we tend to either flee it, or attempt to abolish it unless something else prevents us, or gives us a reason not to. This is where felt helplessness plays its part; it restrains most of us, most of the time, from attacking the present state of things. As a result we resolve our disgust as best we can by “fleeing” the political, or watching it with morbid fascination. However complete escape from or denial of capital’s power is an absurdity as long as it pervades our lives, so our felt helplessness and disgust are at war- do we strike out or stand still?

This tension leads to two interesting phenomena:

                   *An increasing number of us reject bourgeoisie ideology (for our disgust), but seem to be uninterested in finding alternatives (because of our despair).

                   *One can see the beginnings of a phenomenon of sudden ‘flips’. Individuals who displayed little previous interest in politics, suddenly engaging in high intensity political activity. This represents the sudden swing as disgust finally comes to outweigh despair, whether through a sudden flash of hope, or the slow accumulation of disgust coming to predominate.

Now oddly enough I think this landscape I’ve painted of all pervasive disgust and despair gives us substantial grounds for hope. All that’s needed at any moment is for disgust to hit maximum, or despair to abate, and suddenly everything is fragile. There is space for cascades, as the sudden recognition of power leads to victories, leading to further recognition of power, and on and on. Any situation which depends on the uneasy victory of despair over disgust will not remain static.

Strategically and tactically, it suggests that we are fighting on unstable ground. We can’t depend on permanency or continuity, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek continuity; networks of counter institutions are necessary to receive and support with community and acquired skills those who decide they can’t stand it anymore. Increasingly we will have to remain mobile, prepared to orient in solidarity to struggles that come out of nowhere and do not follow our preferred agenda (certainly not our preferred schedule).

That all things should be held in common.

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“Fuck”, Abbott and delicate sensibilities

Here at blogging the end we don’t normally blog about day to day politics, we hold ourselves a little above the fray. However, the attacks against CAAH for use of the word “fuck” on a recent poster are so ridiculous that I feel something has to be said.

First up, let’s deal with the absurd complaints about democracy and representation. CAAH doesn’t claim to represent the queer community. It’s not claiming to speak on your behalf. You don’t have to agree with everything it says. CAAH meetings are open and publicly advertised; everyone is more than welcome to participate. It certainly hasn’t “hijacked” the same-sex marriage campaign, it’s been at the forefront of the campaign from the very beginning, often in the early days it was the only group campaigning on the issue after more mainstream gay groups wrote the cause off as too “extreme”.  CAAH has been consistently organising rallies and actions drawing in hundreds, sometimes thousands of participants. Meanwhile other groups have favoured largely invisible and seemingly meaningless lobbying campaigns. On balance I think it is figures like Roodney Croome who have hijacked the movement, declaring themselves leaders and holding court over what tactics are and aren’t allowed.

Nor was CAAH itself “hijacked” by Socialist Alternative. The proposed poster received enthusiastic support from the Greens, independents and anarchists within the collective. The only tendency within the collective which opposed the poster was socialist alliance. More than 75% of those present voted in favour of the proposal. I’m not a member of Socialist Alternative, in fact my politics are at the very opposite corner of the radical left, but I and everyone I talk to in the collective, with the exception of my friends in Socialist Alliance, support the decision wholeheartedly.

Secondly, let’s get real on what the queer rights campaign is going to look like in this environment. Tony Abbott is going to be an ugly, ugly prime-minister for pretty much everyone who isn’t part of the ruling class. His election signals the determination of Murdoch, Rhineheart et al. to commence a vicious program of austerity, held together by a politics of hate, fear and division among the working people. We all know this to be true, even if we wouldn’t use precisely those words to say it. We need to pushback early if we want to limit the damage and reduce the number of items he ticks off his agenda.

Community Action Against Homophobia has taken the admirable step of signalling early that they won’t nod sagely while he destroys lives, mumbling that at least he has a “mandate”. They’re carving out a space for a resistance to Tony which is stiff and fierce- not some pliant “loyal opposition”.  They’re getting in early, setting the tone, and not waiting till it’s too late.

