On Trigger Warnings and “Scientific Arguments”

In case you haven’t noticed, the fires of the Great Trigger Warning Debate are burning high again, this time in the halls of academia. Students at UCSB have called for trigger warnings in course syllabi, prompting the New York Times to equate dissociative spells, nightmares, and anxiety attacks with “squirming”. Now, along comes Pacific Standard with an article that tells us science says we shouldn’t give sexually assaulted students with PTSD even the same consideration we give television viewers who don’t like nudity on their screens.

As the article was written by Dr. Richard J. McNally, who directs clinical training for Harvard, I didn’t expect to find fault with the science he cited. This turned out to be mostly true. I found the argument presented in the article pretty appalling, however.

On a side note before I get to the arguments: You may well have the impression that “trigger” is a concept unique to post-traumatic stress disorder. If you do, you’re not alone. I saw someone on Twitter just a few days ago suggest that a broad view of trigger warnings was somehow appropriating the experience of PTSD sufferers. Reading the article won’t disabuse you of this notion–it’s entirely a discussion of PTSD–but this isn’t true.

Think of a trigger the way you’d think of a stimulus in classical behavioral psychology. It is an event that provokes a response over which someone has very little control. Pavlov’s bell was a salivation trigger in his dogs.

Of course, we’ve moved on a good bit from strict behavioral psychology, and people aren’t dogs. “Trigger” these days describes an event to which we react in a way that is significantly but not entirely automatic or beyond our conscious control. Suppressing a reaction to a trigger requires cognitive and emotional resources, executive function, but it can be done. “Trigger” now applies to events that provoke a wider variety of maladaptive responses as well, such as bingeing in someone with eating disorders or self-hatred in someone with depression.

But on with the article.

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Debate, Gender, and Authority

When I wrote about debate as a poor tool for building knowledge a couple of months ago, I left one issue implicit rather than explicit. I did this because it would have derailed discussion around the main point. Why? Because there are issues of parity in debate as well as almost anywhere else.

I argue very well in text. When I set my sights on demolishing what I consider to be an unfounded position (as opposed to discussing, say, what we do and don’t know about a topic), I frequently get comments from people who say they don’t want to get on my bad side. I hear from friends that they don’t want to get on my bad side.

People who don’t like me call it propaganda. They don’t say I’m bad at it. They don’t engage with my arguments. They just suggest that I don’t “play fair”. You know, they lost the argument, but not because they were wrong.

On top of being able to construct convincing, even devastating arguments, I have speech and theater training. I understand how speech, appearance, and body language are projected and read. I’ve rehearsed all of those until they’re largely under my conscious control. As long as I have a microphone to overcome the fact that my voice doesn’t carry, I do well on a stage.

Despite all that, I never get asked to debate.
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Let’s Call It a Hitler

So by now you’ve probably seen that Ricky Gervais is once again desperately clinging to a word that he desperately needs to…well, for some reason anyway, I’m sure. I first saw it on Facebook:

If you grabbed Hitler and shouted “stop killing innocent people you cunt”, someone on Facebook would call you out on your sexist language.

As I pointed out there, if you grabbed Hitler and shouted at him, people would rightly point out that he’s dead and hasn’t been killing people for nearly 70 years, which just raises the next question: What are you really doing that’s so vitally important you can’t spare a moment to deal with sexism?

When Ophelia posted more of Gervais’s “defense”, such as it is, it struck me how hard he was working to defend something that’s fundamentally useless. It just doesn’t work as a serious epithet, unless your entire point is the misogyny. It’s even more useless for a comedian. [Read more…]

Can We Fight Gender Roles and the Pink Ghetto at Once?

This is a post for Karla, who donated to help send me to this year’s Women in Secularism conference. She asked me to address the following argument.

Let’s start with this premise: “An important goal of feminism is to eliminate unequal treatment based on gender.” Seems unarguable.

Except that there are two interpretations of that premise, and they’re incompatible. Let’s call them Position 1 and Position 2. By way of explanation, here’s a short article. It argues that although feminist parents often discourage their daughters from wearing pink, they should not do so, because it perpetuates the idea that girly colors, and by extension girly things, are inferior. [Read more…]

“Mission Creep”: Easier Than It Sounds

Greta Christina has been writing a great series taking apart the argument that atheist groups working on social justice causes is “mission creep”. I suggest reading the whole series:

If you don’t want to read them all, you should at least take this message away:

I don’t know how much more clearly to say this: IT IS BROKEN. It is badly broken. Many marginalized people already feel very alienated from organized atheism because their/our issues get ignored, dismissed, trivialized, and worse. As I’ve said more than once in these conversations: The status quo is not neutral. Doing nothing is doing something. Doing things the way we’ve always done them is not a neutral act – it is contributing to the problem.

This needs to be understood and emphasized. When you raise objections to including social justice in the activities (and operations) of your group, this is what you need to weigh those objections against. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about this idea that it’s hard to bring social justice activities into an established community group, and I want to talk about it from my perspective as the associate president of one of the largest atheist community groups in the U.S.

