Unsafe at any speed

The very first time I ever saw the phrase “trigger warning” I immediately flashed back to White Phase in Basic Combat Training: keep your gawtdamned trigger finger out of the gawtdamned trigger well, crazies! That’s what the Drill Sergeants would yell at us if ever they saw us walking around Hollywood style — our index fingers curled ignorantly in places where our index fingers shouldn’t be curled. Because that’s not a gun, that’s a rifle, and carelessness with a rifle is Very Bad.

Come 2014, and people want us to issue trigger warnings for all kinds of things. What we see, what we hear, and what we read. Or rather, what we might hear or see or read, and how this might touch off all kinds of unfortunate psychological and emotional pyrotechnics. Because (apparently) everyone is a wounded warrior now. Even people who’ve never been in the military, nor experienced any appreciable adversity of any sort. We’re all half a step away from having an episode. So the world needs to be “safed” for us, lest we blunder into hearing or reading or seeing something from which our glass-fragile psyches might not recover.

And it’s not just happening in academia. It’s happening at science fiction conventions too. Guests and panelists being kicked out because of what they might say or they might do, and which will mortally wound the minds of the attendees. Safety’s the thing. All spaces must be kept safe from all hazards, both real and imagined. Our eyeball spaces. Our ear spaces. Our mind spaces. All safe, all the time.

I mean, seriously, come on people. Grownups don’t demand that the world be “safed” for them. Grownups don’t demand the creation of “safe spaces” wherein they won’t have to fear being exposed to uncomfortable ideas or words. Part of growing up means you learn to deal with the fact that the world was not manufactured exactly to your personal specs. It’s bumpy. And even sometimes (gasp) crude. And you just sort of have to shrug and say, “Oh well,” and go on about your business.

That’s what being an adult is.

Case in point. The generation that dropped on Normandy and assaulted the beaches of the Pacific didn’t demand that the world be safed. They were too busy getting torn up by bullets and grenades and cannon shells. Stuff that’ll do a bit more to a man than hurt his feelings.

The great fighters and builders and makers of civilization didn’t espouse this safety crap.

So what’s our freaking malfunction??

Perhaps if there had only been one or two instances of late, of this safety madness, I wouldn’t be so cranky about it. It would be an outlier. But after seeing people demand that Mark Twain be safed and college guest speakers getting booted from commencements and a British celebrity being kicked out of the World Science Fiction Convention, and now even fans are being kicked out or denied participation based purely on rumors that they’re going to “unsafe” the con . . . this is not how adults respond to the world. I am sorry, it’s just not.

Time for some tough love.

Never at any moment in history has anyone ever paraded through life without being rubbed wrong. Because the world is filled with a spectrum of ideas held by a spectrum of people, not all of which (nor all of whom) are going to agree with each other. Putting your big-boy or your big-girl pants on means going out into the world regardless of whether or not you think it’s safe, and seeing and hearing all that the world contains, and learning to filter that content (for yourself) so that you are in charge of how you feel and you are the master of your own psychological state. Not others. You.

Today I got back to Utah after spending two weeks doing what the Army calls Master Resilience Trainer training. Like virtually all sound psychological science of the last 20 years, MRT is designed to empower individuals to be their own best helpers, when dealing with adverse situations and the fallout that comes from living stressful, perhaps even dangerous lives. MRT is part of a comprehensive soldier fitness program being implemented to not only help soldiers with PTSD, but to also help people prepare themselves before they become victims of PTSD. It’s a bit like mental combatives: be ready to tackle your thoughts and your feelings hand-to-hand.

Guess what? Not once — during the entire MRT course — did anyone ever utter these words: do nothing to change yourself, because it’s always someone else’s fault.

When you make it the job of other people to protect your feelings for you, you are giving other people power that they should not be given. It’s never going to work. The moment you tell yourself that you will be hurt because the other person can’t or won’t stop hurting you — with words — you’ve put the other person in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t matter if (s)he is a truly despicable individual, or maybe just someone who is careless of the sensibilities of others, or (dare I say it?) maybe you personally just don’t have a thick skin. Once you’ve surrendered your control over your own thoughts and emotions, you’re a casualty waiting to happen. Life is going to run you down or run you over.