The advocates of moderation keep saying that tone matters, and I agree. The pleading, falsely “positive” tone they suggest; fiercely on message and fiercely single issue, will at very best, scrape through marriage equality. It definitely won’t create the kind of fight-back we need to defend our community against broader attacks- attacks on youth services, community organisations and Medicare.

In any case Tony Abbott is not going to be persuaded via constant cajoling moaning. If he’s willing to say publicly that gays make him feel uncomfortable, what do you think his real views are? I’ve read his stuff in Honi, from when he was president. I fear I could hazard a few guesses.

We need to energise opposition if we want gay marriage passed, let alone if we want to protect our community from Abbott’s broader agenda. Any idea that we’re on the home-stretch and just need to do a little sweet talking should have been thoroughly discredited by Abbott’s election.  It’s time to toughen up.

Finally, I just want to say that even if this poster is a strategic mistake (and I repudiate that claim completely) a far worse strategic mistake is dividing the movement by publicly attacking and undermining activist work you disagree with. Lord knows we put up with a lot of nonsense from the so called moderates in the queer rights movement for the sake of unity, the least they could do is extend a similar courtesy.

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Philosophers’ Carnival #155

Another month, another Philosophers’ Carnival. Philosophers’ Carnival #155 if I’m not mistaken. This month we have a rich crop of formal content, but never fear if that’s not your area- we’ve much other stuff too. Thanks to all who submitted, and all those who read. Without further ado, here are our entries:



Further Thoughts on Reductio Proofs– by Catarina Dulith Novaes at M-Phi (cross-posted at NewAPPS).

Catarina discusses the concept of the reductio proof and makes this reader quite impressed.



Inconsistency in Mathematics – by Jeffrey Ketland at M-Phi.

Jeffrey explores the intersection of the epistemic theory of truth, and mathematical inconsistency.



The Elenchus and Socrates’ Ideal of the Philosophical Life – by Louis WIlliam Rose at the Florida Student Philosophy Blog.

Louis takes a close look at the life, person, ideas and philosophy of life of Socrates of Athens.



Progress in Logical Priors – by Abram Demski at In Search of Logic.

Abram considers issues at the intersection of probability theory and logic, beyond my ken I must confess, but it seems fascinating.



Apparent Vagueness and Graded Harms – by Richard Yetter Chappell at Philosophy et cetera.

Vagueness and normative ethics might seem to be at opposite ends of the concerns of academic philosophy. Not so says Richard who explores their overlap from the perspective of his famously trenchant utilitarianism.



Graded Propositional Knowledge – by Blake Myers at Brains (cross-posted at Experimental Philosophy).

Can propositional knowledge come in degrees? Blake thinks so.



Introspective Attention: Transparency or Acquaintance? Part 1 – by Wayne Wu at Brains.

Introspection? Is it immediate or mediated, definite or doubtable? Philosophers have been chewing these questions for a long time now. Wayne wants to know as well, considering questions of introspective attention.



Preface and Reflection – by Jon Kvanvig at Certain Doubts.

What are we to make of the preface paradox? A question that has kept many a formal epistemologist up at night. Does Jon have the answers? Find out here.



Three Dimensions of Disagreement about Emotional Experience – by Eric Schwitzgebel at The Splintered Mind.

Emotions seem to present themselves so directly to us that the question of inaccuracy or disagreement over their nature might seem odd or even inapt. Eric taxonimises disagreement about emotion.



The Computational Theory of the Laws of Nature – by Terrance Tomkow at

What is the best formal theory of what a law of nature is? Terrance has a few thoughts.



Meaningless Identities – by Robbie at Metaphysical Values.

How to make sense of identity statements? A long vexed problem since they seem to be either trivial or meaningless. Robbie throws his hat into the ring.



