Trigger warnings and safe spaces.
You may be wondering what in the world they are. This August 26, 2016 article in the New York Times about the University of Chicago’s welcome letter to incoming freshmen explains the terms. The article generated 1312 comments from readers before the comment section was closed. There are many other articles about trigger warnings and safe spaces, including this one from The Atlantic.
Trigger warnings are messages that may be posted in campus publications, class assignments and readings, or given verbally in class to let students know that the subject matter may be upsetting for students who have experienced trauma.
According to Wikipedia a safe space is
a place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or challenged on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect, dignity and feelings and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.
Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces. Reasonable Accommodation or Coddling?
They sound like great ideas: Who wants to retraumatize someone who’s had a tough time? Who’s against feeling safe?
The problem with this latest form of political correctness is that it treats people like babies who can’t handle a difference of opinion or the real world. And taken to a further extreme, intellectual conversation and discussion can’t exist, only pablum.
One law professor wrote about not being able to use the word “violate,” as in an action or concept that “violates the law,” because students who have been raped may be “triggered” by the word. The result is an inability to discuss substantive things and even terms that students need to know and understand.
Other students are so concerned with not offending their fellow students that spirited classroom discussions, which are a time-honored method of expanding one’s thinking and learning, no longer take place.
In other words, safe spaces create an environment that is safe from ideas: from questioning, examining thoughts and opinions that are different from one’s own, exploring intellectual curiosity.
Is this higher education, or an institutional “factory”?
Those are just a few of the intellectual costs of trigger warnings and safe spaces.
But what about the psychological costs? Students who are “protected” from life and differences of opinion in this way may grow to think of themselves as fragile people who will come apart at the slightest tension or if someone is not completely attuned to them and their unique sensitivities.
They are offended if the environment doesn’t bend to them—and it doesn’t!
If we as a society want to raise psychologically sturdy and resilient citizens, the political correctness that makes all disagreement offensive, where the only acceptable flavor is vanilla lockstep, is not the way to do it.
We will instead raise psychologically fragile, brittle citizens who are looking for an “opportunity” to be offended and to teach someone a lesson.
It plays into the need to be right at all costs, to be superior. And the need to be right, to teach someone a finger-wagging lesson, is the hallmark of someone who is fragile and has poor self-esteem.
As one of my mentors, says, “You can be right, or you can be warm. You can be right and you can be alone.”
And More P.C.: Cultural Appropriation
A student at Wesleyan University carried a tote that was a gift from her brother from a trip he took to Africa. The student was stopped on campus by another student and questioned about where she got the bag. The interrogator couldn’t wait to tell her that she had done something offensive and wrong.
The questioning student finally relented when the student carrying the African bag explained that her brother bought for her it in Africa from an African. The interrogator said, “Okay, I guess it’s not cultural appropriation then.”
But the idea of having to explain to a stranger why you are carrying a bag that you like, or being shamed into not decorating your dorm room with a tchotchke from India that you bought at Pier 1 instead of in India is silly.
Is learning a language other than your native language cultural appropriation?
What happened to imitation being the sincerest form of flattery?
What’s wrong with learning to appreciate another culture through its style, food, or artifacts?
What Flavor Would You Like: Vanilla Lockstep or Critical Thinker?
An open discussion of ideas and differences—without coddling—is part of how we raise citizens who can think outside the box, who have the courage to innovate, who learn critical thinking, who are autonomous adults.
If you struggle with parenting issues, from learning to understand the needs of a newborn to helping your college-age child negotiate the culture of trigger warnings and safe spaces, treatment with an experienced therapist can help. If you’d like to learn more, reach out to me here.
Stephen Ruben says
The subject is too complex to be determined in 2500 words. That said, we really need to define who the traumatized, what they can do to resolve their trauma(s) and how they will be affected by a university environment. There is no one size fits all.
The greater and more important question is what are universities? What type of students should attend them? Should the culture at all universities be the same? Should the inherent teachings and philosophy at Yeshivah or Notre Dame be challenged to the same degree as they might be at the University of Chicago.
Simple monolithic answers are not appropriate, meaningful or truthful.
Not all things are binary