Team Fortress 2 was recently updated so that teleporters would randomly generate pieces of bread. It looks delicious.
I can’t actually eat bread anymore. Sometimes I miss it. I jokingly told a friend that I hoped the game’s portrayal of bread didn’t look too delicious, or it would just fill me with sad longing. The joke went on like this:
[12:44:41 AM | Kazerad: “There I was playing engie in my ORDINARY, GLUTEN FREE GAME where I had already had a friend mod out the bread on the sandwich, and all of a sudden when someone goes through my teleporter a fucking piece of BREAD comes out. No warning, no anything. I could have fucking been TRIGGERED TO DEATH, valve. I will be boycotting you forever and I hope you die (tw: death threat)”
[12:45:14 AM] Raven Noriega: hahahah
[12:45:17 AM] Raven Noriega: oh man
[12:45:21 AM] Raven Noriega: so perfect
[12:45:28 AM] Raven Noriega: they did it cause of you
[12:45:50 AM] Kazerad: you know half of me wants to make a Tumblr post like this, but I can’t think of any good way to slip in that triggers are a real thing, just not how Tumblr uses the word.
[12:46:10 AM] Raven Noriega: yeah, you couldn’t really
The conversation ended there. As I thought about it more, though, I realized the meta-level commentary about why I didn’t want to make that joke post on Tumblr was more interesting than the joke itself. Like, consider the mechanics at play: I think a lot of people on Tumblr use the word “trigger” in some ridiculously inappropriate ways, basically just to guilt people into not showing them things they don’t like. It’s hard to speak out against that without it being construed as an attack against the entire concept of people having triggers for PTSD or depression. The people using the term inappropriately presumably know this. And tactically, that is actually really neat.
When we talk about generalizations, it is usually because people are using them to attack others - taking a racial, cultural, or social stereotype that applies to part of a group and drawing conclusions that assume it applies to the whole group. However, I’ve seen surprisingly little discussion about the idea of generalizations being used defensively.
Like, let’s break down the above scenario. You essentially have two groups trying to use the idea of “triggers” to control the behavior of others. On one hand - let’s call them Trigger Group 1 - you have people with serious, uncontrollable psychological reactions elicited by certain stimuli; they cannot reasonably handle these things on their own, and most people who knew the severity of it would probably cater to their needs. On the other hand - let’s call them Trigger Group 2 - you have people who are made uncomfortable by certain images/ideas, and would rather not see them. Some people would be okay with catering to that, whereas others would take a colder “grow up and learn to handle it” stance. Despite garnering potentially different reactions from others, the two groups share a single label: “people with triggers”.
Now go back to the bread joke and the social mechanisms that dissuaded me from posting it on Tumblr. I wanted to attack Trigger Group 2; the whole idea of the bread joke was that it pokes fun at people who appropriate the word “trigger” to mean “anything that could make me uncomfortable”. My concern was that it would be interpreted as an attack on Trigger Group 1 as well. By blurring that distinction between the two groups - creating a generalization - Trigger Group 2 can dissuade potential attackers who do not want to attack Trigger Group 1.
It is a very smart defensive tactic, but it is executed at the expense of Trigger Group 1. While Trigger Group 2 gains additional defense, Trigger Group 1 is more likely to be attacked, since some people will characterize the entire label by its Trigger Group 2 members. Someone could have a very serious reaction to, say, mentions of suicide, and a person who only knows triggers through Trigger Group 2 is going to blow it off like “yeah, sad things exist. Nut up and get used to it”.
This problem, of course, arises from one place: a shared term. Imagine for a moment what would happen if the terms were split.
To avoid declaring either group “real triggers”, let’s call Trigger Group 1 “Switches” and Trigger Group 2 “Skeevies”. These are two fitting terms, I think. People with Switches suffer severe, diagnosable anxiety when presented with certain stimuli, whereas people with Skeevies are made uncomfortable by certain stimuli.
All of a sudden, you are able to speak out in support or defense of either idea without it being generalized to the other. There is a relatively concrete distinction: depending on someone’s reactions you could argue “that’s not a Switch, that’s just a Skeevie”. Someone could say they are happy to label Switches and Skeevies for the sake of their readers. Someone could say they don’t believe in labeling Skeevies, because they view them as weaknesses people should overcome. By separating, the two ideas are able to gain social traction at their own rate, rather than sharing a common reputation.
This leads to a rather important idea that applies to almost all politics, activism, and other ideas seeking social power: the more different causes you tie together in one package, the harder that package will be to accept. An organization campaigning to give free cupcakes and guns to every citizen is going to have a much harder time finding support than two separate organizations, one focusing on free cupcakes and the other focusing on free guns. On its own, the hypothetical free-cupcake organization will get support even from anti-gun groups, and the hypothetical free-guns organization might get support even from health groups that would have opposed free cupcakes. Both causes are weaker by being combined.
If your goal is for an idea to gain social acceptance, you don’t benefit from grouping it with something less likely to be accepted. I mean, sure, you could say that you’re doing it to help the less-likely-to-be-accepted idea - using the visibility and acceptance of Switches to draw attention to the plight of the Skeevies - but then you are still intentionally hindering one cause to help the other. You can still help and support them if the causes are unattached, but you are giving every individual person the choice of who to support.
This is kind of a weird place to go from a joke about bread, but I feel like there is an important lesson here. If we can see past the labels, past the linguistic gerrymandering instituted by manipulative people to shape how we group the world, then I think a lot of harmful ideas would find themselves more susceptible to attack. It’s important to acknowledge that generalization can be a defensive tactic as well as an offensive one.