Moral high ground and other thoughts

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The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 1996

It is also not attacking someone presenting fallacious ideas. It is not punching a Nazi.

There is a nearly infinite number of things, of current events that one could try to break down and discuss. The Muslim ban, alternative facts, Sally Yates, and whatever else is going on at the moment. A slight sense of dread rises every morning as I check the Guardian newsletter on my email. At least one of the headlines is always about Trump – and it’s never good. If it wasn’t crystal clear before, it sure is now, that his appointment has had and will continue to have global consequences to the lives of already disenfranchised people.

The reinstatement of the so called “global gag rule” takes away family planning resources from vulnerable women in economically unstable areas across the globe. US government dollars will no longer support family planning programs if those programs mention abortion as an option for their clients. The “pro-life” movement has always been a disgusting hate group in my eyes since they unambiguously value an unborn, unconscious, barely sentient foetus more highly than its actual living mother who may simply have been unlucky with contraception, or you know, raped. There are pregnancies that become life-threatening for the mother, and there are situations where the child is unwanted for other reasons. To force a woman to carry a child against her will is a vile act of oppression. And it’s not like making abortions inaccessible or even illegal will stop them – it will only make them more dangerous.

This was not supposed to be an abortion rant.

Let’s get back to punching Nazis.

Richard Spencer who is a nefarious and vile piece of human garbage, and an outspoken ethnic cleansing advocate, got smacked in the face during a TV interview after Trump’s inauguration. And the Internet loved it. Apparently that was the second time his face took a battering that day. I can’t say that I feel sorry for him as he really is as much of a Nazi as a human being can possibly be.

However, at a time when a nation that once represented the good guys, and rode the wave of freedom and democracy, is now being lead by a narcissistic orange 2-year-old, those of us on the side of universal human rights, religious freedom and free speech have to preserve the moral high-ground. It’s frustrating, I know.

As an isolated incident this isn’t interesting in any way. People get punched for saying disagreeable things all the time. Many European countries condemn the kind of hate speech that routinely pours out of Richard Spencer’s mouth, and perhaps that’s why it is easy to think that he got what he deserved. And honestly, if anyone deserves a beating for stupid shit they say, it is Richard Spencer.

But.

In the wake of the Trump presidency where facts are challenged by “alternative facts” issued by none other than the White House, and an Attorney General gets fired for following the constitution rather than the unrestrained temper tantrums of the President, the pillars of democracy have to stand their ground. One of those pillars is the criminal justice system whereby individuals are punished by the institution after they have been found guilty by the proper process – not by street vigilantism.

We must remember that in their eyes those abortion clinic burning dipshits (official term, trust me) think they are doing the right thing just as much as we think we are doing the right thing when we assault a Nazi. This is why civil societies have law enforcement that takes care of stopping and punishing for criminal acts. Needless to say that it is nowhere near a perfect system but if the alternative is that each person acts as a judge and deals justice as they see fit I will happily take the first option.

If we commend random beatings of well-known Nazis on the street, we are unwittingly commending suppression of any speech by violence. As a liberal, feeling victimised by the rise of the far right and the likes of Donald Trump, it is easy to feel entitled to going rogue and taking down the bad guys that have sneaked into our governments. But if we do that, then we are no better than our opponents. In a free society, all opinions can be voiced. It doesn’t mean that they are all equally valid, but a society based on principles of the enlightenment and democracy can withstand a multitude of voices without turning to censorship and propaganda.

Violence is but a short-term solution to silence harmful and discriminatory speech, and the better and only way to counteract it is speaking up against it. Debating and arguing with our antagonists lacks the excitement and sense of power that simply breaking their noses and as many teeth as possible provides, but it is the only viable way forward. Violence breeds martyrs, and martyrs can be powerful.

I could go round and round this topic for hours, but I just want to say this.
It is more important than ever, for those of us who oppose totalitarianism, austerity and theocracy; injustice and bigotry, to stand our ground and not let ourselves be dragged back centuries. We must not give in to our lizard brains’ impulses to simply rip our enemies to shreds, but to speak up and do our very best to spread factual information and promote equality.

