One of the most intellectually lazy tropes in our current political discourse is the persistent need to denigrate vulnerable people for being ‘snowflakes’. The tired, unoriginal adage about having a cup of cement and ‘hardening up’ has been dressed with new language in an attempt to pass it off as something clever.

It’s as if right wing commentators and apologists are the only ones enlightened enough to figure out that speech, actions (and apparently, university texts) actually exist in a vacuum and are not affected by pretext, context or interpretation. But it’s not really that simple. Condescending to others about sticks and stones doesn’t negate the very real, visceral experiences that follow on from trauma, whether that trauma is a result of structural oppression, violence, abuse, or some other profound negative experience.

Frankly, the debate about content warnings confuses me. I’m not really sure why people are so apprehensive about the idea of allowing people to be fully prepared for discussions about topics that may have a negative impact on their mental or emotional wellbeing.

I’ll provide an example. Last year, I attended a conference and one presenter was discussing overseas attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people. During this discussion, the presenter went into graphic detail about the extreme violence experienced by members of this community — my community. We’re talking lacerations, mutilation, burning flesh, crushed skulls.

I don’t believe that a reasonable person would have anticipated that the presentation would provide this level of graphic detail, and I was taken aback. The imagery stuck with me, and I began to think about how hopeless the plight for safety and civil rights can feel sometimes. I am lucky that I have never been assaulted, let alone injured severely. I have friends, however, who have. My friends and I have been threatened countless times, and we have been deliberately made to feel unsafe countless times more. The morbid thinking, fear and anxiety that is symptomatic of lifelong depression set in, and I left the conference session feeling shaken, pessimistic and nauseous.

I’m not a ‘snowflake’. I don’t crumble or melt under pressure. But I have buttons that can be pushed, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Situations like this are where content warnings are handy. A sentence along the following lines would have sufficed: “I am offering a warning that my presentation will feature graphic descriptions about violence perpetrated against LGBTIQ people.” Would it necessarily have made a difference in how I felt afterwards? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But the opportunity to steel myself for the shock  – or just leave – would have been invaluable. This is where the merit of these warnings are.

No, life doesn’t have content warnings. Life can be cruel, uncaring and venomous. But viewing a film, reading an article or listening to a lecture isn’t like that. These are all controlled environments. We all have a right to know what we’re in for. There is so very little effort involved in extending a courtesy to vulnerable people who are now more and more often expressing a need for it.

The stubborn and vitriolic opposition is mystifying. So is the sustained public campaign of putting down ‘snowflakes’, gratuitously reveled in by conservatives, anti-transgender commentators, rape apologists, actual, literal Nazis and, apparently, for some reason, sociologists.

The borderline sociopathy that comes with insisting on having the freedom to harm others psychologically, for no other reason than to be able to do it, is mind boggling. How does it make sense to somebody that the freedom to inflict pain on another person should supersede the victim’s right not to be subjected to it? This is apparently the world we live in, where a flagrant lack of empathy is a reasonable political position.

It seems to me that misogynists, homophobes and racists feel that they have given up too much ground, and that it is time to beat us back down a little. And as per usual, there is a line of jaded apologists ready to take up arms in a trumped-up culture war. They are consumed by it. For all the bleating these people do about ‘snowflakes’, it makes me wonder who’s really ‘triggered’.


Story image: ‘Snowflake’ by Gul Selz on Flickr.