We are by now all familiar with the 21st century neologism “trigger words” — words that, once heard or read, are apparently capable of causing PTSD and a lifetime of psychotherapy.
This constitutes a striking inversion of traditional therapy, whereby a therapist helps a patient come to terms with trauma and problems in their life by directly confronting them with a view to understanding and acceptance. Today we pathologise vocabulary in order to protect the expanding classes of vulnerable people from merely having to be exposed to, let alone confront and accept, any and every aspect of history, culture and society deemed difficult, problematic, controversial, or simply contested.
Our political vocabulary is fast becoming a lexicon of trigger words, liable to provoke a flight or fight response in an over-sensitised public. This, needless to say, makes civil political discussion very difficult.
In fact, it makes discussion of any kind difficult.
I host a podcast called The Political Animals where I conduct “honest conversations about the political and cultural ideas that shape who we are in the 21st century.” This experience has seen me unwittingly take up residence in Triggerville. This is not by design, mind you. It is simply by dint of the fact that I am transparently conservative in my political disposition, philosophy and approach to politics.
It is also by virtue of having conversations with guests who are either self-professed conservatives, associated with “conservative” institutions or willing to discuss topics deemed taboo in an age of taboo inflation. It seems that the names of some of my guests, the institutions with which they are associated, the topics they discuss with me, and yes, that most offensive of words “conservative,” are enough to trigger linguistic derangement syndrome.
Take by way of illustration this bit of constructive feedback my latest episode provoked on Twitter:
Undemocratic extremist propaganda— Sean Reilly (@SeanJamesReilly) April 19, 2021
This was actually the succinct follow up to a more extensive (by Twitter standards) tweet by the same fan which opened by describing the episode as “dishonest, hysterical clap trap,” without any sense of pot-kettle-black irony, I might add.
Apparently, it was talking to the Institute of Public Affairs’ Bella d’Abrera about cancel culture and Western civilisation. It is impossible to know whether the gentleman in question was triggered merely by the title of the show, “Cancel Culture and the Fight for Civilisation: A Conversation with the IPA’s Bella d’Abrera,” the words I used to describe the episode in my Tweet (a variation on the title) or the actual content of the episode.
I say impossible, because the unhinged comments bear no coherent relationship to the title, tweet or 60-minute episode, in which two serious thinkers with PhDs engaged in considered discussion and analysis about our contemporary society.
In other words, the actual discussion was very much a democratic, moderate conversation; not “undemocratic extremist propaganda.”
It appears that this “contributor” to our civic life was triggered by one or more of the following words: “IPA,” “Cancel Culture,” and/or “Western civilisation.” If I had to guess, I would say it was those three magical little letters I-P-A that did the job. After incanting these demonic letters everything that followed was ipso facto discredited: the tweet, the episode, the podcast itself.
How remarkably childish.
Nobody would dare attempt to write a book review based merely and solely on a book’s title. Such a review could anticipate due ridicule. Yet, judging books by their cover appears to be the very function of Twitter these days.
Twitter is that place where people go to shoot from the hip, prop up faltering egos by pouring out their invective on others and overreact to language, mere letters, and is accorded the overinflated powers of a demi-god. It is a semiotic temple in which the high priests of language sort the saved from the damned based purely on their choice of signifiers. No one on Twitter really cares to know your complex view of the world, nor the complex experiences that have shaped it. The constraints of the medium, after all, do not exactly promote anything approximating real relationships and genuine dialogue.
Criticism is a vital component of any healthy and functioning democracy. In my view, anyone who elects to talk publicly, in whatever format, is inviting, or at least licensing, criticism of their words, images and actions. I am no exception to this rule, and I have been blessed with the good fortune of receiving critical, yet constructive, feedback from listeners who have done me the honour of listening carefully to the show before evaluating it.
It is also vital that the freedom to criticise remain always open to nincompoopery, which is why I would never delete comments of the kind made above, no matter how puerile. But let’s not pretend that this kind of interaction does anything but demean, devalue and debase the quality of our civic discourse.
We all bear a civic duty to constructively and charitably critique those brave or silly enough to speak in the arena of the modern digital Colosseum. For too many of our contemporaries seem willing, indeed enthusiastically intent, on living in an entirely voluntary, unnecessary and tyrannical grammatocracy: “rule by letters.”
We must resist their efforts to coerce the rest of us into joining them in their cells, and we must make every effort to liberate the existing inmates and their guards if we want to live in a genuinely democratic, moderate polity in which we can engage in serious and constructive dialogue with one other.
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Dr Jonathan Cole is a scholar, lecturer and speaker who specialises in the intersection between religion and politics. He is Assistant Director of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology (Charles Sturt University) and host of The Political Animals Podcast.
Jonathan has a PhD in political theology and an MA in Islamic theology and Middle Eastern politics. He spent thirteen years working in a number of Australian federal government departments and agencies in Canberra, including seven years in intelligence, most recently as a Senior Terrorism Analyst at the Office of National Assessments (2010–2014). [more]