Are Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings an Attack on Free Speech?

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Take the phrase “safe space” and load it into your imagination. What do you see?
 
Escape from a threatening environment? A sanctuary? What about spectacular clashes between student groups? Violence from professors? Assaults? 
  
While these ideas may seem at odds, they’re all representative of the reality of safe spaces. For the unacquainted, a “safe space” is a an area in which students are able to set rules of engagement that differ from the standards of society. Free speech may be curtailed in favour of protecting people’s feelings. With their emotions given precedent, students are sheltered from topics and opinions that may be traumatic for them. The question of whether this kind of insulation does more harm than good is a growing point of contention on campuses and in newsrooms across the world.  
 
Designed to be a retreat for marginalised members of the student population, the concept was implemented to solve a problem. The curious thing with solutions though, is they have a habit of spawning their own new troublesome offspring. 

Land of the free, home of the brave safe

Journalism student, Larissa Carr, lives and studies in America, the heartland of the safe space. She’s about to graduate from the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNCA), a small college, dominated by the humanities and openly liberal-leaning. 
 
During the fallout of the 2017 election, safe spaces became a point of contention at UNCA.
 
“After Donald Trump won, they established a ‘safe space’ on our campus where students could go hold fluffy pillows, cry and color in coloring books.”
 
Reporters from the school paper were kicked out when they attempted to get pictures of the room.
 
While the Trump-relief space was established in a building, not all safe spaces are confined by walls. It has become common practice—not just at Larissa’s school, but all throughout the US—for protesting students to declare any environment they’re occupying a safe space.
 

 
When safe spaces and trigger warnings collide
 

According to Larissa, the indistinct borders of the concept led to a widening of the definition of safety at UNCA. Its boundaries stretched to encompass protection, not just from external risks but from internal ones too. Distress from past trauma is now considered something the university has a duty to protect students from. At this stage, that responsibility comes in the form of trigger warnings. 

Preparing people for disturbing content is common practice in newsrooms and classrooms the world over. The problem, Larissa says, is that trauma is subjective, with as many definitions of it as there are humans. So every new trigger warning led to calls for another one. 

“I went to a panel the ACLU held about trigger warnings and there was one lady who said her house burned down and her cats were trapped inside. Now, every time she hears cats meowing, she said she’s triggered.”

History and literature classes now come with trigger warning preambles, as do many stories in the school newspaper. A few extra words at the start of class may not sound like a big deal. But Larissa says it has led to a profound and generalised level of censorship. Free discussion has become a minefield many students, Larissa included, simply avoid  navigating. 

“I don’t give my opinion at the university in front of other students, except when asked.”
 
Teaching staff soon noticed a decline in debate and discussion among students which led to open condemnation of safe spaces and trigger warnings from academics. In a welcome letter to new students, University of Chicago Dean, John Ellison stated:
 
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
 
Safe spaces and trigger warnings in Australia
 

Ness Agar is the Queer Officer at Deakin Burwood and is involved in moderating the campus safe spaces. She sees the concern about safe spaces and trigger warnings as a case of moral panic, resulting from people making assumptions about the mental state of others based on their own experiences. To say people are being “weak” or “hiding from challenging ideas” misses the point that not everyone processes trauma in the same way.

“There’s a kind of strength in sensitivity, in acknowledging that you’re not ready to talk about something. Because it allows you time to recover and work through things for yourself.”

Ness explains that, while open discussion is encouraged, entry to a safe space does involve agreement to the rules of engagement. If anyone feels uncomfortable with a topic, they can veto it. Even if the objector has only just entered the conversation.

The Deakin Burwood queer room: tucked away beside security

Other rules include not assuming gender or sexuality and not assuming a person’s preferred pronouns. If unsure, it’s quite alright to ask. While topics like sexual assault can be discussed if everyone present is comfortable, Ness says it’s generally discouraged. 

“Not in a way that silences people who’ve been through trauma, but in a way that asks you to be aware there may be other survivors in the room who don’t want to be reminded about it.”

If controversial topics come up, talk isn’t stopped altogether but shifted to a different space.

“It’s not about preventing people from fully expressing themselves. It’s more just about knowing when and where it’s appropriate to express yourself.”

Can safe spaces and free speech coexist?

In a 2017 article titled, “When ‘Safe Spaces’ Become an Attack on Ideas”, ABC journalist, Chris Berg, wrote:
 
“We should pay attention to what’s happening. With a few years lag, Australia tends to enthusiastically adopt American intellectual fashions.”
 
This is the kind of concern Ness finds frustrating. Safe spaces have been present at Deakin for the past five years, meaning they pre-date the fears expressed. During that time, she says the spaces have remained within the walls of their campus locations. They’ve also helped students make friends, find resources and information on topics they need help with, get comfortable with their gender and sexuality, and even just find a place of solitude to study.
 

As with any space shared by humans, problems do arise. When discussing these, Ness unintentionally holds up a mirror to what’s happening on a meta level with the safe space debate: 

“There have been a couple of people who have been dramatically malignant in their behaviour. They’re fringe cases, not very common. But it only takes one or two problematic personalities to cause a rift.” 

The dramatic issues captured on film in the US offer only one view of the way safe spaces are used. But because it’s loud and problematic, it gets attention. Most of these counterproductive instances involve students insisting the public property they’re sharing with others is a “safe space” in which they get to dictate what can and can’t be discussed. Many of these incidents devolve into screaming matches which (despite the shrill tones and lack of sense) go viral when shared online.

By contrast, a safe space on a university campus that’s quietly helping people and not creating drama isn’t newsworthy. And here lies the other danger inherent in safe spaces: if we assume the concept is an attack on free speech because some students are using it that way, we risk tainting something that’s providing tangible assistance to others. 

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