Trigger warnings

A look at the problem behind political correctness

Nigel Sumerlin

The University of New Hampshire recently published a “Bias-free Language Guide” on its website with the intention of presenting students with a list of words to avoid which may unintentionally cause offense to other students. In the language guide, the words “American,” “homosexual” and “rich” are all deemed as potential microaggressions and students were encouraged to avoid them.

Now, before you descend into a fury of disbelief that any prestigious university could officially promote the condemnation of the word “American” when used to refer to people from the United States because it alienates people from South America, there’s more to the story. The university president quickly issued a statement saying the language guide was the independent work of students and staff and not sponsored by the the University of New Hampshire. The guide has since been taken down.

Nonetheless, the story is believable rather than assumed to be from a satirical publication like The Onion because of a movement from the far left which has scattered eggshells across the political landscape.

There is rising anxiety in our country about what is okay to say and what is not, and oftentimes we don’t know if we’re being offensive or not.

Many professors at liberal universities are asked to issue “trigger warnings” in their syllabi of works depicting sensitive topics such as rape, graphic violence or racially offensive dialogue. Any literature professor will acknowledge that to avoid these and other sensitive topics would exclude many of the greatest works of literature in the English language. Although censoring can make the world safer, it leaves us paralyzed and caged—a trade that I reject as unfair.

Although many have loudly and obnoxiously decried this movement, many others have embraced it. This terrifies me, and not just because it means I have to be careful with my words, but rather because of what it indicates about how our culture is devolving.

The very idea that other people should modify their speech to make us feel more comfortable is toxic to a successful, individualistic and empowered society. Although it is common courtesy and good ethics to respect others in what we say and how we say it, it is not our right to have other people do this. No matter how much we convince ourselves of how things ought to be, that doesn’t change the fact that the only thing we truly have control over is our own actions, and the only part we play in the actions of others is how we choose to respond to them. No matter how loud we yell, or how we convince our universities and government to regulate other people’s speech, this law of the universe will not change.

A wise teacher once told me that “we can ‘should’ all over a lot of things and ruin them that way.” Let’s not ‘should’ all over political and intellectual conversation in this country any more than we have.

I’ve chosen to title my opinion column about politics “Trigger Warnings.” I have no intention of unnecessarily using racial slurs, homophobic or graphic content in my work just to stir up controversy. But this title is my recurring refusal to pander to those who may disagree with me or to tip-toe around whatever eggshells are tossed in my path.

I believe in the value of respect, but I also believe that if I don’t frequently disagree with some portion of my audience, I’m not stretching my mind or respecting your ability to amicably exchange differing ideas. This is my promise that I will never cheat you by trying to please you or disrespect you by trying to protect you. You deserve better.

Nigel is a sophomore pursuing a double major in history and psychology.