Arts and Culture

Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings: What’s Actually Going on in America’s Classrooms?

By Tallon Kennedy
October 1, 2016

Back in September of 2015, The Atlantic produced a piece entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind” about the rise of trigger warnings and safe spaces across America’s colleges and universities. The Atlantic decried this trend by calling it “vindictive protectiveness,” suggesting that safe spaces create “a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

This is a sentiment that President Obama echoed in a town hall event in Iowa, saying that he’s heard some college campuses alter their course material if the language of a book “is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women.”

In response to this controversy, the University of Chicago sent out a letter to its incoming students this fall semester, stating that “we do not support so-called trigger warnings…we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

It would seem that the overarching narrative of trigger warnings and safe spaces is one of babying the intellectual mind. It’s a narrative of intolerance to other viewpoints, and fostering destructive hypersensitivity within students. It’s a narrative of protecting students, rather than challenging them. But is this what’s really going on, or is the truth more nuanced and complex?

I took some time to speak with Julie Beaulieu, lecturer within the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies department at the University of Pittsburgh, to find out more.

Beaulieu created a blanket statement “content warning” for classrooms, preparing students for a class that “will often include difficult and/or emotionally challenging topics.” In a syllabus, Beaulieu advises students to “arrive to class early and take a seat by the door so that you can easily exit the classroom” if the student thinks that a discussion of the day’s reading could be especially unsettling to them.

“Content warnings aren’t about ‘don’t teach this difficult stuff’” Beaulieu tells me as we walk across the streets of Pittsburgh, headed towards the esteemed Cathedral of Learning.

“I don’t think it is shielding students from discussions. I think that you would see a variety of tough topics on a syllabus with or without the content warnings.” Beaulieu says. “You might actually be using the content warnings because you’re teaching tough stuff.”

But if trigger warnings don’t necessarily alter the difficulty level or the substance of course material, as President Obama proposed, and if they don’t prevent provocative subjects from being discussed, wouldn’t they at the very least silence other students who may have contradictory positions about a controversial topic?

“I’m not, as a teacher, an idea policer,” Beaulieu responds, saying that safe spaces don’t silence students, so much as enable them to comfortably have open discussion, knowing there’s a way to deal with strong emotional responses in the classroom if they were to arise.

“It’s about having an aspirational statement that says ‘we are all going to collectively do our best to make this space as safe as possible’” Beaulieu says. “It just means watching your tone, or thinking critically about how you reply, or just apologizing when you get it wrong.”

The Atlantic article paints a picture of a university environment that is coddling to students in a way that is creating a generation of thin-skinned individuals who won’t be able to deal with real-world problems once they leave the safe college environment.

“Quite frankly that’s just deeply offensive to me.” Beaulieu retorts. “People say it’s ‘coddling’ but I actually see it as exactly the opposite, I see it as preparing people to deal with social/political stuff that’s really difficult in a way that they get to set their own terms.”

This is an insightful notion in a society that seems increasingly concerned with exactly how political issues are discussed, with many condemning the rise of “political correctness” as unjustly policing rhetoric to an infantilizing degree. As a result, there has been speculation about the way this current generation of college students will grow up to confront oppositional ideas.

But Beaulieu proposes that safe spaces are far from childish, and cultivate very adult, serious conversations about health and community.

“It’s actually entirely possible that [safe spaces] make this generation stronger and more capable of setting boundaries and having meaningful relationships” Beaulieu says.

If the old narrative is thus challenged by these contradictory ideas of safe spaces and trigger warnings being beneficial to critical thought, and of preparing young adults to civilly confront tough issues the world throws at them, what should the new narrative be?

“Content warnings allow people to know that you care about them, and that you care about their feelings of safety,” Beaulieu proposes.

Love. Empathy. Peace. Are these not emotionally mature concepts to be looking towards? Are these not ideologies that should pervade the rhetoric and tone of intellectual discourse?

“Here we are: bodies, histories, experiences, all in this shared space. Why wouldn’t you want to at least aspire to make it safe?” asks Beaulieu.

Tallon Kennedy is an intern journalist at The NewPeople Newspaper. He is a poet and an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh studying writing, literature, and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies.


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