Women’s March in London gave me a sliver of hope where I didn’t see it before. About 100 000 people gathered in London to display solidarity for women in America, and to show our own government that we are serious. As cheesy as this kind of talk sounds, I believe that bringing hope to people’s lives in any shape or form is invaluable. Millions of people across all continents came together to peacefully protest the values of those in power. If nothing else, it created a sense of unity. Things like this don’t necessarily effect immediate change in the world but they do have value for they prove to each of us that we are not alone, and that we are not mindless slaves merely following the whims of those in power. We can make a change, and we ought not to let ourselves be silenced.

Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence.

Christopher Hitchens

Check your advocacy

feminismikollaasi“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names.
As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men.
Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”

– Patrick Rothfuss

As passionate as I am about some of my own views I think it is also important to think about advocacy in general. Regardless of the cause, communication is key in making a difference. It is impossible to have a conversation with someone who merely fires off tag lines like a pinball machine while dodging difficult questions. What I mean by this is as soon as I hear things like “check your privilege” or “meat is murder” I automatically switch off. It’s not that I even disagree with either of these particular statements; I just don’t think that they are appropriate for anything else than for banners for a protest. The problem with catchy one-liners is that they are so easy to throw around that they quickly turn into static noise without substance. Once at a meeting with a visual merchandiser we talked about how there was now a bunch of buzz-words that they weren’t allowed to use in marketing anymore because the consumer market had started to resent them. Similar inflation can happen in any topic of public discussion where specific words or phrases are excessively used across media outlets. This is especially true to Twitter and clickbait headlines where a very compact expression needs to pack a punch and catch people’s attention. Replacing independent thinking, rationality and well-constructed arguments with 120-character statements just kills the conversation for me. There is no shortage of social justice memes to choose from – and all of them send me spiralling down into desperation with equal intensity, but let’s tackle a recent favourite, “white feminism”.

The phrase “white feminism” is generally used to represent one’s distaste of feminist speech that focuses on white women and ignores racial issues thus excluding women of colour. Technically anyone can be a “white feminist” regardless of their own skin colour or gender if the feminism that they promote is racially biased or exclusive. Fundamentally, the critique brought forward by this phrase is valid, but compressing the message into an easily misunderstood, and possibly provoking term seems counterproductive. I would predict that most people who hear “white feminism” assume that it describes all white women, implying that the fact of their skin tone automatically makes them racist. Because this is exactly what my first impression was. Needless to say that such a rhetoric doesn’t exactly encourage people to take into heart the very real issues related to ethnicity in the context of women’s rights. It is not surprising that upon being or feeling accused of something before having so much as a chance to voice their opinion, people tend to shut down or lash out, and not listen any further.

That said, I do think that there are times when when using more aggressive and inflammatory language is appropriate. Debates, speeches and protests can get very heated and emotional, and in instances where provoking reactions in your audience is precisely the goal, then it can be effective to boost up your message with evocative vocabulary. However, more often than not this kind of language only appeals to those who are already on your side, and you end up preaching to the choir. If that is what you want, then by all means. To be honest though, I still can’t see how using the term “white feminism” would be beneficial to the feminist movement. And I shall explain why.

There is a time and a place for big words when we are trying to emphasise the difference between our stance and that of our opponent’s. We want to draw a clear line between us and them and build up group mentality. That’s all fine even though personally I tend to frown upon the practice of blatantly demonising the other – unless they are a glaring bigot in which case they tend to do the job perfectly well by themselves.
I find that the problem with “white feminism” is that it drives a wedge within the feminist movement. And I think that this problem is both in the practice of ignoring racial issues, which is what this term is supposed to convey, and in using said term to discuss this issue. Obviously, women of colour tend to be at a bigger socio-economic disadvantage than white women. Many of these women live in third world countries or war zones of course, and my knowledge of the history and politics involved is nowhere near a level where I would feel comfortable discussing that particular struggle. There are many factors regulating the quality of life in conflicted and unstable areas. At any given time culture, tradition and religion are some of those things, and we can all disagree on how big of a part they play in the mistreatment of women. In my books, that part is significant.
It is all too easy to let oneself fall into the apologist void of “it’s part of their culture, and we must respect it” in the fear of being labelled a racist or islamophobic or whatever is the next trendy accusation. I couldn’t care less from which angle you look at it – the tradition of female genital mutilation is torture, not culture. This atrocity is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are numerous more covert ways in which girls and women face discrimination in the name of tradition.

