Regarding Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings

provThe University of Chicago has sent a letter to incoming students for the Fall 2016 semester, notifying them that:

“Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

“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.”

I think this letter defines many terms poorly.

“Trigger warnings” are not at odds with academic freedom. They are an acknowledgment to students that content encountered may be difficult, and that it is better to acknowledge that potential and discuss it, rather than ignore such a variety of experiences provoked by the texts we read.

Invited speakers are frequently cancelled due to the peaceful, ethical, and evidence-based protests by faculty and students. This kind of action has the potential to occur at any college campus. There are speakers whose arguments, when they are based on lies and unethical practices, deserve condemnation in peaceful and ethical ways; students and faculty will continue to protest such speakers, and should a college decide to rescind an invitation, it is by their own decision, not by anything peaceful protesters accomplish.

Finally, the use of “safe spaces” is limited, referring to it as a space for ignorance and monolithic thought, which is hardly its proper definition and hardly how many of us have used those spaces on campus in our work.

I have had some discussions the last two days about this letter from the University of Chicago, which I would like to share here.

Yesterday, I wrote a bit about my experiences, earning certification as part of Stony Brook University’s Safe Spaces program. I have expanded my remarks from the original tweets for the following:

When I worked on “Safe Space” certification at Stony Brook University, it was to offer space against anti-LGBT prejudices, not whatever it is that is being defined in this letter by the University of Chicago. Therefore, I am bothered that, while defending academic freedom of expression, this letter does not also emphasize resources against harassment and threats. When working on my certification, group leaders at Stony Brook defined “safe space” to me as establishing places on campus away from prejudices and bigotry, in order to provide resources against harassment and threats. I was not there to be a mental health professional: that is not my training, that is not my work in a school. Rather, it was to provide a sounding board for a student, a teacher, or a staff member to discuss any topics related to their identity as they felt comfortable—or just to have a quiet space away from the situation temporarily.

Stony Brook University never defined safe space to me as an opportunity for students to avoid freedom of expression: it was to create respectful environments for all students, faculty, and staff, to respect all persons’ identities. That is supposed to be our goal for any college campus, to decry any form of harassment on the basis of identity, and to treat all persons with the respect they deserve.

Because this letter from the University of Chicago seems to underemphasize, or lack, any advice to incoming students about available services to respond against harassment and threat, I hope that the school has already sent such letters with that information. If they have not, then in response to this letter, and out of its responsibility to its students and staff to create safe learning, working, and living environments, such information should be provided. And that means, rather than belittle “intellectual ‘safe spaces,’” the use of safe spaces, in general, should be acknowledged as one possible, potentially helpful tool.

After my post, my friend, Chicago journalist Paul Chancey, asked whether I thought “college students are too coddled.” Below is my response, edited from the original tweets:

No, I don’t think teachers coddle students—because I think referring to teachers “coddling” students poorly describes what teachers actually do, and what students actually do.

I think trigger warnings and safe spaces, like any tools, can be used well or used poorly. A trigger warning acknowledges that the content can be bothersome to many participants in class. Trigger warnings give students the opportunity to decide whether to withdraw from a course, and they also demonstrate how well a teacher can be honest about the kind of content awaiting students.

Trigger warnings also allow teachers to think more carefully about content they assign: if I have two texts that can cover almost the same topics and time periods, I want to consider whether a trigger is going to complement or overshadow that discussion. If the trigger is going to get in the way of teaching what I am required to teach my students, then I better find a better text. If the trigger is inextricably part of the course content, then I have to figure out a better way to let students acknowledge that trigger and respond to it as best as we can.

And as I said already about safe spaces, the way I have been trained to use them, and the way I use them, is that they are spaces in which students, faculty, and staff can be present to seek assistance against threats or harassments, as well as to have an opportunity to speak about discomfort they feel regarding remarks about their identities.

Since the letter from the University of Chicago gained attention on Twitter, Kevin Gannon has identified the common argument that “[s]tudents ought to be challenged, even made uncomfortable, in order to learn in deep and meaningful ways.” I imagine Gannon and others agree with me that, yes, this is a sound guideline for teaching. And I think all of us would agree that trigger warnings actually work towards that meaningful challenge: it acknowledges the content is difficult for many of us to experience. The intensity of a response will vary, and so we have to talk about it.

Trigger warnings are one way that a class discusses how the words on the page provoke thoughts, images, and feelings that are uncomfortable. There is a way to use trigger warnings to discuss both the form and content of the text. Rather than shut down any discussion, as I think this letter from the University of Chicago does, acknowledging that trigger warning and safe spaces do themselves act as places for free discourse is important.

