Trigger Warning: Reality Hurts


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In their 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write about a culture of “safety-ism” that arose in the early 2010s. They called it “safetyism” because it was a collection of morals and values that obsessed over and optimized everything for young people to feel safe and comfortable. This meant parents not letting their children play outside alone. It meant removing upsetting or controversial content from television, the internet, or news media. And yes, it also included trigger warnings.

The aims of safety-ism were noble. They saw that young people were experiencing greater amounts of anxiety, stress, and depression than previous generations and sought to remedy their angst by protecting them from anything that could potentially harm or upset them.

But this is not how the human mind works. The human mind is not fragile—it does not need to be protected and cushioned from the hard surfaces of reality like a vase or piece of fine china. The human mind is antifragile—that is, it gains from discomfort and strain. That means to grow stronger, the human mind needs to regularly be confronted with difficult and upsetting experiences to develop stability and serenity for itself.

Unlike most people, I’m actually optimistic that safety-ism has peaked. It’s been years since I’ve gotten an email complaining about trigger warnings. I get far fewer emails complaining about upsetting content or accusing me of some form of bigotry or fascism. Either I’ve successfully alienated all of those readers out of my audience or many of them are finally realizing and accepting that this bizarre “woke” version of the world is unrealistic and untenable.

Either way, surveys show that these sorts of ideas are not exactly popular. Most people don’t believe trigger warnings work. Only a small but loud minority does—17% of people, according to one survey.

But think about it this way. If you’re running a news media company in a highly competitive environment with razor-thin margins and you know that including trigger warnings can make 17% of people like your publication that much more, why not include them? Why not promote them? That 17% of readers can be the difference between a profitable year and an unprofitable year. They can be the difference between hiring more staff and firing them.

So you use them. They’re easy. They take no effort. And the 83% of people who don’t believe they work likely won’t notice or care anyway.

Then when you use them, your competitors start using them because they also want to win over that 17%. Pretty soon, everyone’s got trigger warnings. And suddenly, there’s this awkward sense that, “Wow, trigger warnings are everywhere—so I guess everyone must believe in them.”

And yet, most people don’t.

Like most things online, it’s a mirage. It’s simply another example of the great internet funhouse mirror: the views of loud minorities get exaggerated and the views of the silent majority are squashed and minimized.

Don’t lose sight of reality. Yes, the hard, persistently unpleasant, always surprising reality. Not the one invented in the minds of the mob on Twitter.

And never, ever email me about this dumb shit ever again.

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