Debating  the significance of scarves and veils that cover more or less of a woman’s head has been all the rage for a while now. Are they signs of oppression? Are they empowering? Is it totally “white” and ignorant to even consider that they might be problematic?
I suppose they can be either one like just about anything else. I wouldn’t even bother weighing in on this if I could be sure that the decision of what to wear was always the woman’s, and only hers. But alas, I can’t. The problem really isn’t the veil itself but whether its use is part of misogynous tradition. There are those who think that we shouldn’t criticise any culture of anything because it is their culture. What such people are really saying is that those who have had the misfortune of being born into a culture where casual violence against women is condoned, are inherently different from those who were born into as peaceful a society as can be found on Earth today. To say that white people shouldn’t interfere because they don’t understand the culture, and women of colour don’t need to be saved anyway, is equal to knowing that your neighbour beats up their partner and not taking any action to help. Just because the victim of violence hasn’t come to you for help doesn’t mean that they want to be beaten.

Just to clarify, I am not saying that white women need to save coloured women. I am not saying that the burqa is oppressive and the mini skirt empowering. And of course, Islam, which I keep referring to, is not a race. And of course, race itself is an arbitrary concept however culturally relevant. I may have strayed away from the topic of feminist advocacy into straight up advocating feminism, but hopefully I have made at least half a point. Perhaps what feminism in Western countries currently suffers from is detachment from severe oppression. Are we, the fortunate ones, so used to freedom of expression, economic independence, contraceptives and certain amount of social security that we have forgotten what life as a woman used to be like? The notion that women of colour don’t need to be saved by white women is correct in that we shouldn’t victimise and infantilise those who live in adverse conditions. But as there is a power imbalance like there is one between the sexes, shouldn’t we try to do something about it by sharing resources when we can.

Finally, I think that there are more and less important feminist agendas that have to be dealt with. Those accused of “white feminism” are in that moment focusing on a less pressing issue that mainly concerns more privileged women who are mostly white. Is this outright wrong? Is it unethical to try to improve your own situation if someone else has it worse? As far as I understand, this seems to be at the core of the judgement of “white feminism”. That because in general white women are better off than women of colour, they should pay less attention to issues directly and exclusively related to themselves. This is certainly true when it comes to overall representation and visibility of racial issues in feminism. There is diversity lacking in the public discourse for sure. But I also think that if we want to make genuine progress in women’s rights across the globe people can’t be chastised for sometimes thinking about themselves and their own situation. We can all agree that being whistled at when crossing the road is nothing compared to being forced to marry a man four times your age when you are still a child. These issues can and must be worked on in many levels simultaneously. Feminism is after all about equality, and anyone who departs from that is not a feminist regardless of what they claim.

The point about advocacy – and this applies to any cause – that I wanted to make is that the choice of words really matters. I matters whether you want to bring more people to your cause or not. By using popular internet memes instead of your own words can easily alienate the very audience your message ought to reach.

Myths about atheism

5film3As an atheist and a follower of public discussions of religion one runs into strange misconceptions and myths about atheism and atheists. In my personal life I have only heard a couple of these but because I am interested in debates and that kind of stuff I’ve been exposed to a lot more prejudice indirectly. Also, as Scandinavian living in England following this discourse which is mostly happening across the pond in the States I will say that between Finland, UK and US there seems to be an increase in negativity towards atheism the further westwards you go.

