The Dangers of Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Recently there has been many incidents with college students demanding their respective institutions supply warning for “offensive” material. For example, students at Columbia University want something known as a “trigger warning” applied to Greek Literature. These students say that the content of these classic stories are upsetting to them and demand the university take action. Somehow, we as a society have gone from being an international powerhouse to our future demanding to be coddled and shielded. This dilemma has given birth to modern day trigger warnings and safe spaces.

The concept of triggers came about around the time of the Vietnam War. According to the Washington Post, psychologists came up with the concept to refer to things “that sent vets spiraling into flashbacks of past traumas.” This could be something like fireworks going off and the booming reminding one of bomb explosions, or a crackling noise sounding similar to gun shots. The concept of triggers evolved into the now known “trigger warnings” when the internet came about. The New York Times states that “[f]eminist blogs and forums have used the term…to signal that readers, particularly victims of sexual abuse, might want to avoid certain articles or pictures online.”

Safe spaces also originally had humble backgrounds. A safe space was and still is used in schools to indicate that there will be no tolerance of homophobia, racism, sexism etc. This is a fantastic moral standard for schools to establish, but the concept itself has morphed. In theory safe spaces are actually not a bad idea. Safe spaces, in an ideal world, would be a friendly place to practice one’s freedom of speech. People would be able to share their thoughts/feelings without the fear of being ridiculed or punished. Having a place where people can share their thoughts, concerns and fears could be healthy and socially invigorating. However, like many social ideas, it seems better on paper than it is in practice. In actuality, safe spaces have become a haven for “you may speak freely until you disagree with my opinion.”

Now, usually when one thinks of someone “invading” a safe space, it means someone is being homophobic, racist etc. The problem is that the situation is more complex than just that. For example, two people in the same community often can have different opinions. In an LGBTQ oriented “safe space,” what if two people define their sexuality in different ways? The way a safe space is supposed  to work, they both would be able to speak their minds without issue. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. When disagreed with, people can complain that the other person is “violating their safe space” and is “triggering them,” The concept of someone having a differing opinion is too much for some individuals to handle, thus rendering safe spaces more cancerous than productive.

There are a few reasons why safe spaces and triggers have become such hot topics. The first being the blurred line between being uncomfortable and being triggered. Rather than defining something that can upset one’s PTSD, a trigger has been reduced down to describing when someone feels vaguely uncomfortable. Now, of course there are victims of heinous crimes that do in fact get legitimately (by psychological definition) triggered by such a thing – by no means do I suggest that their trauma is negligible. However, it is unrealistic to think we can shield people from anything that might offend them. Where do we draw the line?

Some people can be triggered by things that are generally traumatic, but there are people with more abstract and unavoidable triggers. Some people are triggered by things as simple as seeing a dog. How would we be able to shield them from such an everyday occurrence?  How would an institution, like Ramapo College for example, undertake the task of deciding what is and is not “triggering” when everyone has such different and eclectic “triggers?" An even greater question, however, is should we shield them from everyday occurrences?

Triggers have gone from a psychological word to describe the trauma of war veterans to describing how a nineteen-year-old college student feels about a Republican club on campus. The word has diluted and become almost laughable at this point. Trigger warnings have become nothing more than a sad joke on the internet and people who actually need said warnings, like rape victims, suffer the consequences. The New York Times states that a Rutgers senior wanted a trigger warning on the "The Great Gatsby" because there is “‘a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.’” What’s next, we can’t read "To Kill a Mockingbird" because of references to racism? Such restrictions could debilitate human creativity and render shows like "Game of Thrones" as taboo. This constriction, is not only ridiculous, but unreasonable.