As usual, the debate about academic freedom spills over into public discussion. And, as usual, it loses nuance. On one side, arguments in favor of trigger warnings and safe spaces, in the service of giving voice and power the traditionally voiceless and powerless. On the other side, arguments against coddling and censoring, with the goal of protecting free academic speech.
I’ve struggled before with understanding the deeper currents in this debate. I don’t claim to have finished. I hope, like so many students and academics of late, I will continue to wrestle with this and continue to grow. And I hope equally that wrestling will be productive. There is a temptation, by some, to treat every exploration as representative, to pretend that some students forcing the cancellation of a speaker or asking for the punishment of their fellows represents a demand for coddling. I don’t agree—I think it shows people wrestling with where to redraw the lines of discourse.
Because those lines are being redrawn, and I think that’s what the whole argument is about. I am beginning to think, at the base of it, this is an argument about silence.
Arguments against safe spaces and trigger warnings claim to be against censorship and in favor of free speech—but I think the criticism inspired by a trigger warning is not a knee-jerk reaction to censorship, but instead a knee-jerk reaction to being confronted with something we would rather ignore. And, when confronted, some people try to make it go away (the irony of that not withstanding).
I doubt many people would try to argue that being traumatized by sexual assault, racism, or prejudice is a new thing. But what is new, or newer that the Academy at any rate, is a feminist approach that critiques those things rather than treating them as givens. That perspective argues that we should be aware of the violence enacted on so many of us, and respectful of the consequences of that. The feminist perspective is one that says it is the responsibility of an entire group to equally accommodate its members. That, after all, is what it means to be inclusive.
Which wouldn’t sound like a bad thing, except that we, as a culture, have been downplaying or erasing some experiences from our discourse for as long as discourse has existed. So what does it say when students begin to demand consideration for their experiences? What does it say when students acknowledge that their identities affect how they are treated in society, and begin to insist on accounting for that? Unfortunately, I think what it says to some people, is “you can’t ignore this anymore.”
So, for some people, the argument “you have to think about how people will respond when you talk about rape” sounds like “you need to censor what you say.” But that isn’t it. What it really means is “this thing you have always pretended didn’t matter—it actually does, and your pretending hurts people.”
Feminism in academia has for decades now been expanding the limits of a discourse primarily controlled by white men. In so doing, we’ve begun as a society and an Academy to acknowledge things we didn’t before. I think what we’re reaching here is a tipping point where we’re moving from acknowledging them to actually doing something about them.
What that something should be remains up for debate, but regardless of what we decide, it isn’t that trigger warnings or safe spaces censor academic freedom. It’s actually the other way around—they expose things the Academy, and the rest of us, have censored for far too long.
Image Credit: John Payne