There’s nothing like the holidays to bring about political debates and my family was no exception. While I was back in town, I took my own advice and talked to some of my family members about why they support Trump. I did my best to keep emotions out of it and hear them out. We had a relatively productive conversation, which is a good start, but I do have to admit to my own hypocrisy. Previously, I argued for doing the research before holding a position and when the safe space/trigger warning example came up of my generation’s fragility, as it seems to every time I talk to an older person about literally anything political, I took a position without understanding the definitions. Bad Kristen. So, here we go, it’s time to dive into the dreaded “safe space” rhetoric in order to better understand its existence.
I will freely admit that in the past when someone brought up safe spaces, my first response would be how I didn’t understand why people constantly try to find ways to hide from their problems. I think my, and many people’s, mistake was in thinking of a safe space only as a concrete place, as if there is a special room on all college campuses full of fluffy pillows and blankets where easily offended students hide to have a pity party. Obviously, once I took my own advice and did my research, I learned that most definitions are more abstract, but most importantly they vary university to university. Kent State University has a broad definition, saying a safe space is a way to provide a forum to “highlight the part of KSU academic culture that recognizes and researches interactive and oppressive social patterns and invite students and the community into an ongoing conversation.” Cleveland State University, on the other hand, has a narrower definition, saying a safe space is a way to “improve visibility and support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning (LGBTQ) students.” Generally speaking, a safe space appears to be a place for discussion, be it an online forum or in-person meeting, of topics that people are often persecuted for, such as sexual orientation or religion.
This argument, that college students are hiding, seems to be the main talking point when people discuss safe spaces. If the definition were the concrete one, I would agree that a safe space is potentially harmful. However, that is not what every safe space is, so I must disagree. I find it paradoxical to say that college students are running away from that which frightens them while knowing how KSU and CSU define safe spaces. How can one be hiding when they are actively pursuing a place for discussion? Safe spaces are a place for free and fearless discussion, which is important for LGBTQ students, students of color, and students of non-Christian faiths, particularly Muslims. One of my friends had been secretly living as a gay man for many years because he feared his family’s reaction if they knew. This year, he couldn’t keep the secret any longer and finally told them. Their reaction? They told him that if they ever saw his face again, or his boyfriend’s, they would shoot them on the spot. If his parents were willing to engage in discussion within a safe space, perhaps they wouldn’t be so willing to murder innocent people for the way they were born. A safe space would also be a place to seek help in dealing with that type of reaction from one’s parents. As I have said before, I believe education to be key in improving a large array of problems, so if safe spaces are a way to learn from one another, wouldn’t that be a good thing?
One of the biggest arguments against safe spaces, and one that intensely bothered me before I did my research, was that it seemed like a place, not only to hide, but to get reassurance from those who only tell you what you already believe. To me, it appeared to be a place full of “yes-men,” where you would only hear what you wanted to hear and never that which opposes your preexisting views. If true, this can lead to the psychological phenomenon called “group think,” which is dangerously common and happens to a certain degree to everyone that uses social media, particularly Facebook. When people are only exposed to others with similar views, the group overall tends to become more extreme, more polarized than an individual would be privately. But, the nature of proper discussion is that there will be someone who disagrees with you in at least one aspect. As long as the discussion is kept truly free, open and amicable, there should be few to no problems with safe spaces. The world is an imperfect place, though, and this may not be how safe spaces are actually managed. Yet, the theoretical problems that can arise in discussion does not mean that it shouldn’t happen, nor does it mean that a safe space is pointless. On the contrary, I think it means that safe spaces are even more important because they could provide a place to learn how to debate civilly and kindly disagree without resorting to violence or derogatory language.
I would be misleading those reading this if I did not include at least one example of instances where the definition of a safe space became, in my opinion, too literal. An article in the New York Times discussed a safe space that emerged at Brown University where a room was set up with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma” because there was to be a debate that day about campus sexual assault. As I have come to know the definition that I can agree with, the true safe space in this article was the sexual assault debate, not the room with food and snuggles. The search for understanding, both receiving it and giving it, is the only way to create lasting and growing safety for the persecuted communities; running away from uncomfortable or painful situations will only worsen their treatment. So, yes, this is an example of a safe space. But, from a sociology professor I had at Carolina, I learned that one group’s definition of a term does not mean it is the true and final definition. One group may define a safe space widely, saying it is for opposite sides to debate, whereas another group may say it is a room to return to childlike tranquility. Neither is wrong nor right, because these types of social constructs can never have one final definition, like a word in the dictionary. Therefore, I cannot say that one definition is right and the other wrong, I can only say that I agree with one and disagree with the other.
Would it help you get on board with the idea if the name was changed? How about we call it “forums for understanding” or just a support group? I do think the naming could be better; it sounds a bit wimpy to me. However, that doesn’t detract from the fact that safe spaces are actually beneficial and crucial at a time when people are still being persecuted for being transsexual, black, or Muslim.
And what about trigger warnings, the phrase that most makes me think of a hipster yelling at the barista of an indie coffee shop that the bad latte he got triggered the memory of his recent breakup? Without looking up the definition, I assumed trigger warnings were used by people as avoidance mechanisms, a sentiment it seems two writers for The Atlantic shared when they argued trigger warnings are part of a movement to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” Well, it looks like Lukianoff, Haidt, and I are all assholes because it turns out trigger warnings were originally developed to help people with PTSD as “statements at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material.” They are a way for those with PTSD to be prepared for what they will be engaging with so they are not blindsided by materials that could induce panic attacks. People with PTSD can have panic attacks induced by certain triggers, such as a war veteran hearing fireworks and thinking they’re back in a war zone being shot at. A trigger warning is for those with PTSD as a road sign is for drivers; you’re not going to turn around and go on a different road just because you see a warning sign, but you need to be made aware that it could be potentially dangerous to go full speed ahead through it.
In an academic setting, there is no way to automatically know whether any one of your students have PTSD, so it’s best to assume there is at least one, as a professor at Cornell argues. She explains that she adds trigger warnings to her syllabi for this exact reason; she does not do it so that students may be exempt from reading distressing materials, but so that those who may be dealing with PTSD can prepare themselves. Reading this type of material and discussion of it is mandatory in her courses, so if a student doesn’t read it, they won’t get a good grade and that’s on them. Therefore, the argument that trigger warnings are used as a way for feeble-minded students to avoid difficult conversations is invalid, and I think the key word there is student. In a non-academic setting, I could understand the annoyance felt when people use the term as avoidance mechanisms; they are being given an option to engage in conversation and are refusing it. But, academically speaking, where I think understanding this term is most important, I see no problem with a warning as long as the students must still engage with it, though it may be difficult.
In certain aspects, I could see how safe spaces and trigger warnings could be useful. As long as they are used as tools for discussion and understanding I see no problem with them. When they are abused, however, I cannot respect the abuser because they are then hiding. Discussing difficult topics is a part of life and hiding from them because of their nature will leave you weak, defenseless, and unprepared when you no longer have a choice but to interact with them. And, to be honest, this piece was inspired by my hatred of unpreparedness, especially my own. When these terms are once again brought up, I refuse to be caught unprepared again. While I’m not going to be using these terms regularly, largely because I feel like they sound silly, I believe in the concepts and stand behind them. I’m not a professor so I don’t have syllabi for trigger warnings and I already engage in safe spaces, in terms of my engagement with free and open discussion with diverse people, so this piece is for those who were like me before, those who failed to do the proper research. Just because the terms may sound silly and you saw some articles saying they are a way to hide from your problems doesn’t mean that’s what they are actually meant to do. As long as they are a means to support education I will support them in return, a belief I hope you will hold with me.