Progressivists1 like to have “content warning” against things such as certain words, sexual dialogue, violent moments, or in more recent cases also certain symbols in popular culture. They believe these will also harm or tempt weaker people.2
As I pointed out in my first article in this miniseries, I see little difference between the two approaches to content warnings—although members of both sides often accuse the other of exclusively practicing censorship and moralism.
But as I’m about to say in this article, Christians have good reasons to reevaluate a default posture of plastering warnings on all or most offensive content. Do we think that by giving all the warnings, we are the mature ones who protect “the weaker” who may or may not be actually weak? Do we act like even mild censorship is the best way of guarding against sin?
Content warnings do serve some good
Let’s recall first that either set of content warnings—either those used by evangelicals or by progressives—may be well-intentioned and may help people. I would never suggest that small children should be able to handle exposure to sexual dialogue. I also never suggest victims of real violence, with real “triggers,” should be thrust before, say, a violent scene.
That’s my problem with some of the pushback I’ve seen against all content warnings.
If a Christian movie reviewer says a movie includes 14 and a half F-words and therefore is unsuitable for children, is it cool to mock the reviewer?
If an article about date rape is prefaced with a warning that rape victims might find challenging and hurtful content in the article, should we imply that this is unnecessary?
Let’s not suggest that in every case, if someone is “triggered” or offended, well, that’s their problem and they should grow up or toughen up. That’s a kind of Darwinianism. It’s not how the Bible recommends we respond to those who are suffering the consequences of others people’s evil, or struggling against their own temptations to sin.
But let’s challenge our motivations
That being said, I think I’ve discerned a pattern of behavior and statements that give away one problem. The problem is that some people are putting content warnings on pretty much anything potentially controversial, not out of legitimate care but because they kinda want to fancy themselves the “smartest” or “most discerning” or “most caring” guardians.
I’m not saying this practice is motivated by self-righteousness. But it certainly can be.
Recently I engaged in a discussion with an internet friend about a similar issue. He thought more highly of the intentions of most people behind “content warnings” and even bans, such as pulling the old TV show “Dukes of Hazzard” because the car shows a Confederate flag. But based on biblical suspicion of human nature, I must view such attempts more negatively—as at best a mixture of good intentions but also savior-complex impulses.
For evangelical content-warners, maybe we also like to fancy ourselves the mature grown-ups. We are the special saviors who can see a violent movie or listen to a fornication-praising song “on behalf” of the simple, naïve, or weak people, especially children.
Then of course, as a Ministry we can inform people what’s wrong with the story or song, assuming all or most other Christians are immature and can’t handle stuff like we can.
A subtle form of this approach is behind the practice of doing this to a bad word: “d***,” and then acting like I am the big tough ranger Christian who is protecting helpless hobbits. “I heard a bad word and I can stand it, but I Censored it so you need not see it and be hurt!”
Undoubtedly too, in the progressivist/secularist world, columnists and pundits and writers are doing the same thing. In one recent example a student newspaper flagged even the word “crazy” (though they did not add the badness-obscuring asterisks or hyphens) so that weaker people would know that a bad word was there and could avoid it if necessary.
And let’s ask: Where does the constant content-warning end?
I also see few ultimate first-principles behind many content-warning advocates. They seem to minimize not only free-speech rights but the rights of artists to explain their intentions. Instead content-warners cite anecdotal statistics (“that idea will hurt the most people”) and often subjectively excuse certain people (“well, this trusted artist didn’t mean that”).
Without higher first principles, there is logically no end to content-warning gone amok.
If you warn about a Content that does not actually hurt people, few are reluctant to point this out. The only limitations stopping you are how many others you can get to listen to you, and whether you’re at the right moment to hit or start a cultural condemnation trend.
Let’s say a pundit has a large audience of people who trust him, and he decides “Gilligan’s Island” ought to be banned or content-warned. He suggests the show is both racist (which it probably is in places) and filled with sexual innuendoes (which it also is in places). And let’s say other people, who are informed, respond with irritation at the would-be censor.
But what about uninformed people who hear the controversy only casually? The choice is:
- Support banning or content-warning an old TV show and thus enable censorship.
- Support efforts to criticize the content-warners and end up enabling a worse sin.
Honestly, given a choice between those sins, I would also choose the lesser of two evils.
But the choice is a false one. It does not actually fight actual sin or help people mature.
Let’s explore this next time.