Jeff is feeling triggered by your face.
Social justice advocates place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of language and its relationship with culture, power, and moral agency. For this, the movement owes an intellectual debt to the thought of 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault developed a unique method of analyzing language called “discourse analysis,” which stressed the importance of power relationships in laying down boundaries within which words, phrases, and expressions can be meaningful. According to Foucault, language is a reflection of power, and power is the lens through which we are able to examine the health of a functioning society. What’s more, language reinforces the power dynamics that form the superstructure of society.
This approach to the study of language has found a welcoming home in the social justice movement, particularly in the halls of third-wave feminism. Members of this camp are fond of saying “language matters”, a truism so packed with implied meaning that it has become a feminist trope. In the vein of Foucauldian discourse analysis, language reinforces things like ableism and rape culture, which buttress the power dynamics that enable ableism and rape. Language can even be violent in this context. Feminists have applied Foucault’s theory so scrupulously that no passing phrase escapes critical analysis. They have taken a microscope to the dictionary and impeached each and every word of oppression, no matter how small.
It is a wonder then that this intellectual strain of the social justice movement is so poor at obeying its own rules of civil discourse. The activists that harp on every ableist metaphor and every verbal microaggression are downright hypocritical in the way that they use language, which makes dialoguing with social justice advocates especially frustrating.
One such example of this linguistic hypocrisy concerns the use of the word “triggered”. The social justice movement has adopted this term wholesale, and its use is both acceptable and widespread in conversation surrounding prejudice and oppression. In the context of the sphere of issues with which social justice advocates are concerned (racism, feminism, poverty, gender issues), the word denotes a feeling of severe emotional distress, often in reaction to written or spoken material that one finds deeply offensive or with which one sharply disagrees.
But the word “triggered” has real medical import. It is a psychological term used to characterize the effects of provocative phenomena on patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. It has a very specific meaning, and applies to a very specific audience, but its usage in social justice parlance extends far beyond its appropriate medical application. Students on college campuses have called for trigger warnings on material that cannot reasonably be expected to cause mental trauma. Oberlin College’s “Office of Equity Concerns” famously recommends trigger warnings for “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” In my personal conversations about race and gender with white, male, and cisgender social justice advocates, I have been accused of triggering my interlocutor with privileged and oppressive language.
So how is all of this hypocritical? So what if “triggered” has a specific meaning? Can’t social justice advocates use the term “triggered” metaphorically, broadly, or originally?
Well, no. Social justice activists have taken it upon themselves to regulate the use of language related to mental illness. They have singled out words like “crazy”, “insane”, and “hysterical” and barred them from everyday use. The reason given is that these words, even used metaphorically or colloquially, serve to reinforce the stigmatization of the mentally ill. Metaphor and context don’t much matter to the language police. Characterizing an out-there idea as “crazy”, a joke as “hysterical”, and a basketball dunk as “insane” all fortify the power dynamics that divide the “normal” and the “abnormal” and subjugate the latter. But by using the term “triggered” in an expanded way, social justice activists are guilty of the crimes they’ve wrought. By calling to apply trigger warnings to everything under the sun, for example, they have appropriated the term inappropriately, which, by their own guidelines, reinforces the power dynamic they so thoroughly dislike.
There are many other examples of social justice communicators breaking the rules of their own game. Take the idea of “dialoguing”, a fundamental tenet of progressive discourse. Dialoguing is defined by Office of Multicultural Affairs as “’Communication that creates and recreates multiple understandings’; it is bidirectional, not zero‐sum and may or may not end in agreement; it can be emotional and uncomfortable, but is safe, respectful and has greater understanding as its goal.” In short, dialoguing is civil conversation with the aim of mutual learning. This is trumpeted as an important tenet of social justice, and yet there are other rules of the game that flatly contradict this precept. Consider the popular refrain, often used by the member of a marginalized class (or an ally) as a retort to the member of a privileged class, “It is not my job to educate you.” This shifting of responsibility from one interlocutor to the other clearly violates an important principle of social justice dialogue – greater understanding. Is the goal of dialoguing in the social justice world actually greater understanding through the cross-fertilization of ideas, ideas that are often in conflict with one another, or is it a space where the “enlightened” like-minded are welcome at the exclusion of the ignorant or other-minded?
But perhaps the most maddening semantic gymnastics performed by social justice advocates concerns the dual concepts of “racism” and “reverse racism”. According to the social justice playbook, “there is no such thing as reverse racism,” meaning that stereotypical, prejudicial, and even sometimes violent behavior by people of color (or other structurally oppressed groups) against white people (or other privileged groups) cannot be characterized as racist.
To this I say, well fine. If you choose to narrow the definition of racism to the behavioral outgrowth of “privilege + power”, then reverse racism is an incoherent concept. But that doesn’t mean that stereotyping, demonizing, or physically attacking a member of a structurally dominant group on the basis of a material group characteristic is a good thing! You might call it something else – “groupism” or “negative characterization of the member of a dominant group solely on the basis of a non-character feature”, for instance – but that doesn’t make that kind of behavior wise or just. Social justice advocates have become so concerned with who and what is racist that they have forgotten that other forms of injustice do exist. They have become so focused on winning a semantic war that they have, if I may understate, forgotten their manners.
Behind the linguistic and structural smokescreen fabricated by Foucault and sustained by modern-day feminists lies a fundamental worldview with a rich intellectual history, its roots in the works of John Rawls, John Dewey, and Louis Brandeis. If social justice advocates can’t obey the rules of their own semantic games or play fair with their opponents, they should quit policing language, remember their mission, and return to their intellectual roots.