This isn’t as hard as you think it is. [Read more…]

Secular Anti-Abortion Link Roundup

A friend is leading a discussion on reproductive justice and would like all the links related to last month’s blow-up in one place. I realized I’d tweeted many of them and, thus, had them collected in other posts already. This is just pulling them all together, though I’m sure I don’t have them all. If I missed anything that contributed to the discussion, please drop it in the comments. [Read more…]

But How Do You Know the MRAs Are Atheists?

Note: This is one of those posts you really want to read all the way through before commenting on or characterizing.

I think this question is mostly a thing of the past, but at one point, it was a favorite of those who didn’t like to see the atheist movement criticized were all over wanting to know how we could knew that the harassment and anti-feminism coming our way was coming from atheists. Typically, we pointed to the communities from which the bulk of the harassment came. Now, we can point to some numbers in yet another community that suggest we’re on the right track.

Or at least they make me laugh. [Read more…]

A Town Without Contraception

I used to live in Bartlesville, OK. It was just a short stop–six weeks–in the year of living in four towns. It’s a good thing we didn’t stay for a lot of reasons, but now I have one more.

Confidential sources told the Examiner-Enterprise this week that a meeting was held Wednesday to inform local doctors of gynecology and obstetrics that they can no longer prescribe contraceptives of any kind — if they are to be used as birth control.

How could this happen? [Read more…]

What Hemant Wouldn’t Print

One of the folks at Secular Woman asked me to draft a response to the “pro-life” post at Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog. It was originally to be a guest post at Friendly Atheist, but Hemant decided not to publish this because he decided it didn’t fit the very narrow parameters he had set for a response to that post. He was willing to post the “pro-life” propaganda, but he was not willing to publish this. You can read Secular Woman’s take on his refusal here.

We at Secular Woman appreciate Hemant reaching out and clearing up the miscommunication over whether he was willing to host a pro-choice position on his blog. His apparent refusal was all the more alarming because it was unexpected, and we’re happy to see that part of this matter be resolved so easily.

Hemant asked for “A) a rebuttal to the specific things Kristine wrote about and B) the facts/data behind why being pro-choice makes sense”. While we understand why either of these might be considered the appropriate response to publishing a poorly reasoned, pro-life argument without comment, we feel those are not what the atheist community most needs right now. PZ Myers and Brianne Bilyeu have ably addressed the pseudoscience and non sequiturs of the original post. Avicenna has dealt with the humanitarian cost of “pro-life” stances. Commenters on the original post and across the atheist internet have made the argument that the bodily autonomy of people with a uterus does not disappear when that uterus is filled, the argument on which current legal rights are based, and they’ve done it repeatedly and well.

There is no need for Secular Woman to repeat the work of others. Instead, we would add our voices to those saying that playing at debate for the sake of debate on this matter is disrespectful to those nonbelievers (and believers) who face the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. Moreover, it adds to the voluminous threats to health and liberty they already face. [Read more…]

Socialism, Rising Tides, and Identity Politics

Cait is one of the people who donated to help get me to Women in Secularism 3. In return, she asked me to address an argument.

I know a fair number of socialists whom I usually like but who have presented me with one version or another of this argument too many times over the years. Various versions of this argument were made as General Assemblies sorted themselves out in the Occupy movement. I’m sure it predates me as well. It goes something like this.

We need to address class issues. Women are severely affected by poverty. Racial minorities are severely affected by poverty. We must put aside these issues of identity politics to focus on what we all have in common, which is our relationship to capital. If you play identity politics, you’re serving the interests of the current owners of capital.

Here is one particularly lofty and recommended form of this argument, lest I be accused of strawmanning it.

Where identitarianism seeks to somehow unify the world’s often highly contradictory personal narratives of oppression into a coherent idea of social justice, Marxism looks at what makes the system itself tick, and finds that the vast majority of people have something very real in common: their position within the economy, i.e. their relationship to capital and the means of production. It’s around this that it seeks to rally people – not around moral or personal judgement, but around their objective common interests. Ideologies of social division, in the socialist view, mainly exist to keep people from realizing precisely those interests. Divide and conquer, as they say.

Socialism does not seek to unify people on the level of social, national or cultural identity; it is inherently internationalist and transcultural, because it operates on a completely different level. But that’s precisely why socialism is emancipatory by necessity: because to unite the working class means to unite people across the barriers of identity. The concept itself is inclusive, and cannot be realized without the inclusion of the majority of people, including people of all social identities. Nor does it exclude those who wish to see systemic change but belong to the upper classes; after all, it’s about reorienting the goals and methods of the system, not about personal moral judgement or the condemnation of people because of an accident of birth. Socialism does not posit some sort of economic equivalent of Original Sin that makes people unable to see beyond their own lives.

It’s got all the hallmarks: reduction of things like sexism and racism into mere personal interactions, implying that identities other than class identities are made up, the idea that critiquing socialists is playing into the hands of capitalists, calls for the vague ideal of “unity”, equation of privilege with sin. But boy, the words are big and the horse is high. More importantly, it has the same failure that all arguments of this stripe exhibit. The author of this piece is unwilling or unable to address the fact that not all power comes from capital. [Read more…]