Goldberg and the Problem of Anonymous Assertions – by Elisa Freschi at sanscrite cogitare, sanscrite loqui.

Indian philosophy and philosophy of language meet in Elisa’s fascinating blogpost.



 Whose Freedom? – by Timothy Scriven

And lastly (and most definitely leastly), you can find my consideration of the intersection of capitalism, communism and accounts of freedom here.


Next edition will be at Sprachlogik. Submit your work or someone else’s work here:

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Whose Freedom?

The subtitle of this blog is “Let all things be held in common.” i.e. “let communism”. When asked why I support communism my reply is always “human freedom”. I often get perplexed looks. The normal dialectic for public consumption is between freedom and equality. On one hand communism is said to promote equality whereas some kind of hypothetical American “libertarian” utopia is said to promote freedom. Political decision making is then presented as a sort of balancing act between these two extremes.

It’s easy to see how this dialectic became popular; I don’t want to dismiss it as laughable. The so called “communist” regimes of the Eastern Bloc did indeed have more “equality” and less “freedom” than capitalist America. The kind of communism I envisage has nothing to do with state power or ownership (or the state at all) but that’s a broader topic. Here I just want to look critically at the claim that capitalism represents freedom.

For most of human history after the invention of agriculture some individuals have produced on behalf of others. The transfer of wealth took many forms: tithes, rent, tribute and taxation to name a few. Further, this wealth was extracted primarily through non-economic power. Both the slave-master and the feudal lord received tribute because they directly held military power. Capitalism appears to be a break with that. Certain individuals own capital, they invite others to work with it, producing goods or services in exchange for a wage. Everyone is free to either accept or reject any particular offer of employment. Indeed they are free to reject all offers if they so choose (of course this means they will go without, but this is their choice). Capitalism appears, on the surface, to be a system that does not rely on violence, threat or theft for its continuation.

But of course it does. If we try to deploy capital for our own purposes, without the mediation of the wage relation, or the permission of the owner, if we try to create the necessities or luxuries of our lives without sanction, we will most likely be arrested, and depending on the country, possibly shot at. The world is divided up into little fiefdoms, all we possess is our bodies and brains, and if we want to eat we’d best sell one or the other or both for forty hours a week. Somehow this is meant to represent freedom. On the face of it at least this is bizarre.

 We’re told a story about property rights to try and make this plausible. Different things and bits of land belong to different people. To use them without permission is to violate rights, and thus freedom. For example, to try to sleep in a house that is not your own, even if no one else is living there is to violate the owner’s freedom. The police who arrest you in the owner’s name are simply protecting the rights of the owner.

If you ask “why does that house belong to the owner, such that they can exclude anyone else from using it, even if they are not using it themselves”, you will be told “because they bought it”. If you ask “why did the previous owner have such rights over the house” you will again most likely be told “because they bought it”. You can keep tracing things back, until eventually you’ll generally find an owner who seized it by conquest or force. Similar stories exist for the raw materials that makeup capital (machinery etc). If you go back far enough, ownership always originates in violence, and further, it’s always continued through violence in the present.

Part of this story is the well known tale of the enclosures, the real “tragedy of the commons”. Beginning in 16th century England, communal land that had previously belonged to a number of peasants collectively since time immemorial was enclosed and assigned to individual wealthy landowners. According to many, this created the modern working class by dispossessing us of any means through which to live except the sale of our labour (“communism is the ongoing protest against the enclosures” quipped one wit.) There’s an ironic sense in which that which was being enclosed in these “enclosures” was not just the land, but we, the working class. As our traditional means of subsistence were divvied up, we ourselves were enclosed, or made captive to the wage-labour relation.

More generally the sort of capitalist story we’ve sketched out here about freedom is a common pattern in the history of the concept. Dr Johnson wondered why it was always the drivers of negroes who yelped loudest for liberty. Earlier, ancient Greek and Roman slave-owners wrote extensively on liberty. Later, in present times, big capitalists and their supporters won’t shut up about it either. All too often, freedom is presented as the absence of constraints in exercising power over others. Yet there are other visions of freedom. It is no accident that the oppressed of the world have repeatedly raised the banner of freedom in their revolts and struggles since we first have records on the matter.