1. Atheists hate God and worship Satan

The term ‘atheism’ is built up from three parts where theos is Greek for any god, -ism indicates a system of principles and practices, and a- expresses not or without. Atheism at its core, stripped out of all additional meanings simply stands for an unbelief in any god. It’s not defiance of a god, nor a pretence – it is simply a lack of belief. Satan is just as fictional to atheists as is God, and so it is safe to say that atheists don’t tend to practice devil worship either.
When it comes to feelings towards the concept of the Abrahamic god in particular there are undoubtedly many who would say that they despise him. Christopher Hitchens called himself an anti-theist to emphasise his disgust toward Yahweh and the kind of dictatorial theocracy that the Abrahamic religions promote. Richard Dawkins has endured his fair share of religious outrage for the following passage in The God Delusion:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

At the most, some atheists hate the fictional character, God and his influence over non-fictional beings.

2. Atheists worship Richard Dawkins

At least Professor Dawkins is real, but no, he is definitely not the High Priest of Atheism. This myth encompasses a set of misjudgements about atheism. Being the opposite of theism – or religion, atheism is often seen as a unified movement comparable to any other political or religious ideology. Public advocates of atheism are easily taken as spokesmen and representatives for all atheists, and as a consequence an illusion of a likeminded group of people with common agenda, beliefs and values arises.
In reality the only thing that all atheists have in common is the unbelief in god or gods. Our morals and values do not come from a set ideology but are as varied as our favourite colours and foods. Atheists don’t have an agenda. Some of us might but again, simply not having a religious faith does not lead to any particular direction. In fact, another thing that atheists do share is perhaps a strong aversion to dogma and authoritarianism. The Atheist Agenda is kind of like The Gay Agenda – we just want to live our lives without being subject to organised religion and being attacked for our non-belief.
When it comes to Dawkins, there are many atheists who adore him and there are many who don’t. The only consensus is that atheists are not an organised movement with a single figurehead whose views we all subscribe to. There are numerous public atheist whom I look up to but I don’t need Richard Dawkins or anyone else to speak for me. That I can do for myself.

3. Hitler and Stalin were atheists therefore atheism is evil

First of all, we don’t actually know for sure about the religious convictions of either one.
Secondly, even if they were non-believers neither one proclaimed that it was their atheism that inspired them and justified what they were doing. A crime committed by a religious person is not always motivated by their religion, nor is a crime committed by an atheist necessarily motivated by their lack thereof.
Most importantly, there just is no way that this argument holds water even if we granted that both Hitler and Stalin were atheists, and that their evil came from atheism. In the grand scheme of things the centuries of religious wars, violence and persecution would still massively outweigh atheism in the overall amount of suffering inflicted upon humanity. From this line of thinking it would automatically follow that religion is even more evil than atheism.

4. You can’t disprove God therefore atheists are wrong

You can’t prove God therefore theists are wrong?
There is a sliver of truth in this claim and a more accurate denomination for most atheists is probably agnostic. However, agnosticism is such an elusive concept that it doesn’t really serve a purpose in describing one’s views. A theist is likely to interpret an agnostic’s stance on the existence of God as 50/50 – that there is an equal probability either way. Perhaps this seems trivial but there really is a huge difference in being 90% convinced of the non-existence of God compared to that halfway position that agnostics are easily prescribed.
It is important to remember that we are agnostic about many things. The most famous example of this is the cosmic teapot analogy coined by Bertrand Russell. It is simply to say that we cannot prove that there isn’t a teapot orbiting the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars, which obviously doesn’t automatically mean that there has to be a one. This illustrates the logical fallacy inherent in the claim that because something is scientifically unfalsifiable it must be true.

5. Science is the religion of atheists

One sometimes encounters the claim that knowledge based on science requires faith in the methods of science and is therefore just as believable as religion. The distrust in science today probably stems from the tsunami of pseudo-science spawned by the shady corners of Internet. Not everything that claims to be science is in fact science, and this creates confusion. One study trying to prove anything is never enough to be a basis of reliable information.
Scientific truths are different from dogmatic truths in that they are fair game for review and critique. Scientific theories face rigorous scrutiny and multiple attempts to disprove them. This ensures that the knowledge that earns the gold star of being true has passed through such a volume of close examination and nit-picking that it’s nearly bulletproof. But only nearly, because even after being accepted it can still be tested and disproved.
Moreover, trust in the scientific method is founded on the fact that good theories make accurate predictions regardless of who is conducting the experiment. Science observes and seeks to explain how stuff works and when it succeeds things like eyeglasses, computers and skyscrapers get developed.
Science doesn’t require blind faith, it doesn’t have an inbuilt agenda and it doesn’t tell us what to do and how to live our lives.

