Thursday, August 25, 2016

Of "Trigger Warnings" and "Safe Spaces"

The University of Chicago has made the news because it has sent to incoming freshman a letter (how quaint!) notifying them that it doesn't favor so-called "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces."  I've heard these phrases before, and have seen them in certain forums I frequent, I think in connection with the now more or less ubiquitous references condemning "political correctness" in colleges and universities in particular.

Apparently, a "trigger warning" is a notice of some kind to students that material or speech they might find offensive, or which would make them uncomfortable or even traumatize them, is about to be considered, discussed, written of...taught?  A "safe space" it seems is some place in which they may shelter from that regarding which a trigger warning would be given.  I'm delighted to read in one of the news stories that Brown University provided a safe space during some dispute or debate regarding sexual assault in which Play-do and bubbles were provided to those seeking safety, among other things.  The story doesn't indicate whether these items were made available as an ironic or sarcastic gesture.  How I wish I had Play-do to comfort me, right now.

Campuses have been subject to protests by various and sundry for quite some time.  Since the '60s, at least.  Students have been offended by any number of things for quite some time as well.  As far as I know, however, it's not until recently that institutions of what is sometimes laughingly called "higher learning" have found it necessary or appropriate to issue trigger warnings and/or create safe spaces.

Are we lawyers responsible for this?  Have we counseled colleges to do these things in order to avoid liability to the traumatized, the offended, the uncomfortable?  I hope not, but the United States is a litigious society.  I can conceive of circumstances where an incendiary speaker could induce an environment where physical harm to people or property might result and in those circumstances a lawyer could be inclined to advise against indulging the speaker by allowing him to speak.  I find it harder to conceive that a lawyer would recommend trigger warnings or safe spaces as a matter of policy, though.

Have we become too fearful of offending people, or of exposing them to what they might think offensive?  I'm not one who finds "political correctness" to be a matter of great concern.  Generally, I think those who are not politically correct or refuse to be politically correct are in most cases simply inclined to be rude and stupid.  It's not laudable to not be politically correct if being politically correct is simply to avoid being deliberately insulting or insensitive.  But I don't think institutions like colleges and universities need concern themselves with sifting material to determine what might disturb someone and to notify others that material may be considered, let alone provide them with a haven if it is.

State institutions or state funded institutions may be required to invite proponents of various points of view, some of them offensive, if they invite others or could be considered a forum for the expression of speech protected by the First Amendment.  However, it's not clear to me that a college must otherwise invite or allow anyone to propound anything to their students or faculty, regardless of whether or not it's offensive, unless it be part of a curriculum--in which case it would presumably be for the students' benefit; or for their education, which I suppose may or may not be considered by them to be beneficial.

It's the possibility that trigger warnings and safe spaces be given or provided as a matter of policy regarding material communicated in courses that causes me the most concern.  History, and what takes place in the present, is filled with offensive words, thoughts and conduct.  How would it be possible for a college to function effectively if trigger warnings would have to be given before Nazi Germany could be studied, or South African apartheid, for example?  Would objecting students be allowed to go to a safe space while this takes place?  What about technology some find offensive, courses of study which might encourage the use of nuclear power which some object to, or who knows what else?  Would warning have to be given, and students allowed to shelter in some space where they might gaze upon comforting photographs of Heidegger or some other technophobe?

It's also necessary to consider the fact that students, or most of them, will some dreadful day leave college and find themselves exposed to a world in which trigger warnings are few or nonexistent, and safe spaces, if there can be such things, must be of their own device.  In what way could college prepare them for that world if college becomes a place of trigger warnings and safe spaces?

I know, of course, that I've written before in some post or other that I consider the college years to be a kind of sojourn to a wonderful place unconnected with what we'll encounter for the rest of our lives; for most of us, at least.  Those who stay there may be able to ignore much of the world others cannot.  I also think that once we leave it, college becomes less and less important to us.  So it may be that no permanent harm will result if students are bombarded with trigger warnings and become used to running for the Play-do when disturbed.

But it seems to me that this will render higher education less of a benefit than it could be.  It also seems to me that students would be well advised to school themselves to not be unreasonably disturbed by why others say and think and do (except, of course, in cases such as sexual assault and active harm or oppression).  In fact, now that I think of it, Stoicism should be taught in college.  It's study should be mandated.  Compulsory training, Stoic exercises.  Perhaps there's such a thing as "Radical Stoicism"?

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