 I want to suggest a criterion for evaluating any theory of freedom. A proper theory of freedom would imply that Freedom as a cause matters at least as much to the powerless, as to the powerful. Probably more so, since surely oppression is the inverse of freedom. The capitalist theories of freedom don’t offer anything to those without power, for freedom is presented as the freedom to exercise power. If freedom is to be more than a defence of privilege it must meet this desideratum.

I think the best alternative notion of freedom identifies it with capacity to live in a variety of different ways[1]. Freedom is the power to choose between a vast array of different possible lives and moments within a life. Freedom is, in other words, what John Holloway called power-to, the power to live and be and act in a million possible different ways, contrasted with power-over, or the power to control others. To be free, one must be well-fed, one must be safe, one must be well informed and one must be loved.

Earlier we suggested that we were sceptical of the claim that communism privileges equality and capitalism privileges freedom. Actually we think the inverse is true. Communism presents us with the possibility of living multitudes of different lives, even within one life, it offers the chance to be differently, unconstrained by the wage relation, or the spectacle of normative advertising. It is capitalism which denies freedom to the vast majority of those who live, and further requires their conformity into a society wide system of domination (i.e. their equality).

We’ve argued that Capitalism is a system for denying freedom that claims as its chief virtue the promotion of freedom. It forces us to work for others to survive by giving them absolute but morally arbitrary control over various productive resources. We’ve suggested that an alternative model of freedom links it to capacity to choose different lives for ourselves. But why should any of this matter?

It matters firstly because freedom, as we have argued, is not capitalism’s front foot. It is the terrain on which it is most weak, because it can’t keep its own promises. Just like all forms of class society before it, it relies on violence to extract surplus. Once the argument of freedom is denied to capitalism all that is left to it is the bare argument of efficiency, which essentially amounts to the claim that it is a necessary evil.

But more importantly perhaps, these ‘contradictions’ are widening. A larger and larger portion of our economy is based on information and knowledge production, as well as other forms of immaterial labour. These forms of labour are very poorly incorporated into the existing frameworks of capitalism, precisely because they require a degree of autonomy it finds difficult, if not impossible to provide. Thus this central problem of capitalism, its vexed relation to freedom, is increasingly coming to the fore. To the extent that domination is present, creativity isn’t, and vice-versa[2]. Capitalism must increasingly deny the very creative forces it has summoned, often murdering the goose that laid the golden egg in the process. What better time to deny capitalism’s central lie, that it is the society of the free?

[1] About four different literatures suggest something like this approach independently and the idea has been floating around since time immemorial so I can hardly claim this as original. I’m told that Sen supports something like this view but it’s definitely not my area.

[2] Most obviously there’s a wealth of literature on how the logic of “publish or perish”, an attempt to metricise academic research, is destroying quality. There’s also a wealth of research on how the quantification of teaching is killing it, on how the rationalisation of therapy and social work is harmful, and perhaps most interestingly a literature on how large technology firms are increasingly reduced to buying up patents.

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Fences cross us

“Property doesn’t merely have a fence around it; it is a fence around us. What was really being enclosed during the enclosures was not the land itself but us, the working class. Property, the differential ownership of the means of production, creates a world in which we are surrounded by objects we could use to survive and to flourish but can’t, unless we conform into the wage relation. If we try to bypass the wage relation and use the property we need, we’re arrested or shot at. We’re trapped in a vast slave camp with no inside or outside.

Liberalism is the feat of making our slavery appear as a precondition for freedom, of suggesting that our exclusion from the control of our own lives is done in the name of freedom. Private property, literally the walls of our prison, is said to be of the essence for freedom. What absurdities.”

-My diary, late 2012

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