Balancing Safety with Intellectualism: On Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces, and Challenging Comfort Zones

I keep coming across this article from the New York Times, “In College And Hiding from Scary Ideas”, and as I’ve been reading it, I’ve been realizing that there have been few really nuanced discussions of the issues related to safety in intellectual spaces.  This article actually does try quite hard, and I’m fully willing to give credit where credit is due: if universities cannot bring controversial speakers onto campus, if students insist that their colleges become liberal echo-chambers, then our intellectual growth as a nation is likely to stagnate.

College-~-especially liberal arts colleges-~-should be about broadening your horizons and challenging your assumptions.  That necessarily means being exposed to ideas you don’t necessarily agree with, and ideas that make you uncomfortable. It might mean challenging your privilege or being forced to defend something you don’t think you should have to defend-~-I’m totally okay with that.  I’m okay with the idea that if I want to talk about rape culture, I may have to defend the idea that rape culture exists and is a problem.  I’m okay with the idea that things like abortion are controversial issues and may make some people upset or uncomfortable, I’m okay with the fact that not everyone has the same ideas as I do about HIV prevention or sex education or care labor-~-part of being intellectually rigorous in my activism means that I should be able to articulate not only my ideas but my justifications for them. My dad always says that being a reform Jew or a conservative Jew is harder than being an Orthodox Jew because you have to actually think critically about and defend to yourself why you accept the practices you engage in, because you aren’t just accepting everything about the religion on face.  That critical engagement is necessary if we’re to make progress on important issues and debates.  We should be having these debates, because people need the opportunity to engage with ideas that are different than those they encounter every day.

I’m also okay with the idea of speakers at special events tackling issues like rape culture and critically examining whether or not many of the ideas that the feminist movement promotes are based on valid assessments and assumptions about society.  You know why?  Because special events are voluntary.  Wendy McElroy should have been given the space to articulate her viewpoint at Brown, and Jessica Valenti should have had the opportunity to refute her, without the very existence of the debate being controversial in and of itself.  Students who might be triggered by this debate have the option of simply not attending, which means that they already have the ability to protect themselves.

Where I think this New York Times article-~-and the criticism of efforts to protect trauma survivors more generally-~-goes a bit too far is where the author starts to attack trauma survivors themselves for their “hypersensitivity”.  The author references an essay Judith Shapior, former president of Barnard College, wrote for Inside Higher Ed, in which Shapiro suggests that students self-infantilize and that this trend towards reducing triggers or creating safe spaces is a part of that trend.  I’m not sure where I stand on this self-infantilization issue-~-I simply haven’t looked at it enough-~-but when the Times dismisses trauma as “quasi-medical”, I think it runs the risk of completely dismissing an entire branch of psychology and counseling that deals with the very real experiences of survivors of traumatic experiences.

I think that universities do need to offer trauma survivors the tools to take care of themselves-~-but don’t necessarily need to do all of that protecting for them.  I think trigger warnings fall on the safer side of this line.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: trigger warnings are not about protecting students from content they may find potentially offensive, it is about helping survivors of trauma to brace themselves or avoid situations where they might be forced to partially relive their trauma.  They may not be perfect, but they are at least something, and though I have had individuals tell me, time and again, that trigger warnings violate the intellectual freedom of those forced to use them, I can’t tell you that I agree: trigger warnings don’t say you cannot discuss a subject.  They are just a tool to allow students who might be disproportionately impacted by the discussion to prepare themselves.  A survivor of relationship violence, I work with other survivors of relationship violence every single day as a domestic violence counselor; but I am prepared for their stories, prepared for the environment in which I work, so I am still able to focus, and I have tools in place to ground myself if necessary.  Allowing students to opt out of special events like debates or presentations if the content may be triggering is another good way to let students protect themselves without compromising the intellectual nature of the university.

I get that we all want universities to be safe spaces for ideas to be freely discussed.  I also get that it’s useful, important even, for survivors to confront their trauma, to talk about these issues.  I’m not at all convinced that every context is the right context at any given time for every survivor, and a class discussion or academic debate about sexual assault may do more harm than good.  And before you dismiss trigger warnings as stupid and trauma survivors as “hypersensitive”, ask yourself this question: have you ever had a dissociative episode in class, or started shaking and crying in public, because you were blindsided by a trauma reaction? A little warning actually can go a long way, and if you haven’t experienced a trauma trigger, consider that there may be more to the issue than you’re necessarily able to see from where you stand.

As an advocate, I work off of what the victims services sector calls an “empowerment model”: that is, I don’t make decisions for my clients, but rather give them the information and resources that they need to make decisions for themselves regarding their safety and well-being.  That’s the model I’d love to see universities shift towards in dealing with trauma.  We should be teaching trauma survivors good coping mechanisms, through support groups or general trainings on how to ground someone who is having a traumatic episode, the same way we would teach safe space trainings or bystander intervention trainings.  We should be offering resources so that survivors can pick up the pieces of their lives and decide what they need to stay safe.  We should be offering students the opportunity to adequately prepare themselves if they are going to encounter triggering content so that they have the chance to really engage in the discussion without incurring pain unnecessarily.  And as for the safe spaces the New York Times article initially sets out to critique: I don’t have a problem with giving students the resources to ground themselves and take a breath if necessary after they confront opposing and potentially triggering discussions.  If we don’t allow for students to take care of themselves after putting themselves in disquieting situations, the odds are they may disengage altogether-~-which is, in this author’s opinion, just as great a barrier to getting the intellectually rigorous, mind-opening debates that universities claim they want.  I think there’s a balance that can be achieved here, and I think we need to be cautious in which tools we implement in our quest to achieve it.


~ by Randi Saunders on April 15, 2015.

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