I observe a common theme in several topics of recent interest on Internet. The theme is a popular desire to avoid being confronted with uncomfortable or disagreeable content. Besides a personal choice of avoiding difficult topics, we are increasingly demanding institutional or policy changes to govern the information in such a way to reduce the risk of being confronted with such disagreeable information.
First, I’ve read several accounts about this week’s grand opening of the 9-11 museum in New York City. After all this time, and despite my remoteness to the actual events, I don’t think I could visit that museum. I’m not eager to revisit that day and be reminded of the cascading events that followed it. Count me among the group who avoids discussions or depictions about uncomfortable and disturbing topics.
I’ve been following many articles about what is going on in colleges in terms of students shutting down debates by disrupting meeting to prevent speakers to speak, or by organizing protests to prevent certain speakers from even speaking. On top of that is the increasing use of shutting down interpersonal debate through asserting disqualification of the opponent due to privilege, racism, sexism, or whatever. In both cases, the goal is to shut down debate, to shut up the opposing view, rather than to win an argument on the merits.
The latest topic to catch my attention are petitions to require announcements of trigger warnings in classes where material may be presented that might trigger post-traumatic stress episodes in certain individuals. There is the possibility a class may include students who may have had past traumatic experiences and may lose their self control if triggered by certain images or ideas. The petitions initially involve particularly explicit depictions of traumatic experiences.
I have no doubt that there are people who will not be able to handle certain topics. Some of these people have real traumatic experiences that they have not been able to manage. Not all people experiencing equally traumatic events will become afflicted. Similarly, not all people who are unable to handle traumatic depictions have had personal experiences of traumatic experiences.
One argument about the trigger warnings is so that we do not deny the learning opportunity to people who are prone to being unable to handle difficult material. I agree that there is plenty to learn without being made uncomfortable. For example, one can learn a lot about literature and literary criticism by focusing on noncontroversial or at least not excessively explicit writings. However I question whether we need teachers to teach comfortable subjects. We needed teachers to guide our learning through childhood education. That same model is useful in later learning but it is not essential. One can continue to explore a topic of comfort on his own without further teacher-led learning. This happens in many fields of study.
For a personal example, I needed a teacher to teach me how to program my first computer programming language. Despite the great advancements in software technologies, I have been able to keep up by learning on my own. There are no shortage of teacher-led training for these new advancements and many people continue to take advantage of those opportunities. My point is that it is optional because the topic is comfortable. Despite learning procedural languages with unstructured practices, I was able to adapt to structured, object-oriented, multiple-tiered software practices on my own.
In contrast, I needed a teacher to kick me out of that comfort and introduce me to databases. This is hardly traumatic, but I was conditioned into thinking I don’t need databases because not only was I able to code up my own versions of searches, sorting, data storage, but I took pride in my ability to figure it out myself. The teacher taught me that such achievements were ridiculously trivial compared with the more complex problem solving opportunities when allowed to focus more on the data rather than the algorithms. This example may trivialize the notion of being challenged, but it does illustrate that the role of the teacher is to kick the student out of his comfort zone and enter into a more useful area of inquiry. I probably would not have explored using database engines on my own because it was outside of my comfort zone.
We have as a nation learned many lessons about the events of 9/11 and afterwards. One of the political observations was our lack of preparation for such an event. In our comfort following decades or relative peace and prosperity, we allowed ourselves to become vulnerable by presenting soft targets and by not preparing for disasters. We have invested much to address these issues and there remains much that still needs to be done.
One observation I have not seen discussed much is that 9/11 also exposed our weakness in governing ourselves democratically during times of crisis. The ideal of democracy is that the population would actively engage in the debates of difficult decisions. The events of 9/11 may have been very large, but they are proportional to similar disasters of earlier times with smaller economies and slower information exchanges. What I recall from 9/11 was the widespread inability to engage in debate about options for reactions. A more robust culture of democracy could have more thoroughly considered our options for responding to the attack and to the various cascading events.
I recognize the uniquely difficult time of the weeks immediately following the initial attack where it may inevitable for the population to look to leadership and nearly unanimously support the leadership. Sometimes we need to act too quickly to allow for debates. However in later decisions concerning the choice to widen the war objectives in Afghanistan, to open a war in Iraq, to handle prisoners at Guantanamo presented more opportunity for debate. At least initially the general population continued to rally widespread support to the leaderships position. Essentially we surrendered our democratic participation in favor of letting the government bureaucracy make the difficult choices instead. Gradually, we began to engage in more democratic debate but by that time a lot of opportunities had already been lost.
In general, we, the population, are not engaging in democratic debate where it counts most. We instead are deferring to government to take care of this uncomfortable business for us. When topics get messy, we defer to government to handle the decisions. We want government to shield us from those details. It is the government’s responsibility to solve these kinds of problems, not ours. We are resigning from the democratic participation in difficult problems.
One topic of debate is the debate about torture of prisoners and where to draw the line between acceptable enhanced techniques and unacceptable torture. From the democratic public perspective, the debate was initially won by the distinction that the techniques left no permanent injury or disfigurement. Although most of the decision-making about the actual details were not public, there was at least this much discussed publicly. The public was also presented with illustrative examples of the techniques so we had some idea of what they involved. Although there was some objection to these techniques, initially the recommended approaches enjoyed widespread support.
