With an open mind and two sides of the story, you’re bound to learn something new.
Welcome to the zoo! This is a blog where both the Republican and Democratic viewpoints are represented. The blog is not meant to sway you either way necessarily, just to present both sides of the story. You may not agree with the whole article, but hey, you’re likely to agree with half! The topic this week: trigger warnings and safe spaces.
Trigger warnings and safe spaces are beneficial, not detrimental, to the learning process. Contrary to some beliefs, trigger warnings are not for censoring class conversation, coddling students or omitting discussions that challenge us. Rather, trigger warnings are, as the title states, warnings. They give students notice that a topic of conversation may cause undue harm to someone in the class. These warnings particularly benefit students who have been victims of sexual assault, PTSD or violence. Students who have been sexually assaulted may be distressed by a discussion about rape in class. Rather than simply challenging the student, a difficult discussion could have severe mental ramifications.
Should we force a raped student to relive his or her attack because trigger warnings seem superfluous? Should we force a student who served in our army and suffers from PTSD to discuss an event that elicits flashbacks? Should we force an abused student to read a scene in which a father beats his son? By no means am I suggesting that we omit these topics from class conversation. Evidenced by “Welcome to the Zoo,” I enjoy a spirited debate, and I welcome anyone who wants to challenge my beliefs. I merely am advocating for progressive learning. Students will not benefit from discussions when they feel unsafe. Forcing students to relive past traumas is not a good education, but a torturous one.
Just as trigger warnings give students the opportunity to learn in a safe environment, safe spaces provide communities for students who want support. Safety can take many forms, and in this case, it protects those who feel physically or emotionally violated. I believe every student should confront issues that challenge her, but those conversations should not be at the expense of her safety. Safe spaces create a controlled environment in which bigotry and oppression are never tolerated; they are networks of understanding and do not claim to replace debate or conversation, but rather reinforce the importance of community. It is particularly important that those who live in unwelcoming communities have a place where they feel safe. For example, a gay teenager growing up in an overwhelmingly Catholic society needs a place in which he feels free to express himself. Facebook has allowed for an online platform that takes the shape of the physical ‘safe space,’ empowering people to reflect and discuss issues without fear of repercussions or violence. A perfect example of this is Pantsuit Nation. Right after the Presidential election, a private Facebook group was created for Hillary Clinton supporters. The members of the Facebook group, 3,989,126 and counting, support each other, emphasize the importance of discussions with Trump supporters, and provide a place to express fears and anxieties. Is there a reason safe spaces cannot supplement forums for discussion?
One of the most controversial debates about trigger warnings and safe spaces came from the University of Chicago. In 2016, the Dean of Students sent a letter to the incoming 2020 class informing the students that the school does not “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” The Dean fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of these essential tools. Trigger warnings are in place for those who would be emotionally distraught sitting in a class in which they must relive a past trauma; it is not to curb opinions that challenge their beliefs. Safe spaces are places of comfort; they do not eliminate discussion, nor do they prevent dissent. The irony of the Dean’s letter is that it is, in fact, a trigger warning. He is warning all incoming freshman that UChicago is a campus that devalues the safety and mental well-being of its students. Luckily, we attend Cornell. Professors decide whether to include trigger warnings in their lesson plans, and there are many safe spaces available on campus for those who are looking for them, such as the Women’s Resource Center, the Black Student Union, and the LGBT Resource Center. Trigger warnings and safe spaces do no harm, they only benefit us as a community and encourage the importance of safety, which leads to more productive conversation.
Trigger warnings are cautionary notices given to students prior to studying material in order to protect them from ideas they may not like, in the name of emotional well-being. These warnings presume an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche and give the illusion that students have a right not to be offended. In addition, the idea has created an environment in which people fear charges of insensitivity and aggression if they speak without thoroughly scrutinizing every phrase. It has reached the point where professors write papers on controversial topics under pseudonyms, in fear of retribution; a paper written for Vox, titled “I’m a Liberal Professor, and my Liberal Students Terrify Me,” actually described this effect. Irrefutably, the worst part of trigger warnings is that they brutally impede learning. A core goal of education is to not simply teach students what to think, but rather to teach them how to think. In this process of cultivating critical thinking, students question their own unexamined beliefs as well as use the knowledge of those around them. Such questioning often results in discomfort, even anger, along the way to understanding. So, when trigger warnings are applied to campus life, they create a kind of mental filtering. The easiest way for faculty to stay out of the path of students that are quick to demonize professors with unpopular views is to avoid material that might distress any sensitive students in class.
Safe spaces are the physical manifestation of this trigger warning idea. The purpose of a safe space seems reasonable: a therapy space for people who feel victimized by traumatization. However, when the safe space mentality infiltrates the classrooms, similar to trigger warnings, it makes both students and professors averse to saying anything that could hurt the feelings of sensitive individuals. Students are expected to learn in a stunted community that polices inadvertent slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require stringent control from campus securities. Clearly, therapeutic spaces and effective intellectual spaces cannot coexist in the same arena. Activism for these safe spaces generally stems from the separatist impulses associated with the identity politics that are already rampant on campus. Historically, universities have liberated their students from their cultural baggage to create a community of intellectual individuals. Yet the popularity of identity politics among millennials has fractured campus life so that individuals are regarded as the personification of a cultural group rather than as individuals in their own right. The allure in these separatist impulses is the insulation from hostility and unlike, “distressing” views. The resulting safe spaces produced are merely biased bubbles of ineffectual discussion that lack respectability and open-mindedness. Students with coddled minds will soon find that the world beyond college is far less willing to accommodate requests for trigger warning and safe space opt-outs.
Inspiring students to engage with the unfamiliar and justify the reasoning behind their ideas used to be one of attributes of a vibrant academic institution, but today administrators are more concerned with relieving students of the uncomfortable burden of “being interrogated.” To combat the intellectually-dulling effect trigger warnings and safe spaces can have, students can conduct constructive debates with guidelines that invite people to argue their different viewpoints respectfully. Universities can discourage trigger warnings and safe spaces while raising awareness about balancing freedom of speech with making everyone feel welcome.
Rebecca Saber is a junior government major in the College of Arts and Sciences. She aspires to be Secretary of State, but is willing to settle for Supreme Court Justice. When she is not writing about politics, Rebecca can be found watching TV in her bed or at some musical theater rehearsal. Welcome to the Zoo appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester. If you want to chat, Rebecca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katie Barlow is a junior biology major in the College of Arts and Sciences. When not debating politics, she can be found running half marathons, eating mashed potatoes, and teaching tree climbing for COE. Welcome to the Zoo appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester. If you’re up for a chat, Katie can be reached at email@example.com.