So, while all this safing may be well-intended, it’s ultimately fostering immaturity. Nerfing the universe doesn’t build solid adults. It builds adult children running around in oversized bodies. You can hang a thousand literary reflective belts on every potentially offensive book in the library, and all that’s going to do is immediately separate a) the actual adults who want to be exposed to new and different things, from the b) large children who insist that the intellectual landscape never disturb nor upset them in any way, shape, or form. Ditto for safing guests invited to speak at universities. Or people who go to science fiction conventions. You cannot nerf these arenas without destroying the intellectual vitality of same.

Psychological foam padding and ideological wet floor signs cannot protect you from the fact that you are the captain of your soul. Attempting to freight others with what you are responsible for, simply won’t work. All it’s going to do is retard your personal emotional and mental resilience. Because sooner or later all of us run into situations where reflective belts and wet floor signs get ripped away by the tornadoes of life. You can either own your reactions and your feelings, thereby owning your actions and destiny, or you can let the tornadoes of life own you.

Blaming the tornadoes of life for being the tornadoes of life, is foolish. Yet that seems to be the au cuorant thinking: we must wrap the tornadoes of life in caution tape so that they magically won’t touch us when they come roaring through. We will spray-paint all the Bad Words and Bad Thoughts with day-glo yellow traffic dye, lest some unwary traveler run afoul of them. Likewise we will banish all the Bad People — yellow day-glo road worker vests upon their chests — so that their dangerousness is broadcast to one and all. No more unsafes!

Sorry gang, but reality just does not work like this. No matter how much we want it to.

More to the point, insisting that reality must conform — that we will bend the world to suit our theory — is the proverbial road to hell. We’ll exchange actual ideas for the faux ideas of conformity. We’ll burn (in effigy) original thinkers at the ideological stakes, because they are “dangerous” to the status quo — and make us uncomfortable. A society ostensibly dedicated to free speech, will become obsessed with telling us what we cannot and must not say. We’re getting very close to that point already, with speech codes and other encroachments on the spirit of the First Amendment. It doesn’t matter what the law says, as much as it matters what society actually values.

Do we defend and uphold honest inquiry, and the freedom to think and speak as individuals with free minds?

Or do we “safe the space” — and put ourselves to bed for an interminable period of stifling ideological slumber?


  1. I remember, back a generation or so, when the whole “Everybody’s a winner/we don’t keep score/self esteem” folderol arose. They were the new tools we would use to ensure that every child reached their potential.

    Now some people argued that all this would do would be to raise a generation who were weak in the face of adversity and who wouldn’t know how to deal with real-world challenges. It wouldn’t inspire them, it would stunt them. They would never reach that potential.

    But all the wise, right-thinking people laughed at them. That could NEVER happen!

    Clearly, it happened. Exactly as predicted.

    Not everyone. Not the whole generation by any means. But enough of them that they feel emboldened to demand that the universe be adapted to their feelings, no matter how ridiculous that might be.

  2. Interesting . . . do you get any blowback from these kinds of posts?

    For the record, I agree with you, but this conversation these days is undermined by all sorts of well-intentioned people, some in positions of power, who put forth what they consider reasonable arguments for keeping everyone safe.

    Ultimately, if you are a business, you err on the side of caution. So, some idiot loses his fingers because they lifted a lawnmower while it was running, and we now have kill switches (which I bypass) on all mowers. If people without a clue let their tire pressure get too low, and an accident ensues, we now have tire pressure monitors required on modern cars (interestingly, they do not adjust for altitude, so here where I live we add five pounds to the pressure just so the warning doesn’t go off all the time).

    From a business standpoint, it’s actually a win-win . . . they get to charge more for their product, and it absolves them (somewhat) of liability. Sorry, one more win . . . good will.

    I think that is part of what we see . . . at the individual level, many would agree with you, but in general no one is going to argue something shouldn’t be made ‘safe’. Once the issue is brought up, it cannot be left unaddressed because sure as liquid excrement flows, if something happens they will get sued (they were ‘warned’ and callously refused to do anything about it).

    It’s a little like guns. “No guns allowed” does nothing but give an illusion of safety, but it also gives a store an out . . . they did something.

    I wish it were a different world. I wish people were more self-reliant. I wish all sorts of things . . . but most of all, I wish some passing alien would give me a ride off this rock.