My observation was that the population at large did not actively participate in this debate. The majority of the population passively received the simplified depictions of the procedures and then uncritically granted our approval. We missed the opportunity to debate these in detail.
Over time the majority opinion changed but for equally simplistic arguments. While the initial debate was won by the simplistic depiction that this form of interrogation left no lasting harm, the later counter argument won by the simplistic depiction that torture in any form is unacceptable.
The point of this post is to observe that democratically we never really had this debate at all. We instead decide between one of the simplified depictions of either interrogation not involving long-lasting harm is acceptable, or torture in any form is unacceptable. This may characterize representative democracy where we decide which side to support. This is not democracy were we individually engage in the debate, critically evaluate the evidence, and offer our decision where to draw the line.
The real debate we missed and continue to avoid is the debate about the specifics. What exactly does the subject experience in the specific techniques employed, what controls are in place to prevent exceeding limits, how effective is the procedure, how is that effectiveness measured, what are the actual risks to the subject, etc. To actively engage in this debate each of us needs to confront the definition of torture by examining the specific details of torture as practiced by other governments and as practiced by villainous organizations. These details need to be compared between civil and wartime situations and between modern and more historic methods. Participation in the debate about torture, its definition and acceptability involves debating these details. These are not pleasant details and a full debate involves getting deep into uncomfortable details.
The debate over these details is occurring, but the problem is that it is occurring outside of public view. It is not being debated democratically. The democratic debate is simplified to cartoonish proportions: all torture is bad, or this concept does not meet the definition of torture. By avoiding the details, we are avoiding the debate. The question is not whether torture is unacceptable. The question is where to draw the line and that needs to be in context of all the possibilities on either side of that line.
That debate involves very unpleasant depictions. There are some people who are preconditioned to not able to handle this information. There are many others who would prefer not to be exposed to this information. Excusing these people leaves the debate to the few remaining who will agree to confront these details.
When I think about the ideals of democracy, I think about the ideal of rule by the people, by the population at large. When I think about the value of this ideal, I think about using this principle on tackling the hard problems. The ideal is to move the toughest decisions from the monarchs, oligarchies, tyrants, etc, and allow the people to decide. The tough decisions are decisions like this one. We should decide democratically how to define the line where behavior becomes unacceptable torture. To decide this, we need to know specifically what resides on either side of that line. We need to confront the ugly details.
Perhaps that is too much to ask for the general population. We promote the ideals of college education as a form of education to prepare a large subset of the population for more responsible positions, positions of leadership over the remainder of the population. We should expect from higher education graduates an extended ability to engage in debates involving details that make others too uncomfortable. The graduates need to be conditioned to confront uncomfortable topics, to interpret these topics, and to offer arguments using these topics.
To support a democratic ideal, we’d like as much of the population to participate willingly into this type of decision making. The alternative is to defer the hard decisions to the elites. Not only does this alternative give up on democracy for topics that matter most, but we lose any assurance the these elites are thoroughly addressing the competing options. Part of the benefit of democracy is to be assured that all sides are being argued and that we are not blindly following some dogmatic approach.
The debate about torture is illustrative of many real debates that are increasingly deferred outside of democratic debate. Many of the debates that animate current political contests are described in simplistic proportions to earn votes for representatives who in turn defer to bureaucrats to make decisions involving unpleasant details.
I think about the health care debate where the inevitable problems of rationing resources are hidden behind simplistic concepts of universal access. We are ill equipped to debate this rationally as a democracy. The details of particular health conditions and limitations and the associated impacts on the well being of the patient and the patient’s family are too much for us to discuss democratically. We defer these to others so that the democratic debate is only about cost and opportunity for access. Obviously, the cost should be low and access should be universal. The tough question is where do we draw the line. The ideal of democracy is that the people will get involved in this type of question. The lessons of the past decade or so is that we are incapable of doing that.
Similarly we brush aside debates about abortion in simplistic terms of pro-choice or pro-life, conveniently setting aside the need to talk about the details of the developing fetus, the actual details of the procedure at each stage of development: details about what happens to the fetus and the mother, and the short and long term health consequences for the mother. We trust that the elites behind the two sides have these details adequately answered so our choice is only pro-choice or pro-life.
I see similar debates about defining rape, racial discrimination, hate crimes, etc. We argue the topics superficially to the point of agreeing that these are bad things. We do not get into the details about what exactly is the breadth of human behavior on either side of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. We undemocratically defer those decisions to bureaucrats, prosecutors, and judges. We can’t tolerate the details.
Part of modern US culture is to seek to be shielded from the realities of impacts on lives. Although one goal for higher education is to prepare young adults for a future of leadership positions, we are increasingly demanding that such education not expose the students to unpleasant topics. I recognize that the call for “trigger warnings” apply to undergraduate courses of literature or social sciences involving fictional, fictionalized, or historical events. We should encourage teachers of undergraduate courses to challenge students on difficult topics, to expose them to the details, test that they have paid attention, and require that that present arguments one way or the other about that material. Often the students will not volunteer to be exposed to such topics. The teacher has the unique opportunity to provide that push to get the student to participate in areas they find uncomfortable.
With the recent trends of shutting down debates of opposing view-points and demanding trigger warnings for objectional content, we are failing to prepare our students to be active critical participants in very important debates. We are continuing the decline of relevance of democratic debate for the difficult questions of governance with no option than to cede to tyranny the ruling over the important stuff.