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Head to head: Inappropriate use of trigger warnings limits open discussion

By Tina Shaygan, September 7 2016 —

Last week, the University of Chicago sent a letter to their incoming class stating that their campus will not allow ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces’ to challenge the values of academia. You may have noticed in some of your classes that professors initiate ‘warnings’ or call for a ‘safe space’ to inform students that a potentially controversial or difficult to discuss issue may arise.

This is a noble idea. Professors that send these warnings do so with the intention of making people in their classes more comfortable. And people who have gone through traumatizing or difficult situations deserve to have their experiences accommodated for. Trigger warnings may also make it easier for people faced with mental health concerns to engage in the same discussions as those who are not. In order for us to learn anything from these debates, we need to hear everyone.

The concept of safe spaces is to make room for those with differing experiences than our own to challenge our normative judgement. For this to happen, we need to ensure individuals with views different than what we are used to are actually able to speak for their experiences.

But the concept of safe spaces can be grossly misinterpreted, damaging the intellectual nature of post-secondary, and hurting those that need safe spaces and trigger warnings the most. Universities should stand up to this misguided interpretation.

When safe spaces and trigger warnings are used to accommodate traumatizing or sensitive experiences, we cultivate a culture of discussion. When they are instead used to shield our own views, we perpetuate ignorance.

My second-year religious studies class was a 75-minute, twice a week nightmare caused by groups of students that absolutely refused to discuss topics like the stoning of women, on the grounds that it offended their religious beliefs.

Stoning women is a very real thing that still happens. Invoking a ‘safe space’ to refuse this discussion does absolutely nothing to change the association of such violent act with religion, nor does it do anything to help the women who fall victim to it.

Having your views challenged isn’t the same thing as having them legitimately and systematically shut out of society. It is also not the same as having mental health concerns that trigger serious health concerns.

People with sensitive experiences and mental health concerns often need safe spaces and trigger warnings to engage in the learning process.

It is invalidating to demand the same treatment to keep our own views unchallenged.

Trigger warnings should be used to make it easier to participate — or choose to sit out if necessary — in discussions that would otherwise be difficult and unfair for students faced with sensitive experiences or mental health concerns. Safe spaces should be utilized in order to create room and make us hear the previously ignored voices that would continue to be ignored without this deliberate effort. Ultimately, they should actively broaden engagement in academia. And frankly, demanding a stop on views that are simply different than our own cultivates an entirely different environment.

While the letter from the University of Chicago is largely a ‘kids these days’ condemnation, we fail those who need it most when we, as an intellectual community and future leaders, misuse safe spaces and trigger warnings to keep us inside a bubble protecting our own beliefs.


This article is part of the head to head. Click here to read the other side of the argument.


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