Nothing is beyond scrutiny, everything should be up for discussion. Every right we enjoy comes from challenging ideas and fighting for what we believe in. As a liberal, this is very important to me. As a twenty-year-old Swede, I couldn’t wait to start university—a place where my ideas would be challenged and I could grow as a person. Coming from a conservative Muslim background, I have often faced sexism, bigotry and general intolerance—and have not only taken pride in fighting them, it has been a necessity for survival. So, every time I hear calls for censorship, trigger warnings and safe spaces, I view it as an attack on the liberal ideals I believe in and fight for so strongly. If we can’t speak honestly about controversial issues, we can never move forward. The world is a tough place. If we can’t even talk to each other, then we will never be able to handle life. I strongly believe that trigger culture limits liberal values and the progress of society.
And yet, one day, I found myself triggered.
I was sitting quietly, listening to a philosophy lecture, when I suddenly understood the feelings of the students I used to critique—you know, the kind who aren’t able to hear different points of view, and choose anger over conversation. I didn’t act on my feelings, but my heart began to beat more quickly and I had to struggle to breath normally. The lecturer was discussing a subject I used to deal with every day, but now I don’t even feel that I can listen to it being talked about.
My first year at university started with a course on moral philosophy: a subject of great interest to me, which I had tried to read up on, on my own. During the third lecture, the class got into a discussion. The subject was is morality relative? Moral relativism is a worldview I strongly oppose and have much to say about. Then, as two classmates were exchanging views on the subject, one of them asked, “But can you say that religious oppression and honour killings are okay?”
At that moment, I shut down. I could see that my classmates weren’t from the same background as I am and have probably never experienced or even encountered honor culture in any real sense. Sitting in that classroom, listening to my classmates discussing honour killings as an abstract issue far removed from their own lives, enraged me. The student arguing in favour of relativism tried to defend her stance. She said that the only reason she felt honour killings were wrong was because she was raised in the west, adding that the west punishes such behaviour because of our western beliefs, but that we should never force other cultures to abide by our values. The teacher asked if it wouldn’t be unjust if our legal system were to operate on those moral grounds and she couldn’t respond. The lesson continued and the discussion was over.
Once the conversation had ended, the students didn’t have to deal with the issue any longer. Once they stopped thinking about it, it went back to being a distant issue that they will never have to encounter in real life. To me, that felt unfair: I was listening to people talking about my struggles as a purely theoretical issue—when I have to deal with these issues every day. I felt alienated from the rest of the class. I felt that I didn’t belong there. I was the helpless subject they were trying to help, but I didn’t feel helpless.
I have direct experience of living in an honour culture. Honour culture in the West can often be quite subtle. When you don’t have the law or the majority population on your side, you have to do things differently, in a less direct way. In segregated communities, honour culture is imposed through social pressure, threats of exclusion and ostracisation and sometimes of violence. Women are often pressurised to uphold a certain norm: to be modest and not express our sexuality; to anticipate a future as a stay-at-home mother by learning to serve the men of the household, our fathers, brothers and male relatives; to hide our true selves. Living in just such a community has given me a taste of that life. Every day, I fight it—doing so has become a new norm for me. Why then did I become triggered when my philosophy class was discussing the topic?
I have always found the way so-called social justice warriors act counterproductive. Screaming, virtue signalling and responding emotionally to situations is no way to advance society. But, in that moment, I understood how those who experience racism, sexism or any kind of oppression feel when the subject is brought up. It is not a good feeling to be spoken about, instead of with. I didn’t want to be seen as a victim. I didn’t want to have a lengthy discussion about my experiences to try to make people in my class understand. I wanted them to just understand: right then!
Yet that is not an excuse for choosing rage over reason. In that moment, I got triggered, but it was up to me to deal with that emotion and handle it in the best way possible. And I did. I wrote about it. While I felt that it was unfair that they didn’t understand, it’s good that they haven’t had to deal with such injustices in the past. Now, when I’m in class and hear them speak about patriarchy, honour culture and Islamism, I’m happy that they see these as hypothetical issues, instead of current threats. It is up to me to speak up and make sure I not only get spoken about, but spoken and listened to. While life is unfair, we should be happy for those who are better off and try to attain similar freedoms for ourselves.
However, I have also realized that maybe triggered people can’t simply be dismissed as entitled and oversensitive. I can clearly handle hearing these issues spoken about. In fact, I live with them every day. But, that day at university, it felt different. I hadn’t expected to hear about such things there and I was shocked to hear my personal struggles being spoken about in such a detached way. My struggles were being talked about by people with different lives, to whom they made no personal sense, and were just something you read about in the news sometimes. And, for a long moment, that felt unbearable.
Yes, I got triggered when I heard my personal experiences discussed in such an abstract way, by people with no comparable experiences of their own. But, ultimately, I am glad they haven’t had those experiences and maybe that gladness is a sign that I’m moving to a safer place. A safe space, if you will.
I was so pleased when I saw this sentence. “It is up to me to speak up and make sure I not only get spoken about, but spoken and listened to.” The other students may have been reluctant to “make a space” for you because they then would be accused of stereotyping you and displaying their inherent racism. The non-violent methods of coercion about which you wrote are not just present in Islamic cultures. I know of a large family of white Christians of a particular sect that have much the same practices. It is more overt in minority sects but still exists in major Judaeo-Christian mainstream groups.
As an old, white, atheist male from the US South I admire you. Please keep speaking as you have a much more effective, louder voice than most even when you whisper.
What is often missed, is that unless as a society we’re prepared to head down the road to complete insanity then ethical and moral matters, along with matters of public policy will have to be discussed in the abstract and will have to be discussed by people with no direct personal experience. That’s just a simple reality. Do people who have personal experience often have something incredibly valuable to bring & need to be listened to? Of course. Can you have a particular experience and draw no meaningful insight into it more broadly or come to a conclusion that would be appalling applied more widely? Yes course. Experiencing something is also no guarantee of how you view it. Some privileged (dictionary definition) fool may well embrace the appalling ramifications of cultural and moral relativism in relation to honour culture because they have no experience of it, but then someone who’s… Read more »
Islam is right about women.
It’s such a silly thing that intelligent people, influenced so much by ideology, can forget all nuance of the words “safe space” or “triggered”. And accept only the most extreme definitions (by both sides) as the correct one. If you show a suicidal person a video of a suicide, the chances they make another attempt spikes. This is well known. Similar to a victim of rape seeing a rape or anyone with PTSD exposed to their triggers. So why not say “hey, XYZ exists in this media. If that triggers a PTSD flashback or something, now you can prepare for it in advance?” No different than movie/video game ratings social conservatives love. Or news trigger warnings of “viewers, the following will be graphic”. If someone feels like they cannot be honest because they will be harassed, shamed, bullied, or excluded from society, then why not have a “safe space” to… Read more »
Upsetting things do occasionally need to be discussed in a calm, rational way, using reason, logic, and the morality of human rights.
Sometimes these upsetting things do happen within our own culture, whether Western or otherwise.
Sometimes we do need to confront them honesty. If we don’t, we can be complicit in them ourselves.
And that trumps anyone’s “right” to never be offended.
Thanks. I’m glad you learned to handle your fears rather than demanding that nothing ever scare you. Eventually kids have to go to bed by themselves even if they are afraid of the monster in the closet.
Very enlightening post. Thanks.