This Is What Safe Spaces & Trigger Warnings Actually Are
The American university is quite the weird place to be right now. Despite it being harder and harder to get into a lot of schools, the current climate of the country tends to show less respect and more ever-growing middle fingers for kids in college. Universities aren't the bastions of education they used to be. Instead, everyone from "grrrrrr, I'm angry" comedians to President Obama has told them to buck up and ditch the "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces."
I want this on record. Mr. President, you're wrong. And it starts with a fundamental misunderstanding of what these things actually are.
A "Safe Space" Or "Trigger Warning" Is Not Some Method Of Squashing Free Speech
Some of our more frequent readers might be aware that Cracked only very rarely uses trigger warnings, and I wrote one of the very few articles we've slapped one on. But here's the reason we did that -- that article is about folks who got mauled by bears. If a reader had been mauled by a bear or faced a similarly gruesome accident, that article could've triggered memories of their previous trauma, and maybe caused them to pass out or get hurt. We care too much about our readers for that.
Unless those readers are bears, in which case, eat shit.
This same thing happens in real life on college campuses. If a combat veteran attending college on a GI Bill is in a gen-ed history class, and there's video of, say, World War II combat, that could easily trigger that veteran's PTSD. Similarly, people who have survived rape may also be suffering from PTSD, and descriptions of sexual assault can trigger a traumatic episode. A trigger warning is a simple note in the syllabus saying, "Hey, we're going to discuss something that may cause some of you to relive a traumatic life experience. Please prepare accordingly." Those last three words are important, because that combat veteran or that rape survivor will likely actually prepare accordingly. It's a pretty complex idea, I know. Some people just can't wrap their head around it.
What it doesn't mean -- but what most people think it means -- is, "We might mention something that will hurt your feelings. Go hide in this special room so the bad words don't hurt your precious, fragile ears."
"Take your legitimate medical issues and get out!"
As for safe spaces, I'll just describe what they were where I went to school. I graduated from the University of Notre Dame, famous for (among other things) being one of the least LGBT-friendly universities in the country. A number of Notre Dame professors display a small rainbow sign outside their offices that simply read, "This is a safe space." It was a sign that told students who were struggling with their sexual identity (on a campus that is, again, not friendly to gay people) that they could talk to that professor without fear. Maybe a minority student could come to that professor when he didn't know how to handle the guys in his hall casually dropping the n-word around him and needed help valuing his cultural identity. That's it. Safe spaces aren't some club where nasty liberals sit around and bash cis straight white people. That's what coffee houses and drama clubs are for. In my experience, they're basically just small environments where students could go to not casually have "n****r" or "f****t" slung in their direction.
"Come on in, we're not horrible pieces of human garbage here."
Trigger warnings and safe spaces get so conflated because they're both meant to evoke the same criticism -- that we're coddling college students instead of exposing them to new ideas. But if a student has been so damaged by a previous experience that they literally can't focus on the lesson, then something needs to be done to help that student. We're not "preparing students for the real world" by re-exposing them to things from the real world that have already messed them up pretty bad.
A Safe Space Can Be An Operations Base
In all seriousness, college campuses are not places of peace, and they never really have been. Between actually completing schoolwork, social pressures to explore "being an adult," and looking forward to the terrifying, always-looming future, college is generally really hard. Students need some quiet time, and safe spaces can sometimes provide that.
Places of serenity and, sometimes, sick tunes.
What they also do is give students a place to plan action. The on-campus anti-Trump protests you're seeing on the news? Those didn't happen in the middle of the library or during a football game. Someone found a quiet "safe space," organized a meeting time, a route, and contingency plans in case there was a conflict with campus security or something, and got people to join them. This is frankly no different than a fraternity telling Geoff to stop playing beer pong for one goddamned minute so that the frat can plan their annual charity golf outing. They all need some focus.
This is why it's fascinating to see that the backlash against safe spaces is often so militaristic. A lot of people will yell (often from behind a screen ... their own personal "safe space") that these students need to "man up," because the real world won't be so nice to them. They want these so-called coddled college kids to learn how to take action and responsibility, all while totally ignoring that these safe spaces they're railing so hard against are what allow action to get planned in the first place.
"Man up!" he bravely typed behind the safety of a computer screen.
And the worst part is that these college students doing all their protesting are just whiny liberals who want things handed to them, right? You'd never see a good, upstanding conservative school do something like renege on an invitation to a speaker just because someone held different beliefs! Er ... wait ...
