Here is your trigger warning

Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. Email:

Some new words and phrases have entered the public dialogue describing the minefield of free expression.

“Cancel culture” describes a form of public shaming that holds individuals and groups accountable for their actions by calling attention to behavior that is perceived to be problematic.

A critical mass of people quickly judge and relentlessly attack someone, often in retaliation for having expressed thoughts that can be deemed sexist, racist or otherwise unacceptable. Often, the comments were made years ago on Twitter when the person in the rhetorical rifle scope was just trying to make others laugh by being a little silly and inappropriate. I’m glad social media did not exist when I was an immature teenager trying to make people like me!

What’s missing from this call-out culture is the opportunity for human beings to evolve. When some self-righteous kid growls at you on the internet, the irony is that some day another youngster will do the same to them for saying something that didn’t seem so preposterous at the time. OK Boomer...

Am I suggesting that people who say objectionable or dumb things should face no accountability? Of course not. I’m just not a big fan of mob mentalities and think it’s kind of unfair to attack someone for something they did or said years ago, giving them no accommodation for personal growth as a human being. Before the world broke their spirit or gave them a taste of humility.

That’s always what the targeted person says in their cookie-cutter apology: “I’m not the person I was then.”

Cancel culture isn’t really about punishing offenders as much as pampering the offended. Let’s all join hands and be outraged together. Hear our mighty roar!

The blood-lust to destroy the offending person’s career starts to threaten the ability of comedians, actors, musicians, TV hosts, and commentators to make audacious and controversial statements. Language becomes so watered-down and sanitized for someone’s protection that words feel less like fun/provocative conversations and more like delicately-worded brochures. Any daring thought that risks offending someone somewhere someday gets drown in the bathtub and the world becomes a lot less interesting.

Going a step too far can cost one’s job, murder a business deal or lead to public shaming. Sometimes the funniest comedy happens at someone’s expense. We may groan because the punch line is distasteful, but we laugh in the first place because the setup contains trace amounts of truths that we typically bury rather than confront. It becomes a heroic act just to say what’s on your mind, consequences be [expletive]. It’s the difference between your dad’s corny jokes and cutting “oh-no-they-didn’t” satire.

Another phrase our culture is learning is “virtue signaling,” which refers to the tendency to preach at others in feigned outrage on social media. This is when someone calls out others on their lack of action, vocalizing support of a cause without actually doing anything real like volunteering or donating money to said cause. This feels pretentious and fake and causes our friends on social media to roll their eyes and wish we’d shut up already.

Sometimes the cutting words should remain private but are instead unleashed upon the public in the form of shared text messages. Whenever I see someone posting screen-shots of direct messages sent with the assumption of privacy, I think, “Well, no one seeing this violation will ever trust you enough to be open and completely honest with you if this is how you react.”

A variation of this culture of outrage is mocked in the memes poking fun at “Karen who wants to speak with your manager,” i.e., some entitled person making a big deal over something dumb and inconsequential instead of just minding their own dang business.

Here’s a tough thing for people to hear: Just because you are offended by something doesn’t mean you are entitled to attempt to destroy it. That’s just, like, your opinion, man. I might not like or agree with what someone says, but they have a right to say it. We have free speech, but not freedom from the consequences of that speech.

On the other hand, I worry that our society is becoming too soft when we require “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” from confrontational language. This conveys weakness, being overly-emotional, easily offended and unable to deal with opposing opinions. You can’t cope with hearing some words without them affecting your mental health? Personally, I prefer blunt people to those who sugar-coat -- as long as they aren’t cruel.

On the flip side are those who take pride in how obnoxious and politically incorrect they can be. They enjoy labeling other people as “snowflakes” but these guys can be the most thin-skinned of all.

Past co-worker Scott was routinely abrasive toward others, playing emasculating pranks and casually hurling insensitive comments at others around the office. He would laugh at and taunt anyone who became annoyed or offended (that was the whole point) to suggest they were being unreasonable. Once others got payback, he’d predictably pout and even cried in one instance. Easily provoked, his fragile masculinity could be played like a fiddle -- but everyone else was the delicate snowflake.

Hey, don’t dish it out if you can’t take it, bruh.

— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. Email:

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