Mohammed pictures should have trigger warnings

There was apparently another Draw Mohammed Day yesterday: Hermant at Friendly Atheist covers it (that link may obviously contain links to pictures of Mo).

My previous LJ entry on Muslims vs Student Atheist Societies provoked some discussion about whether criticism of Islam is necessarily motivated by racism, and whether white atheists ought to be involved in such criticism. During that, cartesiandaemon linked to Yvain’s utilitarian argument against Mo pics which appeared on Less Wrong. Yvain argued against Draw Mo Day on the basis of harm minimisation (Less Wrong orthodoxy is consequentalist so people there are likely to be responsive to such arguments).

Vladimir M won the Less Wrong thread with the response that “In a world where people make decisions according to this principle, one has the incentive to self-modify into a utility monster who feels enormous suffering at any actions of other people one dislikes for whatever reason”. He also made the observation (due to Thomas Schelling) that “in conflict situations, it is often a rational strategy to pre-commit to act irrationally (i.e. without regards to cost and benefit) unless the opponent yields. The idea in this case is that I’ll self-modify to care about X far more than I initially do, and thus pre-commit to lash out if anyone does it”. He adds “such behavior is usually not consciously manipulative and calculated. On the contrary — someone flipping out and creating drama for a seemingly trivial reason is likely to be under God-honest severe distress, feeling genuine pain of offense and injustice.”. Yvain then behaved excellently by formally withdrawing his argument.

Muslims may be harmed by seeing Mo pictures. However, Vladimir M’s point applies. So, what to do?

There are things called “trigger warnings” which are popular in some parts of the Internet. Medically, a trigger is something which can set off PTSD symptoms. These trigger warnings are usually appear on links to, and the beginning of, pages about rape or domestic violence, where victims may suffer from PTSD on reading the text.

[Latterly, the term has been broadened to encompass not just PTSD flashbacks, but that uncomfortable feeling you get when reading something which advances a view different from your own (for instance, the trigger warnings for misogyny and Islamophobia on this post mean “comments disagreeing with feminists/Muslims”), and has also become a way of signalling that one is down with the identity politics posse (this is well known enough for it to be parodied: see Is this Feminist?, for example). However, I think that few people would disagree with the idea that some Muslims’ distress at seeing such pictures is more towards the PTSD end of things than the “people disagree with me”/signalling end.]

It feels like a Schelling point in this conflict might be to agree that pictures of Mo should appear behind trigger warnings. These might be specific warnings; or a general warning that by continuing to read a site, one may encounter such pictures, or links to them. In the case of the atheist Facebook group, Jesus and Mo cartoons should not be used for public events (since the cartoons may then appear on the feeds of people who are not members of the group) but would be OK for events which are private to the group, assuming that the group is covered by a general warning. Obviously, all Draw Mo Day pictures should appear behind such warnings.

18 Comments on "Mohammed pictures should have trigger warnings"


  1. Should all women wear veils, in case they offend someone who suffers distress at unveiled women which is more towards the PTSD end of things than at the “people disagree with me”/signalling end?

    Reply

    1. No, because that’s a significant inconvenience for the women (edit: and establishes the bad precedent that people can control women by freaking out over what they’re doing). However, people already do trigger warnings for a variety of reasons (some more sane than others, see above) and it’s a pretty trivial change.

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        1. Yerbut the reason why I think putting Mo pictures behind trigger warnings works as a focal point is it that it cuts off a line of attack, namely the “I’m so hurt by this” line, because the reply is “Well, don’t do that then”. If Mo pictures are like Langford basilisks to you but like art to other people, and you click through the warnings, you have only yourself to blame. If I go and spray paint the Parrot on a wall somewhere knowing its effects, I’m to blame, at least partially.

          If the line of attack is “I’m upset that these things even exist”, then the reply is “Well, tough”. Nobody’s actually going to die from looking at them, so free expression wins (unlike the basilisk case).

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          1. My reaction to “I’m so hurt by this” by people that aren’t my friends, or complaining about something _I_ consider reasonable is “Go read someone else’s journal”.

            I’m willing to compromise for my friends, or for issues that I believe cause general harm, but I’m not going to get to the point where I put up Duck Trigger warnings for people with anatidaephobia.

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            1. I think I’d want to say that whether a reaction is reasonable doesn’t matter for the purpose of harm minimisation. After all, it is not reasonable for victims of violence to get panic attacks merely by reading about violence: they are in no additional danger because of reading about it.

