Five reasons why AU students should reject trigger warnings and safe spaces in the classroom
Difficult material is essential to the learning environment.
This past week, the AU Faculty Senate reiterated its disapproval of trigger warnings and safe spaces following the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students’ recent statement against these practices.
Both AU and UChicago faculty, some of the nation’s most gifted academics, released statements highlighting problems with these popular societal phenomenons, which they said limit the flow of ideas in the classroom.
When referring to "trigger warnings," I use the definition found in this New York Times article: “Explicit alerts that the material [students] are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims.”
Safe spaces, in turn, protect students from this “explicit material,” and act as a space where students do not have to confront anything controversial or emotion-inducing.
AU students should favor an environment that cultivates intellectual diversity through free speech. While I understand that some students face significant mental health issues that can be reproduced by certain smells, sights and discussions, the consequences of limiting academics and future field professionals in the classroom are too detrimental, for the following reasons.
1. They force professors to skip over important controversial issues that may be vital to the curriculum.
Former AU student leaders have spoken about their support for trigger warnings. A quote from former SG Executive Director of Mental Health Advocacy Mary-Margaret Koch stated “You end up having to define what is triggering, and that’s something that’s really hard to do, because different things trigger different people,” Koch said. “You want to be respectful of everyone because you don’t want any student to have to re-experience trauma in the classroom.”
While I agree with Koch about the idea that everyone has different “triggers,” not defining what it means to be “triggered” in a classroom actually prevents people from knowing how to identify a trigger. This makes it impossible for professors to determine what might trigger some students but not others, creating an unproductive cycle wasting faculty’s time. This time would be better spent creating a rewarding curriculum for one’s students or researching groundbreaking topics about one’s field of study.
2. They prevent students from engaging with others who may have different views.
Acknowledging the previous notion that every person has different “triggers,” a student could use these emotional responses to prevent peers who have alternative worldviews from expressing opinions. Specifically, conservative commentators such as Christina Hoff Sommers have been ridiculed for coming to campuses due to their “triggering” discussions. When Sommers spoke at Georgetown University in April 2015, the scholar was deemed a “rape apologist” by some campus feminists. They posted vicious attacks against Sommers’ character, attempted to get her removed from campus, and noted that her presence made them fear for their safety. Apparently, the posts were so concerning that Georgetown placed undercover security into the audience.
This vicious backlash against ideas has serious consequences. Students can note that differing ideas “endanger their safety” in order to get that viewpoint banned from campus although that view merely questions a socially indoctrinated truth. In turn, this prevents students from encountering opposing ideas, and it makes them sensitive to any opinion that may differ from their own.
3. They allow students to avoid certain classwork vital to the field of study
Triggers also prevent a professor’s ability to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of various topics. If a professor is forced to leave out significant portions of a controversial topic, students walk away from that course without a full understanding of what the issue actually is and why it is important. At Oberlin, the college asserts in its guidelines that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a “triumph of literature.” However, the code also states that students who experience uncomfortableness from passages about racism, suicide and colonialism would be exempt from reading the book. Specifically, the policy recommends that professors, “Strongly consider developing a policy to make triggering material optional or offering students an alternative assignment using different materials.” This exempts some students from all parts of the material. Being shielded from controversy helps no one and hurts those with a craving to learn.
4. They restrict free speech, directly violating Section 4 of the American University Faculty Manual issued in May 2016.
In the Faculty Senate’s statement to the AU community last week, it noted, “American University is committed to protecting and championing the right to freely communicate ideas — without censorship — and to study material as it is written, produced, or stated, even material that some members of our community may find disturbing or that provokes uncomfortable feelings... As laws and individual sensitivities may seek to restrict, label, warn, or exclude specific content, the academy must stand firm as a place that is open to diverse ideas and free expression.”
Trigger warnings and safe spaces explicitly contradict this principle by setting rules that inhibit students from encountering different ideas. The Faculty Senate outlines above that this inherently limits students’ learning experiences. As AU students, we deserve to receive the most well-rounded liberal arts education possible.
5. Trigger warnings eliminate the concept that all people are equal and should receive equal treatment.
Most importantly, trigger warnings and safe spaces provide special treatment to students who cannot handle the rigorous dilemmas within the academic world. Specifically, they force professors to grant students who have certain mental health issues freedoms that students without those same mental inhibitions do not receive. They prioritize some students while limiting others.
Looking at the four other points made above, trigger warnings directly hinder students who are open and ready to discuss the wholistic arguments of controversial topics by limiting them to only certain sides of the issue. If a person cannot handle the material discussed in a certain field of study, that person should not be studying that subject. Further, research on these issues has shown that “helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided,” as Greg Lukianoff, a constitutional lawyer and the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, notes in an Atlantic article.
When looking at implementing policy that could potentially limit a person’s education, the consequences of these policies must be examined. If a lawyer who potentially wants to go into human rights issues is not exposed to the heartbreak that goes into rape law and Title IX lawsuits, then that person will not be able to properly defend victims of sexual violence in court. This would devastate our legal system and prevent those who should be jailed for violent crimes from becoming incarcerated. As a society, we can only recognize that something is unacceptable if we are confronted with it.
In order to protect our nation from being corrupted by those who seek to spread racism, stereotyping and violence, we have the responsibility to examine every aspect of an issue and understand why certain issues are wrong before we inhibit each other from gaining a well-rounded education.
AU students should stand up against trigger warnings and stand in favor of intellectual diversity. Trigger warnings and safe spaces do not have a place in a community of well-rounded academics.
Krista Chavez is a junior in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.
If you would like to hear more about this topic, join Jamie Raskin for “Speaking Your Mind: The Politics of Disagreement” on Thursday, September 15 at 7:00 PM in the Katzen Arts Center Abramson Family Recital Hall.