It's Not Just "Liberal" Schools Being "Anti-Free Speech"
I actually transferred to Notre Dame from Villanova University, a school so renowned for its homogenous conservative Catholicism that it has nicknames such as Vanilla-nova and Villa-no-fun. Quite the creative bunch over there. Anyways, it was here that I had my first experience with a university telling a speaker to sit all the way down, a performance artist named Tim Miller.
I wish I could give you some unbiased, third-party view of what happened and why, but such an account doesn't exist. I wish I still had the email that was sent out by the university president, Father Peter Donohue, about the cancellation, too. He went on about how he was a theatre major himself back in the day, and that he totally didn't cancel the workshop over Miller's sexuality and gay activism (as was the rumor), it's because the performer had a tendency to be gross/lewd on stage. Personally, I found that ironic because the theatre department's musical that year was Urinetown, and the not-musical was A Streetcar Named Desire, which features an on-stage rape scene. So evidently, the definitions of "gross" and "lewd" change with age and one's totem pole position.
Plus, guns like Brando's aren't allowed on school grounds, either.
Notre Dame is in little better position. They've got some sort of facade of bipartisanship going on, as there's a longstanding tradition of inviting the newly inaugurated president to be the commencement speaker just after being elected. Barack Obama accepted an honorary degree and spoke at Notre Dame's commencement in 2009, and had to tolerate anti-abortion protests the whole way. Graduating college kids took time, in front of their loved ones and in one of the proudest moments of their lives, to heckle the President on stage. Now, Notre Dame faces the prospect of inviting Donald J. Trump to speak at the 2017 commencement. Do they decide to not invite him and risk looking partisan? Or do they invite him and risk condoning his bigotry and vulgarity? The only way Notre Dame comes out of this unscathed is if they invite *gulp* President Trump and he responds with some variation of, "No, and your football team is a YUGE loser."
All I know is that this speaker-cancelling thing goes both ways. Stop pinning this "safe space" phenomenon on LGBT or minority kids who only want to not be harassed in the streets, which we should note happens kind of a lot at overly homogenous schools like Notre Dame and Villanova. It should come as no surprise that a black female student at Villanova was recently attacked by a bunch of white guys yelling "Trump! Trump! Trump!"
First page of a Google search. Go figure.
All This "Safe Spaces Are Bad" Talk Fundamentally Misunderstands How Universities Work
There's been a lot of autopsy work on the Left in the wake of the Trump election, and one of the big notes was that they're involved in a lot of echo-chamber talk. The folks who listen to Samantha Bee and John Oliver or read The New York Times have become too smug and won't listen to the opposition, yada yada yada. Aren't "safe spaces" just more echo chambers? Where you won't listen to opposing ideas? Dumb Millennials. "Safe spaces"? More like "I should slap you in your face spaces." Idiots.
Well, no. Colleges and universities, as you might be aware, graduate people all the time. Usually twice a year, in fact. Within the confines of an organization asking for a "safe space," at least, seniors with their ideas graduate, and a new class has to step forward and begin leading the discussion, and along will come a new group of underclassmen who need to learn. News flash: kids fresh out of high school have zero clue what they actually believe. They're gonna learn stuff somewhere, and they've probably got something new to introduce themselves.
Not just STDs, either.
This means that ideas are shifting and changing constantly. If you notice there isn't dissention, or at least fervent discussion, among your group, something is wrong. You probably have a tyrannical leader, or worse, chickenshit freshmen.
A student organization that has asked for a "safe space" isn't opposed to learning, they're simply being dynamic. College students get enough of being lectured to, or even sitting in seminars where a grade depends on how they respond. University classes don't change, because they've been dealing with the same fundamental principles for years.
Finding the best seat to sleep without getting caught is crucial, too.
Students and student bodies, however, change constantly, and part of that has to do with age. The difference in how someone's brain works from 18 to 22 is astronomical. Don't believe me? Ask a literal ex-white supremacist how much he learned during that time period not from professors, but from his friends within the safe confines of weekly Shabbat dinners hosted by one of the very few Jewish people on his campus. The dinner host had warned other guests to simply treat him like a fellow human being, and it worked.
It's not just colleges that have this, either. Central Perk in Friends was a safe space. The bar in Cheers was a safe space, and it even had Cliff Clavin to teach you new things. We've always had support systems, it's just that now we're calling them what they always were -- safe spaces.
The only hate speech allowed in here is against smelly cats.
What it boils down to is this. College is a time to learn. Rather than sit at your computer and bash the idea of safe spaces, why don't you go visit one? "What are you afraid of?" "Man up."
It might help prepare you for the real world.
For more check out 5 Human Flaws That Prevent Progress and Keep Us Dumb and 5 (Statistically BS) Complaints About Social Justice Issues.
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