On Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

I am not a fan of trigger warnings*. I’ll admit it. Personally, I find them unnecessary and, based on my experiences and research on mental health, trauma and distress, somewhat counter-intuitive. However, I understand others’ desire to provide them and that they serve a need for some that I cannot relate to, so I don’t mind them. Furthermore, despite the aforementioned research, there may be a case for them due to the muddying of the original intention and definition of trigger warnings. So, unlike John Ellison, Dean of Students at the University of Chicago, I am interested in understanding them. Ellison wrote the following to the incoming class at U of Chicago:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

What Ellison fails to recognize is that his institution’s commitment to academic freedom has now excluded discussion on (and “retreated” from) trigger warnings and safe spaces. Trigger warnings and other so-called “PC ideas” heavily emphasize the power of language and it’s destructive, hegemonic properties in certain contexts. In this case, by plainly stating that “we” (the institution) “do not support trigger warnings”, is Ellison triggering (pun intended) a chilling effect on discussion of the same? Are faculty and students allowed to discuss the application of trigger warnings? In any context? Are faculty members forbidden to include them in syllabi, if they so choose (you know, exercise their academic freedom)?

I believe that these are discussions worth having. Whether or not you agree with the concept of trigger warnings, it is clear that many on the internet feel that trigger warnings are important and necessary, and some feel that they are needed IRL, as well. Isn’t it important, then, for the sake of academic freedom and discourse, to continue to grapple with the contentious nature of these nascent concepts? The fact of the matter is that “the idea of trigger warnings and safe spaces” is now “at odds with” U of Chicago’s perspective on the issue. This letter then, ironically, can be thought of as an exercise in the creation of an intellectual safe space for the administrative body of U of Chicago.

Safe Spaces

From Rutgers Archives, Black Student Protest Movement Demonstration (1979) at Rutgers University

In reading the comments on the many think pieces following the viral spread of Ellison’s letter, I was struck by the fact that most people don’t know or understand what a safe space is. Ellison used the term “intellectual safe space”, however most commenters seem to be conflating this concept with physical safe spaces only, indicating a need to hide from or escape potentially “dangerous” or contrasting ideas. Some thought that this may as well lead to segregation based on race/ethnicity because of the existence of black spaces on campuses (in reference to Mizzou, Yale). In either case, one thing became clear to me: they just don’t get it.

A response to Ellison from the President of Northwestern, Morton Schapiro, outlines his support for safe spaces and provides anecdotal examples. Perhaps I can illustrate why this concept is confusing for so many using examples from my time at the University of Manitoba.

When I first went to the Womyn’s Centre on campus, I was introduced to the concept of a physical safe space: a room within the centre, a space on campus that a female-identified individual could use if they were in distress. Similarly, women’s centers in most institutions are usually physical and intellectual safe spaces (or are intended to be) for the exchange of feminist ideas and discussions. This means that debate and opposing viewpoints are usually encouraged but those who do not share in the values and principles of the space are not welcome because of the historic domination, marginalization, stifling and silencing of women’s bodies, voices and spaces. 

This is an offensive notion for some, particularly of the anti-PC or altright persuasion but, put another way, it is not much different from hobby and interest based, ethnicity-based, or religious and faith-based student group spaces on campuses. In the same way that it would be extremely rude, counter-productive and possibly dangerous to have outsiders accost a group of students in Bible study to espouse their own opinions about the veracity of the Bible, it is equally unwelcome to have anti-feminists gain access to a specifically feminist discussion space. There are other spaces for that; classrooms, for instance! I have had plenty of discussions with students who championed anti-feminist, seemingly homophobic or staunchly conservative arguments in class. Within the classroom, it was clear to us that we were engaging in dialogue, and we may be extremely different in our principles and values but that didn’t mean we couldn’t respect one another’s right to hold those principles and values. The discussions were moderated by our professor who created an environment where we felt safe to have these discussions.

And that is what it comes down to: this notion of safety is lost on many. Safety is considered by opponents as weakness, whereas in most actual academic contexts it is simply a sense of equality, freedom to express oneself, and be ourselves without feeling like we will be punished simply because of who we are, our bodies or our ideas – something that has historically been the case in higher education settings for women, people of colour and racial/ethnic/caste minorities, people of certain faiths, and LGBTTQ* individuals. Unfortunately, this continues to be the case for some and is the norm in many countries around the world. Therefore, intellectual safe spaces shouldn’t be thought of as places to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with [our] own” but spaces for the creation and generation of ideas and perspectives which may be at odds with hegemonic discourses.

It is also important to remember, as oft noted, that “freedom of expression is not freedom from consequences.” Just as students, faculty, or the university have a right to hold events or invite speakers who may be deemed objectionable to some, others have an equal right to organize, protest against or demand the cancellation of invited speakers. For example, a couple of years ago a campus pro-life group held an event where horrific images of genocide were displayed alongside messages indicating that abortion is comparable to the Holocaust. I found this event highly disturbing, to say the least, and many, many people protested the presence of these images (displayed in a very public space), and the group itself. Later, some demanded that the group lose their status as a union-sanctioned student group. Fortunately, the union did no such thing, because, while this particular pro-life demonstration was extremely offensive to many, it was still within the rights of the group to do so (however, it seemed to toe the boundaries of the respectful work and learning policies of the University). Furthermore, the space where this student group conceptualized this exhibition can be thought of as their “intellectual safe space”. Freedom of speech goes both ways.

I’m sure that almost everyone agrees that post-secondary classrooms should be spaces where students and educators grapple with uncomfortable, thought-provoking ideas, and feel safe in doing so. And, outside of the classroom, within the auspices of the university, the creation of student-interest spaces where students who share common values, principles, backgrounds, ideas, and interests can come together, which can be construed as intellectual and/or physical safe spaces, have a right to and should be encouraged to exist.

*Geek Feminism defines trigger warnings as follows: “Trigger warnings are customary in some feminist and other Safe spaces. They are designed to prevent unaware encountering of certain materials or subjects for the benefit of people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to such topics. Having these responses is called ‘being triggered’.”

Published by Anu

Anthropologist, PhD student, writer.

One thought on “On Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

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