The Agonist Journal

“I’d surrender that gun if I were you,” says Matt Dillon, the force of law and order in Dodge City. He speaks from the side of his mouth and glares, all six foot six inches of him, not wishing to kill, but willing to kill if he must.

“Fight, argue, bring forth evidence, honor the worthy opponent, fight some more, strain every nerve; and then shake hands and drink beer.”

The gunslinger considers. His fingers twitch a little, in the general area of his holster. If the time is five minutes to the hour, he will make his last mistake on earth. He will try to draw, and Matt will shoot him down. That is life, in the romantic vision of the old west, as told by Hollywood.

Well, outside of the occasional Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp, life in that time was not a weekly spree of gunshots and smashed windows in your local saloon. Cowboys had far more to do with cows than with guns, drink, and whores, for the simple reason that they spent most of their days in the middle of nowhere, tending the cattle or driving them to the distant stockyards. The drink and the whores had to wait, and guns were mostly for jackrabbit and pheasant and such.

I will concede that in a mostly healthy sense, the life of a drover in 1880 was wilder than life is now. Anything is wilder than our life now. A slug battening silently on a head of lettuce is a regular wonder of audacity by comparison with the tame half-soul of contemporary man, who eats and sleeps and feeds and knows not life. The cowboy had the good earth beneath him and the bright stars above. He had stories, songs, hard work for the bones, good chow, chat with other men, silence when it suited him, and hot coffee.

Yet in another sense, not healthy, our life is wild where his was civil. If he swore at a fellow, the fellow swore back at him, and maybe they traded punches, and there was an end of it. A good fight like that has often been quite a civil thing, clearing the air and making for peace. We have no such expedients in our time. Strong men could wrestle. Weak men do not. Weaklings wait for you to turn your back, to slip the stiletto between your shoulder blades. Strong men could hold their own in a “flyting” match, as Beowulf with Unferth, and be the better for it, not taking offense even when offense might be intended. Weaklings hurl insults from a safe distance, and are the worse for it, the more contemptible, taking offense even when none was intended.

They are trigger-happy, from behind.

So have I come to see, in my land of the insane, when people excuse their bad behavior, saying that they were “triggered.” If I say, “It is not biologically possible for a man to marry a man,” I have triggered every such marital pretender and every mother stroking Sonny on the shoulder and telling him that if he is happy then she is happy (especially since, if I may trigger again, she will never know the sad day when another woman replaces her in his heart). If I say, “Whatever truth there may be in it, it is of no use for blacks in America to blame their troubles on Robert E. Lee,” I have triggered them too, and must be called a racist, when what I wish is that they would abandon a losing strategy and adopt a better one. If I say, “All the accomplishments of female mathematicians put together would not come up to the career of one Leonhard Euler,” I have triggered half of the human race, apparently, regardless of the truth of the statement, and regardless of that fact that it would apply to most groupings of male mathematicians too.

The subjugated native tribes in the southwest were eating lizards and bugs and were cowering in terror of their native enemies, before the Jesuits came and established the missions. Triggered. Western music is far more important to the Japanese than Japanese music will ever be to the west. Triggered. The final sin of the British empire was as Mahatma Gandhi suggested, that they left many a place too soon. Triggered. It is not good for a child to grow up without a mother. Triggered. It is not good for a child to grow up without a father. Triggered. Serena Williams would probably not be among the top 500 male tennis players. Triggered. She might not be among the top 1,000. Triggered with a machine gun. German literature of the nineteenth century is greater than Spanish literature of the same. Triggered. People from Spanish America ought to study Spanish literature of the golden age. Triggered. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a lousy novel. Triggered. That man over there—triggered! He isn’t a man, but a woman, that is, a man pretending to be a woman, a trans-something—now which direction does it take? A trans-ing man is a man pretending, is a woman who—a man who—ah, to hell with it.

Everything triggers, and people take for granted that the one who cries out “I am triggered!” is justified. “You have made me angry,” says the cartoon Martian, huffing, “very angry indeed!”

There are only two ways I can make sense of the phenomenon. The first way is to take the metaphor at its face value. The triggered person is like a delicate instrument, ready to explode if that tiny lever, that flywheel, that armature no thicker than a hair, moves but the tick of a gnat’s wing to the left or the right. I once knew a woman who was triggered in that way. She was quite rational and intelligent, until a conversation touched upon dogs, Arabs, Russians, or laboratories, because she was persuaded that Arabs had colluded with Russians to dog-nap her Siberian husky and to perform experiments upon it in a laboratory underground in the nation’s capital. Talk about dogs, and that mad machine would kick into frenzied activity.