One other respondent to my remarks on Twitter proved much less productive in terms of discussion, as they fixated on mocking not only the use of safe spaces but also the persons who have used them. Ignoring my point as to various definitions of safe spaces, at Stony Brook and also how they were defined by the New York Times, this person fixated on one isolated example of a safe space that used coloring books and puppies—which thereby diminishes the variety of uses of such spaces, and attempts to disparage such a space as if it infantilizes its visitors. I have seen this talking point repeated in the Washington Times comment section and other rightwing outlets.

This person also fixated on propping up arguments against fair wages, feminism, and the idea that “rape culture” exists. The suggestions that schools should not outright dismiss options for mental and emotional health care, as well as respect of all persons regardless their identities, provokes this kind of a response, citing arguments pulled from Breitbart and far-right sources—because empathy is shunned, and a reasonable debate dissolves into someone doubting wage disparity and rape culture. What a waste of a discussion.

When I was working on my dissertation, one of my committee members was Michael Kimmel, who has written extensively on how pop culture affects the development of boys into men. I take a different approach, looking at how engagement with such pop culture items does not necessarily affect one’s maturation or indication of their maturity. I respect Michael’s argument and just take a different approach–and I do not agree with the mockery that this person on Twitter distributed against persons who have used safe spaces.

I have three responses against this kind of mockery, intended to infantilize the use of safe spaces, especially by associating them with seemingly childish hobbies.

First, puppies are somehow just for kids? Really? I guess all those college professors I know doting on their pets were somehow immature.

Second, have you not used Play-Doh before? It is fun—what’s wrong with you?

Third, if you’re going to, step by step, regulate which activities indicate a mature or immature person, you’ll spend a lifetime eventually eliminating all leisure activities, including our own work as academics: it’s not as if studies of literature haven’t been dismissed as childish fare.

As long as someone is not harming themselves or someone else, their activities to respond to difficult situations, whether as extensive as trauma or as limited as a bad mood, are fair and deserve the minimum amount of respect. A person who schedules time for their mental and emotional welfare, while fulfilling their obligations as quickly and properly as possible, is someone above criticism. It’s one thing if you gently chide someone for being a comic book nerd, playing card games and video games, watching cartoons, or attending anime conventions (I fall into just about all of those categories). However, it’s another thing to then dismiss those activities as kids’ play, as you would mock someone who just really enjoys coloring books. To be so bitter against someone’s pursuits, when it in no way affects you, demonstrates such childishness—which is hypocritical.

In the lengthy argument I had with this person on Twitter, their responses were a mess of tangential arguments—the use of Title IX in cases of being offended, loud outbursts from audiences in protest against speakers, and again, for some reason, this fixation on puppies and coloring books.

The person writing these responses on Twitter did themselves little favor: their account already dismisses feminism as a form of sexism, ignoring the long history of that endeavor and how, for it to be truly a feminist practice, feminism itself has to always improve in recognition of equality of all persons regardless their identity. This person decided to cite a scholar, celebrated by the American Enterprise Institute, Breitbart, and other rightwing groups, and who has dismissed “rape culture” as political correctness rather than an actual undercurrent to pop culture and abuse by persons against each other. Oh, and they referred to loud outbursts at speakers as “hysteria,” which totally won’t offend people as some misogynistic dog whistle.

I’m not above snark, name-calling, and cursing: it depends on who is the intended audience, however. I can be childish in that regard. While those rhetorical techniques are options if you only want to insult and isolate, they do little to persuade. Even admonishing someone that using “hysteria” in a discussion about safe spaces, trigger warnings, and feminism is poor word choice risks shutting down a discussion with that person, as evident in my argument on Twitter today.

Still, I would rather the person be upset with me when identifying potential sexism in their word choice and arguments (although I tend not to like having “gendered bullshit” screamed at me) than let such poor argumentation persist, especially on top of so much condescension and anti-feminist nonsense.

I also find it humorous that someone railing against safe spaces then gets bothered when someone points out they may be making poor word choice. So, this person didn’t like that I respond to their fair discourse, and decided to retreat into a space—one where they can feel safe—and away from the “gendered bullshit” I was imposing onto them?

I don’t think anyone likes having their flaws identified, but how much they dislike it varies, and to be so displeased about having your word choice of “hysteria” criticized seems unproductive.

Another argument presented in Gannon’s piece comes at its conclusion:

“Displaying empathy for the different experiences our students bring to the classroom is not a threat to our academic freedom. Allowing for a diversity of perspectives to flourish, even when that diversity might challenge the very structure of our course and its material, is not a threat but an opportunity.”

I agree with this assessment, and I want to emphasize again another value to acknowledging triggers and the productive use of safe spaces: people benefit from tending to their mental and emotional care. To dismiss these tools absolutely is foolish; to acknowledge ways in which they can be better incorporated without constraining discourse is productive.

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