6. “You just haven’t endured hardship. When you do, you will find God.”

Not only is this dismissive and presumptuous, but it also reveals how limited and childish religion can render its follower. I have nothing against those who feel better at the thought of an omnipotent, celestial being watching over them, but to insinuate that faith in supernatural is the only way to overcome obstacles and be fulfilled is stupidly unimaginative.
Personally I have found much more comfort in looking up to the early morning sky and spotting Jupiter; in learning that all elements that make up my body were forged within dying stars; and simply knowing that whatever happens there are real flesh-and-blood people in my life who will stand by me and physically hold my hand if I need it.
Surrendering to a metaphysical force is a gateway to ignoring responsibility and agency in one’s own life. That said, I’m not drawing a direct line from religious faith to infantilism. It’s a path that can be taken but certainly not by everyone.

7. Atheists are arrogant and look down on believers

This would be just as valid if it was reversed. Neither claim is based on evidence but on prejudice. Some people are arrogant, some people are funny, some people like cats. Atheism in an of itself doesn’t lead to arrogance – it is simply a way of abbreviating the statement: “I don’t believe in god”. Trying to force atheism to mean something other than it does will always reach a dead-end. I’m repeating myself but atheism is not a belief system like Christianity or Hinduism are. There are no atheistic traditions or core ideas because it is not a religion.
When you learn that someone is a Hindu you can immediately make some assumptions about them based on your general knowledge of Hinduism. These assumptions may or may not be accurate in the case of every single individual but they are reasonable because they originate from a set of known beliefs and values, which said individual has just identified with.
Learning that someone is an atheist merely informs you of something that this person does not believe in. The rest is up to you to find out.

Imagine being bald and never even growing any hair, and then a group of people insist on braiding and combing and curling your hair. You’re trying to draw their attention to the fact that you don’t actually have any hair nor are you going to. Your grandma is like “don’t be ridiculous, everyone has hair”. Someone gets offended and starts yelling at you “so you hate everyone who has hair!”. No guys, it’s fine, you have hair and I don’t. It’s not a big deal. Just don’t shove it down my throat. Literally. Pls.

Hail, Caesar! and shades of satire

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I wrote another longwinded commentary on the rampant online culture of self-victimisation and being offended, but instead of posting that today, I decided to talk about something possibly more fun. I’m certain that the other topic will still be relevant next week – sadly.

Disclaimer: I’m going to chat about a film that makes fun of religion (among other things). I you don’t like that kind of thing maybe go read something else. I’m an atheist, a critic of religion and a supporter of secularism. As a result I always find it marvellously entertaining when someone pokes fun at religion in any capacity – especially in the form of cinema. Life of Brian, anyone?

Hail, Caesar! is a film about films, about the enigma of the moviemaking business in the 1950’s where a Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix has his hands full trying to keep his cavalcade of starlets in line and away from the scandal-hungry press. I love a good satire and even if your knowledge of show business myths and clichés is even less substantial than mine: mainly based on Audrey Hepburn films and Marc Maron’s podcast, you will get the the gist of this film. I spent about 90% of the time in fits of laughter and the rest catching my breath. There’s the young and handsome film star who doesn’t really know how to act apart from doing cool tricks while riding a horse in Westerns; the innocent looking blonde bombshell who is actually a chain smoker and disgracefully pregnant to one of the guys that she’s been going out with; and one of my personal favourites – the secret society of stereotypically Jewish looking communist screenwriters.

