When I was in high school I had a friend who lost a parent. Immediately after the loss she was emotionally distraught and wished to feel “ok” and whole again. In order to ease some of her pain, she intentionally avoided watching movies or TV shows or reading books involving the death of a parent. Being able to avoid certain reminders or triggers, and create an environment for herself where she felt safer and less exposed, made it easier for her to talk about and cope with her grief. She unconsciously created a safe space for herself and used “trigger warnings” to ease her pain and avoid unnecessary distress.
Advocates of safe spaces, particularly safe spaces on college campuses, would argue that everybody deserves that opportunity.
Should students that have experienced serious trauma such as sexual assault, racial prejudice, homophobia, or any other type of discrimination be forced to witness or take part in events, class discussions, etc. that cause them to relieve this trauma and can risk putting their mental and physical health at risk? In many cases, the ability to make informed decisions about what events to attend on campus, what classes to enroll in or what groups to join can be crucial in helping individuals protect and take control over their own well being. A critical phase of healing involves this reclaiming of power in a way that allows students to stand up to certain forms of oppression or discrimination; in a way that allows them to advocate for themselves.
As the occurrence of safe spaces grows across the country, so does the debate of limiting free speech. Critics often argue that safe spaces violate individuals first amendment rights by censoring certain opinions or beliefs as well as coddling students. In my opinion, this can sometimes be true. I am sure in some situations safe spaces are misused as a way to ignore opinions that conflict with their own. However, in most cases, safe spaces aren’t trying to stifle others beliefs, or halt protests that they don’t agree with. Instead, their intentions are to create safer, more inclusive, and more bearable environments for students who have experienced serious trauma, by limiting reminders of the trauma or unnecessary future incidents of oppression. Advocates argue that there is no need for victims of trauma or discrimination to have to relive those experiences.
Some advocates argue that providing safe spaces for commonly marginalized individuals or groups (in their case the LGBT community), is similar to laws that protect people with disabilities. It gives people who are commonly oppressed by society a support system so that they too feel protected. This particular advocate argues that the LGBT community is still discriminated against by many, and safe spaces give them a place where they can escape this discrimination and possible confide in others who are dealing with similar difficulties.
One particular example highlighting the benefits of safe spaces comes from the University of Chicago. In the fall of 2016, the dean of the University of Chicago, released a letter to students informing them that NO safe spaces will be provided on campus because they limit academic freedom, intellectual creativity, and a free flowing exchange of ideas. However, in response, the faculty of UChicago published a letter in the student newspaper defending students right to request safe spaces and trigger warning, stating, “such requests often touch on substantive, ongoing issues of bias, intolerance and trauma that affect our intellectual exchanges.” The letter even argued that by denying them of this right violates their right to freedom of expression.
I sit writing this blog still unsure about my opinion of safe spaces and trigger warnings, whether or not they are harmful or helpful. However, I keep thinking of a particular scenario, similar in idea to these two controversial topics and wondering why society responds so differently to them. I provide the following situation as food for thought,
In middle school or high school, if we ever watched a movie or video in class and it was particularly graphic, my teacher would always say something along the lines of, “now if you get queasy easily, you may want to look away.” When I think about it, this is similar to a trigger warning, warning students about content to come that may make them uncomfortable. Sometimes we were even given the option to step out into the hallway, like a safe space, where we could separate ourselves from the uncomfortable information and possibly meet and talk to people with like opinions. The thing that I find interesting is never did I hear anyone complain or look down upon a teacher for providing this simple disclaimer.
Now obviously this is different from academic content or freedom of speech in the college setting. Conflict about safe spaces mostly addresses more ideological or controversial topics, that when threatened or questioned people tend to take more personally then a gory seen in a movie.
But does giving students the option to censor some parts of a movie coddle them or does it protect them from being physically sick?
Additionally should our reaction as a society and the actions we take in response be different?
***Stay tuned for the next post where I will discuss the cons of Safe Spaces***