              I guess the duck phobics are few in number, and at some point the inconvenience to many outweighs the upset of a few (hmmm, I seem to have just taken a position on the torture vs dust specks argument). But there are quite a few Muslims who would be upset by Mo pictures, though perhaps I could argue that not many of them are likely to read my blog (which was my response to a complaint that critcism of Judaism might encourage anti-semitism, here).

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              1. I think I’d want to say that whether a reaction is reasonable doesn’t matter for the purpose of harm minimisation.

                I think that “having to hide certain kinds of things from the general public” counts as harm, so it’s a balancing act.

                it is not reasonable for victims of violence to get panic attacks

                I find that perfectly reasonable – it triggers certain areas of their brain in a manner that they cannot control. I find it less reasonable that people who have merely been told that something is wrong react as badly as people who have encountered much worse things in real life.

                I guess the duck phobics are few in number
                As are the number of people reading my blog who would be upset by a picture of Mohammed (as you say).

                Reply

                1. OK, so by “reasonable” I meant “rational” rather than “morally blameless” or “understandable”. PTSD suffers are not being rational, because they are under no further threat at the point where they panic. As it is written in the Second Virtue, “If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is cool, and it is hot, the Way opposes your calm.” In this case, the iron is cool.

                  None of which is to say that their reaction is not understandable, or that they’re stupid, obviously.

                  I find it less reasonable that people who have merely been told that something is wrong react as badly as people who have encountered much worse things in real life.

                  I think I can understand how someone raised as a Muslim would have that reaction. To be sure, it’s not a consequence of single traumatic event, but it shares with the PTSD case the fact that it’s an irrational reaction because of something that was effectively done to the person.

                  I’m not sure whether Muslims’ suffering is comparable to PTSD suffers’. Muslims certainly seem to get pretty upset about it, even the ones who aren’t otherwise bonkers (setting aside the whole “believing in God” thing, obviously). But I think the argument works even if Mo pictures don’t cause as much suffering as PTSD triggers as long as the suffering outweighs the inconvenience of putting Mo pictures behind trigger warnings. If you think it doesn’t, though, or if you think that Muslims are unlikely to read your blog, you’re OK.

                  Reply

                  1. OK, so by “reasonable” I meant “rational” rather than “morally blameless” or “understandable”.

                    In that case, I’d say neither action is reasonable. One is triggered by a pure emotional response, one is caused by believing in unsupported facts.

                    I can understand both, of course. People have emotional reactions, and simply telling them not to have them doesn’t do anything useful.

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  2. I’m enthusiastic about the idea that we should treat being a devout Muslim as a medical condition like PTSD. In fact, I think we should abandon terminology like “devout” and say things like “afflicted with severe Islam”. Religion sufferers deserve our compassion and understanding.

    Reply

    1. In the sense that you don’t blame someone for having a disease (especially not one which was probably transmitted to them by their parents), that seems a sensible way to look at it. As Yvain says: “I think several features of the salmon example trigger consequentialist moral reasoning, in which the goal is to figure out how to satisfy as many people’s preferences as possible; several contrasting features of the Mohammed case trigger deontological moral reasoning, in which the goal is to figure out who is a good person or a bad person and to assign status and blame appropriately.”

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  3. Yvain then behaved excellently by formally withdrawing their argument

    “Their”? I know that Yvain is keen on gender-neutral pronouns (preferring the Spivak ones, IIRC), but I don’t see that that means you have to use them in referring to Yvain. Especially as Yvain doesn’t make any particular attempt to present as sex-neutral or anything. (I’ve avoided saying “he” or “she” in case I’m somehow wrong about this.)

    Reply

    1. AFAIK you’re not wrong, I just didn’t know which pronoun to use, as “Yvain” wasn’t obviously a male name. Googling, I see it’s the name of a knight, so presumably it’s a male name, and Yvain is a “he”.

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        1. I had squid314 down as a LW person, but I’m not whether I’d never made the connection, or made it and forgotten. Anyway, I’m now reading the PHB for Dungeons and Discourse, so thanks!

          Reply

          1. Oh yes, that’s fun. You should listen to the Daniel Dennett song too, if you haven’t already done so. (It’s a kind of single-bit joke, but a very good one.)

            Reply

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