The central storyline revolves around the production of the film Hail, Caesar! which tells the story of Jesus from the point of view of a Roman military commander. Of course the studio doesn’t want to ruffle any school of believers with an offensive portrayal of their messiah so they gather together a group of clerics from the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish traditions to consult with. My favourite scene: a hilarious and poignant exchange regarding the essence of Christ, ensues. The way Eddie phrases the issue to his interlocutors is along the lines of whether they think that anything in the script of Hail, Caesar! would strike as offensive to a “reasonable American regardless of faith or creed”. Reason and faith inhabit the opposite ends of a spectrum, which obviously leads to a totally nonsensical argument between the four religious leaders about theological disagreements between each of their respective sects. The Patriarch is merely bothered about the “fakeyness” of an unrelated scene, the Catholic Priest is really, very intense, the Protestant Minister nonspecific and the rabbi clearly sees himself as superior since Judaism obviously departs from the rest of Christianity by insisting that Jesus was just a mortal man.

Here’s a transcript of part of the debate for your entertainment. If you’re bored, try to identify who’s who, and go see the film. It’s extremely funny.

“Young man, you don’t follow for a very simple reason: these men are screwballs. God has children? What, and a dog? A collie maybe? God does not have children. He’s a bachelor. And very angry.”

“He used to be angry!”

What, he got over it?”

“You worship the God of another age!”

“Who has no love!”

“Not true! He likes Jews.”

“God loves everyone!”

“God is love.”

“God is who is.”

Clearly the film is here ridiculing the internal discord of Christianity, and the overall elusiveness of the basis of religious faith. For many, religion answers the big questions of why there is something rather than nothing and what is the purpose of our lives, but from a secular point of view this system is frankly, a big old mess. When there are several different religions in the world divided into several different sects and traditions whose spokesmen all seem to have different interpretations and ideas of what the essence of their god is, not to mention the billions of people who undoubtedly also harbour their own personal interpretations and ideas of these things, any truth claims made on such a premise – or lack thereof really, completely evaporate in the non-believers eyes.

In addition to teasing the concept of organised religion and its feeble and fabricated relevance to truth, the character of Eddie Mannix represents a more personal relationship to religiosity. In the opening scene Eddie is shown at a confessional, which he frequents daily, seeking divine forgiveness for his failure to stop smoking and lying to his wife about it. This sin seems rather benign in comparison with the threats, lies and other questionable methods Eddie has to employ in his job in order to cover up all the trouble that his starlets are constantly running into.
This cognitive dissonance of identifying as a devout Catholic whilst simultaneously making unethical decisions is an integral part of being any sort of a believer today without causing massive havoc. Or how else would a Young Earth Creationist (someone who believes that the Earth is 5000 years old and that Darwinian evolution is nonsense) be a doctor for example? Clearly, in order to pass medical school you must have studied a bunch of science totally inconsistent with your scripture. And this also holds true to any theist who accepts that the Earth is actually 4,5 billion years old and that evolution is a fact. Human mind is so flexible and immense in its capacity that a person can hold contradictory beliefs and be totally fine with it, but I think we have to notice that this is not a logical way of processing information. It isn’t markedly wrong or bad – just illogical. And I’m not condemning or sneering at anyone of any faith as long as they don’t harm others in its name. (Look at me getting all defensive. This blog has approximately four and a half regular readers but I’m still terrified of religious fanatics. There’s one living next door, and half of the city’s Orthodox Jew population just round the corner.)
Moreover, I read the cycle of immorality, shame, confession and retribution that dictates Eddie’s life as a critique of the notion that without religious disposition one cannot be moral. Clearly, practising religion is not the answer to the evils of the world either. Quite the contrary, as it seems that for Eddie, going through the motions required by his faith, justifies committing the same sins again and again. And why would he change his ways if the heavenly Father is going to forgive him all the same?

But honestly, it is entirely possible to watch this movie without getting all worked up about the hypocrisy of organised religion. Don’t be discouraged by my seriousness and pessimism!

“All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination and poetry.”
– Edgar Allan Poe

So you’re offended?

IMG_9866Freedom of speech is very high up on the list of my most important values – as I believe it is for most. However, following the expansion of social media as a platform where anyone and everyone can have their say on any topic under the sun it seems that freedom of speech has become confused with the freedom of not being offended.

I used to be an avid Tumblr user some years ago. At first it was a cool place for pop culture and fandoms where you’d find a lot of people deeply devoted to sci-fi shows doing character studies and meta-analyses and what have you. Feminism, LGBTQ rights and anti-racism were always prevalent and I have to say I learned a lot about everyday sexism and racism in the U.S. (most users seemed to be American) among other things. But then gradually everything became offensive to someone, and the term ‘trigger warning’ started to appear.

