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.