  3. In a rational world, the question would be: safe at what cost? And cost is not (just) in dollars, it’s in other risks as well.

    I can make the streets of America 100% safe. Absolutely, guaranteed zero traffic fatalities. How? Outlaw all traffic. Yes, that’s ridiculous, but the constant argument is “But if it saves one life, it’s worth it!” Indisputably, my plan would save at least one life, so it’s “worth it”. That argument is fallacious, but it’s exactly how people argue. So let’s pretend it’s true. Now what happens? People die, because they can’t get to the hospital. People die, because they can’t get food. People die, because the police and fire departments can’t get to them. People die.

    Moving away from this extreme example… Most precautions have risks of their own. People die. Even if the risks are ONLY economical, people can die because “safety” in one area robs them of the funds to prevent other risks.

    But discussions are seldom about comparative risks. People look at something that MIGHT be done and MIGHT reduce SOME risks, and they never look at the tradeoffs.

  4. Martin: the older I get, the more wary I am of the unintended consequences. Of legislative decisions. Of military decisions. Of decisions I make in my personal life. Intentions and outcomes seem to diverge with alarming rapidity.

  5. In complex systems, unintended consequences are a guarantee. We know they’ll happen, we just don’t know what they’ll be.

    I draw a distinction, though, between unintended consequences and inconvenient consequences. In the abstract (you can fill in your own details, I’m sure)…

    X: We must do Q to solve R!

    Y: Q won’t solve R, and it will cause F.

    X: NO IT WON’T!

    Y: Yes, it will.


    Y: Yes, it will.

    X: You’re wrong. We’re doing Q anyway.

    Y: We’ll be sorry.


    Y: So you did Q, and R got worse.

    X: Yeah, but it would’ve been EVEN WORSE if we didn’t do Q.

    Y: You can’t prove that.


    Y: And F happened, just like we said.

    X: It did not! And you never said that it would, so even if it happened, you’re wrong, ‘cuz it didn’t. But if it did, it’s your fault.

    Y: Let’s review the tape.


    An unintended consequence wasn’t predicted. An inconvenient consequence was predicted and ignored, so now we have to cover that up.

  6. Influenced by my own prejudices and ideologies, I really only have two thoughts on ths topic. 1) Acts of kindness are a good thing and 2) Truth in advertising is a good thing. I find the argument, or variations thereof, “Everyone should be as strong as I am” or “Everyone should be as strong as I think I am” to be troubling and, in the final analysis, unkind. Just as food allergies can be fatal and therefore it is a good thing to have ingredients of food products labeled correctly, victims of violent crimes or people suffering from PTSD can suffer flashbacks from depictions or descriptions of violence. It would seem to be an act of kindness to warn them about potential exposure to things that could harm their health, since flashback experiences do involve harm.

  7. Maryjorabe: acts of kindness compelled by institutions are not acts of kindness, just as redistribution of wealth according to the state is not charity. If you elect to be kind at the individual level, more power to you. If you use institutions or government to force others to be “kind” in the manner and method you desire, then that is an entirely different thing.

  8. Mr. Shoemaker:
    ‘An unintended consequence wasn’t predicted. An inconvenient consequence was predicted and ignored, so now we have to cover that up.’

    This reminds me of my own definition of side-effect: ‘The principal effect of an action, when ignored by persons who would rather direct their attention to a small incidental benefit.’

  9. Well, in the case of food allergies, you can’t depend on the good will of every company producing food to list the ingredients in their products.Individual companies might just not want to bother. There has to be some compulsion. In the case of universities I see it as comparable to making facilities handicapped accessible. Warning those whose health would be endangered by depictions or descriptions of violence that certain media could be dangerous to them is a part of making a university education more accessible, i.e. even to those who are not “strong”. I find it hard to criticize students who demand this of their university.

  10. Maryjorabe: like the potential for botulism, food allergies are a physical and serious health risk. It makes sense for the food industry to be regulated so that consumers are protected. I honestly can’t see the comparison to putting trigger warnings on classics by someone like Mark Twain. Honestly, if reading Mark Twain sends a something-teen college student into a paroxysm, I have to suspect that it’s not the Twain that’s the problem. How many generations of students have been reading Twain without trigger warnings? I mean, if individual professors decide to do this, OK. But if this becomes a mandate — if the college itself as a whole is compelled to do this — I think it’s a rather alarming statement on the a) maturity of the student body, and b) the ability of the college in question to actually prompt its students to inquire, think rationally, and exercise critical social and emotional skills.