By the way, I’ve now heard that some universities in the U.S. and even in the UK have student bodies demanding that lecturers issue trigger warnings and refrain from using certain words lest they cause a student to be upset – or rather traumatised.
I sometimes wonder how the human race has survived for this long…

The thought behind this is that some topics may be triggering to survivors of sexual assault or otherwise. I can see the value of the idea but so long as media platforms like Tumblr don’t automatically generate trigger warnings haphazard tagging by a minimal number of users seems pointless.
With regard to establishments of higher education and research, I can hardly think of a worse course of action than to start censoring people in spaces which were created for free enquiry, research, discussion, debate and open critique of ideas and theories. I simply cannot stand the thought of going to do a Masters degree and finding out that the professors and lecturers are having to hold themselves back in the fear of accidentally making someone feel uncomfortable. This is inconceivable – and in my honest opinion, individuals who feel that they would be seriously damaged by hearing certain words or discussing certain topics should probably not go to a university in the first place. Being uncomfortable is crucial for intellectual development.

“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.
– Stephen Fry

But back to Tumblr: the more I read responses to apparently triggering content, the more I came to realise that for the most part people were merely upset or angry about something they had read, rather than actually triggered in a psychologically serious way. In Finnish we have a wonderful word,’mielensäpahoittaja’, for people who seem to actively look for things to get offended by so that they can attack the alleged offenderAs soon as one seeks to shut down a conversation or silence their opponent on the grounds of being offended, in my eyes, they have lost. No problem was ever solved by declaring it a taboo.
So then I stopped using Tumblr because my blood pressure couldn’t handle the “How dare you use that word you racist, trans-phobic, misogynist, white supremacist, ableist, sociopathic cunt!!!” type of rhetoric that was rampant.

Escaping Tumblr was only a short-term solution and being offended is increasingly trendy in every nook of social media. Of course there are words like nigger or fag that are found offensive in most of their uses. However words in and of themselves are not and can not be offensive; we give them meaning and one can either chose – or not, to give or take offence. There are ideas that can be viewed as offensive, such as women as second-class citizens, and of course some people find nudity or homosexuality terribly upsetting. All in all everyone has a right to be offended. This is not an issue. The issue is the misconception that being offended means you are right and the other person is wrong; that somehow you, as the offended party are entitled to be de-offended. Spoiler alert: you are not, and none of us are. Taking offence is our own business, and if we wish to confront our perceived offenders we have every right to defend our views. But simply stating “This is offensive” is not effective advocacy, and will not aid your cause whatever it may be.

The world is full of interesting and hard conversations to be had and the real tragedy is if intelligent and insightful people start to censor themselves under the pressure of thin-skinned opponents and audiences. I firmly believe that any topic should be open for discussion and any idea fair game for critique. We should all recognise that when our ideas, views and beliefs are being criticised, we as persons are not under attack. For instance, when I question your religious ideology I am not questioning your personhood, morality or value. I would never deliberately offend a person but I would offend an idea.
How about actually offensive and hateful speech though – isn’t that bad? I think everyone should have the right to present themselves precisely as bigoted and ignorant as they in fact are. Genuinely bad ideas will more than likely be faced with mockery, and genuinely malicious speech will be condemned. Shutting people up won’t stop them from generating stupid ideas, laughing them off the stage might.
That said, when it comes to representing the views of a group of people, one ought to be held more accountable for their statements as they are in fact not only speaking for themselves.

‘If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, “Well I’m still waiting to hear what your point is”.’
– Christopher Hitchens

Some resources:
The Thinking Atheist Podcast – I’m Offended!
Sam Harris and Jonatahan Haidt talk about political correctness on campus and lots of other things (just listen to all of Sam’s podcast episodes, he’s brilliant and you might get offended)
SubReddit about Social Justice Warriors on Tumblr and elsewhere (it’s funny ok)
All of Christopher Hitchens’ debates on YouTube (he’s the bomb)