There is a name for what that poor woman suffered. It is schizophrenia. If you are like the delicate instrument I have described, so that paroxysms of grief or terror overwhelm you in the vicinity of someone who voted for Donald Trump, or someone who believes that we shouldn’t kill our offspring in the womb, or someone who believes or says anything about the vexed issues of our time, you are not sane. We should pity you. You need help. You suffer shell-shock, perhaps. You cannot take part in a political battle. We do not want such people in the vicinity of dynamite.

The second way to understand this triggering is to change the voice of the participle. The person who claims to be triggered is instead fingering the trigger himself. It is the weakling, getting his way. Nobody would claim to be “triggered” if he knew that he would face a real opponent with a hand reaching for his gun. The triggered has put on the breastplate of political correctness and the helmet of right thinking. He knows that nothing can harm him. So when someone says something he does not like, he shoots up the saloon, with impunity.

He—and more often, she—is worse than uncivil. He—or she—poses a threat to the very possibility of a civitas. Here I will ask my readers with weak hearts to put my article away. I do not wish to lengthen the obituaries in the morning paper. The civitas cannot exist without fighting. Even good men will disagree violently about a course to pursue to protect the city they love.

So did one Roman hero, Quintus Fabius Maximus, the Delayer, come within an ace of slandering another Roman hero, Scipio to be surnamed Africanus, lashing out against him in the senate in the sixteenth year of the second Punic War. Fabius was angry not so much, I think, because he believed that Scipio’s strategy to draw Hannibal to Africa would fail and would expose Rome, but because he feared that it would succeed, and would save Rome. Fabius was zealous not only for Rome but for his own opinion and his reputation. Regardless of his motive, and regardless of the character of Scipio, the opinion of Fabius had to be heard in its most inflammatory form, not suppressed, to smolder in suspicion and secret maneuvering.

Unless, then, there is tolerance for the fight, and an understanding that even personal matters may be, by way of a useful fiction, taken as not personal, we will have no substantial debates about anything at all, and therefore none of the useful threshing of good from bad and truth from error. To thresh is to thrash: it is not work for the timid.

But women in our time, and many males, pull the trigger and with great shrieking and fainting and the wringing of hands cry out against those who dare to oppose them or to poke fun at them, or sometimes merely to express an opinion which they, as bystanders, happen not to hold. They go after the offender’s job, or reputation, or family. Out come the Gatling guns of the media, strafing. A woman suggests that students at Yale might police their own Halloween costumes without rules from the administration. She must be fired. A man suggests that perhaps inclination and not invidious discrimination explains the relatively low percentage of women in mathematics. He must be fired. A woman suggests that there might be a few good things to say about white men in the Middle Ages. She must be vilified by every Right-Thinking Person in her profession. I suggest that there is something absurd in saying that a western civilization program that introduces students to about twenty cultures across thirty centuries and five continents is not “multicultural.” I must be made the object of a first-ever campus demonstration against a single professor, and slander from the administration.

“You’re a bad man!” says the little brat with plenty of power, evil in his heart, and a trigger for a finger, “you’re a very bad man!”

Of course this is intolerance in action: an incapacity or unwillingness to put up with what one thinks is bad or wrong. But it is also vindictiveness, aggression such as weaklings practice, and ressentiment. In normal times, such antisocial passions and the destruction they cause are kept in check by the manly understanding that in the fight for truth or for the common good, your personal feelings are of no consequence. You have no right to angry tears and stamping feet. If you engage in those, if you draw the weakling’s pistol against a disarmed crowd, you cede your right to take part in public affairs altogether.

Fight, argue, bring forth evidence, honor the worthy opponent, fight some more, strain every nerve; and then shake hands and drink beer. That is how men fight. They are, as people now say, anti-fragile, and they make for a public space that is strong and vital, with patience for the stupid, because the stupid we will always have among us, and some indulgence for the weak, the abnormal, and even the wicked. Yet it will be a public space in which ordinary people can speak their minds on the most controversial subjects without fear; a Dodge City where the worst that the itinerant drovers do is go to the saloon; where you go about your private and public business, and never need suspect that a sour-eyed fury conceals a gun, waiting.