  11. As someone who is dealing with PTSD, the trigger warning craze has been driving me a little batty. This isn’t about being strong or weak, but a conscious choice to either remain a victim or not. The cause of my PTSD isn’t my fault, but what I do with it is my responsibility. While I think trigger warning advocates have mostly good intentions, what they’re truly advocating (at least from where I’m standing) is for people to remain victims. If my understanding is correct, you don’t deal with PTSD by running and hiding and requiring the world to wrap you in bubble wrap. It is by turning around and facing the monster chasing you that empowers you to move from victim to survivor to someone who can flourish despite bad things happening.
    Requiring trigger warnings for Mark Twain or any number of things offensive to the certain mindsets only serves to cheapen the very real trauma that people go through and reinforces the victim mindset.

  12. It seems to have escaped everyone that there is no documentation – none – that would reflect people ever having suffered some kind of serious fits or debilitations due to moving around the public arena, e.g. films, literature, TV, classrooms, during the last century. Had there been, wouldn’t we have all heard of it though our own journeys through life and from family and friends? This is not a case of ignoring those in need, but a question of their existence in the first place.

    We are talking about fixing something that was never broken. In any event, one cannot make a padded-cell out of the public arena at the service of the statistical zero people who suffer from an unstable hold on reality. America is not a mental institution.

    So, if there never was a demonstrable problem in the first place, why these initiatives? My own opinion is that it is due to intense activism by people with mental health issues whose own hold on reality is tenuous at best, and they are successfully passing off their worst fears as “social justice.”

    America is to be held hostage to the lowest common denominator of hysterical fear. It’s not all that different from Roswell UFO conspiracy nuts having actual programs installed in universities in case of alien attack or asking for a law mandating helmets outside the house. At some point we must agree there is at least some theoretical limit where I can disagree with insanity without being cast as a heartless Simon Legree.

    Ask yourselves how we ever might’ve tamed frontiers or fought at Guadalcanal under such insane institutional restrictions. The answer is we wouldn’t have dared to do either due to an inquisition of insane people saying “No – we can’t do that. What might happen? We don’t know!!! Anything!!”

    I say eff that.

  13. Warnings for disturbing subject material is certainly appropriate, and it’s not a bad thing to avoid setting off PTSD where that exists.

    But the language of “trigger warnings” is not coming from that sort of sensitivity. Maybe that’s where it started, but the term has been co-opted (trigger warning: cultural appropriation) by censorious prigs who go into pseudo-Victorian fainting spells at the mention of anything they disapprove of. Larry Correia’s satirical “Trigger Warning: Colonialism. Fried Chicken. Shag carpet. The number three and the color blue.” is only barely an exaggeration of actual trigger warnings I’ve seen used non-ironically.

    Stick with sensitivity and common sense.

  14. Those who insist on plastering trigger warnings everywhere forget the First Noble Truth of the Buddha (and the Dread Pirate Roberts): life is pain. The harder you try to suppress it, run from it, or ignore it, the more it comes back; with interest.

    The Enlightened One’s solution of self-annihilation is one sure way to end suffering. As a Christian, I deal with life’s pains and disappointments by striving to forgive my enemies and nailing my suffering to the Cross.

  15. I have no problems with trigger warnings for appropriate material. But, what these people want to warn us about isn’t appropriate. Daniel Pearl and Kim Phuc videos/photos would be, not Twain.

  16. Reblogged this on danettetrue and commented:
    “Nerfing the universe doesn’t build solid adults.” Case in point: Reed College Student Jeremiah True who was banned from his humanities conference, had his movements restricted, and was ultimately excluded from campus *without due process* when he DARED to present logic and factual arguments against the 1 in 5 false assault statistics and challenged the “rape culture” theory on national university campuses. Civil rights violations are occurring in the citadels of highest “learning.”

  17. This is an excellent and well-written piece. You help raise awareness of an important issue and a sinister movement occurring on campuses throughout our country. Many are suffering–some silently, some publicly–and “Nerfing the Universe” does a disservice to our citizens and our nation. I reblogged to danettetrue.wordpress.com. Thank You!

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