The misunderstanding of trigger warnings and safe spaces

Guest column by Danielle Shorr, junior creative writing major

I’ll be the first to admit it- I was once on the opposing side of the argument for trigger warnings. My opposition was not formed out of disagreement. Instead, my dislike of this controversial question, one that is currently being debated nationwide on college campuses, stemmed from a lack of understanding. Should there be trigger warnings on college campuses? If you had asked me a few years ago, my answer probably would have been no.

Danielle Shorr, junior creative writing major

Danielle Shorr, junior creative writing major

Most recently, University of Chicago declared itself an enemy of the trigger warning. Our own president, Jim Doti announced his disapproval of “safe spaces,” believing that the term is synonymous with silencing voices. There’s been confusion about what exactly these concepts mean. After all, don’t trigger warnings and safe spaces promote a lack of conversation? 

As someone who has learned the importance of these concepts in application to my own experiences and those of my peers, I can tell you that no, they don’t. Let’s start by breaking down what a safe space is. A safe space is a place in which people can engage in discourse without the fear of being made to feel unwelcome or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, culture, religion, age, or physical or mental ability. In contrast to the idea that they promote lack of free speech, safe spaces can actually serve as a positive environment in which topics can be discussed openly.  

A trigger warning is defined as a statement prior to the starting a piece of work ( such as writing or video) that informs the viewer that there is potentially distressing material included. This is in contrast to the widespread belief that a trigger warning insists on the omission of information or learning. In reality, a trigger warning merely serves as an advance notice. Although triggers are not exclusive to post-traumatic stress disorder, it is especially crucial to include them for those who struggle with mental health issues. Having this forewarning can allow people to prepare and practice appropriate mechanisms to cope with and best approach the material. Some would argue that if one is not well enough to accept that material, then they shouldn’t be in the university environment. To me, that sounds a lot like you shouldn’t have the privilege of education if you don’t have the privilege of mental wellness.

According to research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a whopping one in four college students suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. To say that college education is reserved for “those who can handle the material” is quite simply ableist. You wouldn’t deny education to someone with a physical disability. Still, trigger warnings don’t only apply to those struggling with mental illness. A student who has experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime may be triggered by engaging, without warning, in material that tackles similar issues.

As a survivor of sexual assault, I have at times found myself overwhelmed and near unstable at the sudden onset of material dealing with those issues. While I am skilled at covering up my discomfort, I still deal with the consequences of it. It’s not that I haven’t come to terms with my own trauma- it’s that I shouldn’t be reminded of it or forced to relive it without a warning. Another common argument is that “real life” (as if college isn’t “real”) doesn’t have trigger warnings, but even movies provide us with knowledge before we watch them. A film may say prior to its screening that it includes graphic content or explicit material.
My goal is to get people to examine how they have been defining trigger warnings before they are banned from campuses forever. You can’t tell who has been through hell and who hasn’t. What you can do is offer them some courtesy in hopes that they won’t have to go back through it.

Read about the trigger warning policy Chapman developed last October here.

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