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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.
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.
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?
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.