About Silence

safetyfirst_viaJohnPayne.jpgAs 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.

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Triggering Warnings

Caution Tape_viaEugeneZemlyanskiyTrigger Warning: this is a post about content notes and trigger warnings. People who become irrationally angry when they encounter content notes or trigger warnings may want to stop reading now and spare themselves the emotional distress.

I have noticed that there is a subset of the internet who reject both the idea that anyone could be emotionally distressed by content, and the idea that anyone else should ever dare to accommodate them. But, strangely enough, these same people find themselves emotionally distressed and unable to control their actions when they encounter warnings to others about emotional distress.

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Safe Spaces

Rock in the shallowsSafety is one of those rather slippery fractal concepts that seems to retain fuzzy edges no matter how closely one examines it. I’ve been considering it lately, partly because I’ve read a lot of discussion of trigger warnings, their uses and misuses, and what it means to create a safe space. I’ve seen arguments in multiple communities both for and against trigger warnings in the context of safety, and, personally, I find myself somewhat conflicted.

On the side of support, an argument I quite agree with is that people who have been and are being traumatized need, in a very real mental health sense, safe places to recover. When the harm being done is tied to systemic injustices the absolute need to respect these individuals becomes greater because it will not happen by default. In this context trigger warnings allow people to take charge of their own recovery and to choose what they will encounter, and when, and why.

Another argument I find compelling is that trigger warnings can be overused in a way that infantalizes those suffering from trauma and disrespects everyone concerned. If trigger warnings are applied to classroom material (mythology, for example) they can conflict with the need to create an open space for learning and discussion. In a worst-case scenario, someone might advocate for material to be censored or removed from a class to avoid triggering anyone.

Of course, trigger warnings are not intended as censorship, and labeling content is something we do widely without much controversy. No one any longer argues that giving films or video games or entertainment a rating of some kind is a bad things—those who want that information have it, and those who don’t care can ignore it. Nor does anyone complain about, for example, warnings of explicit language or topics on radio or television. These are things that accommodate some people’s needs while inconveniencing almost no one—a perfect bargain for a free society.

This leaves me with an apparent contradiction: trigger warnings are applied to maintain the safety of traumatized and marginalized groups, which is good, but can also be applied as a form of censorship, which is bad. The key to resolving this, for me, comes back to that concept of safety. A safe space is one where people can encounter challenging material as much or as little as they are able, not a space where challenging material is expunged.

Not that I think having a safe space without certain material is a bad thing—survivor communities may limit discussion of rape and abuse, and this is perfectly reasonable and necessary. That isn’t censorship; that is one community making a choice that works for that community and protects everyone in it. Censorship is when a choice to restrict material is made for everyone by default.

So, then, the solution must lie with choice. If a trigger warning is used to allow traumatized people the choice to engage or withdraw, this is worthwhile and important. If, though, “being triggered” is used improperly to emotionally hijack a discussion and eliminate topics people do not like, then it is neither helpful nor useful. Unfortunately, I think the idea of “being triggered,” for some people, has become a fashionable way to shut down discussion of uncomfortable material. That this can coexist with a very real population of traumatized individuals in need of real support and respect is all the more frustrating to me; the very idea of it seems disrespectful.

I return at the end to the goal of safe spaces. Trigger warnings can and do create those spaces when they are used to give people the choice to engage or withdraw, but safe spaces are not, and must not be conflated with, comfortable spaces. Safe spaces are places where you are free to be as uncomfortable as you choose, without judgment, without fear of ridicule, and without trauma. Safe spaces are places where, if we so choose, we engage our discomfort and grow.