Why Safe Spaces, Trigger Warnings, and other PC culture Encourage Freedom of Speech

 

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If you go to college, have a child who goes to college, know anyone in college, work at a college, live near a college, or watch the news, you will constantly hear people – generally older people and conservatives – decrying the concept of Safe Spaces, Trigger Warnings, and general PC culture. These critics will claim that their freedom of speech is being denied to them. They will claim that college is about the sharing of different points of view and broadening the horizons of students. They will say that if people can’t deal with conflicting ideas and need to be “protected” from them, that they shouldn’t be in college to begin with. This, my friends, is bullshit. You may notice that lately, there have been a lot of conversations going on regarding this topic. Different schools have been “banning” or “speaking against” or “disavowing” these practices much more recently. Even the hit show “South Park” had an episode about safe spaces. Here is why they are all full of shit.

Safe Spaces

Ironically, when these detractors complain about safe spaces, they are showing just how truly ignorant they are. Let me give a brief history of safe spaces. To begin, safe spaces are often associated with minority groups, either Gender and Sexual Minorities (Our LGBTQ+ friends) or Racial groups (Black, Latinx, Muslim, etc). Most of the complaints about safe spaces would center around the idea that they are excluding ideas that are different from theirs. They are blocking out things they do not like because it upsets them. This is far from the truth.

Before safe spaces, do you know how many open and honest conversations were held on college campuses about issues pertinent to the LGBT+ population? Very few. Either people were afraid to express their ideas and opinions, or their ideas and opinions were interrupted, disregarded, and overlooked by the rest of the group. These conversations were just not happening. Have you ever tried to go up to a group of people and tell them about how they were mistreating you? Did they respond very openly and receptively, or were they defensive and dismissive? I’m willing to bet (due to human nature) that it was the latter.

So someone thought up the concept of safe spaces. A place where people can go to have open honest discussions about their lives. They can discuss how they have been mistreated, or ways they are struggling. They can talk with people who understand and respect their struggle and get aid and assistance without worrying that one of those people is going to try to silence them or cause them harm simply for talking about their thoughts or experiences. They know that when they talk, someone is listening.

Safe spaces literally facilitate conversations that were never had on college campuses. It gave those people involved in the safe spaces the language and skills and confidence required to bring those conversations outside of that safe space and into the real world. Safe spaces have literally facilitated greater sharing of ideas on college campuses. It has told a group that their story is relevant, their story is important, and their story needs to be told.

The issue people often seem to have with safe spaces are that certain people are excluded. Straight people are excluded from LGBT+ safe spaces and White people from Black or Latinx spaces. In theory. However, most Safe spaces will allow for others to be in the conversation, so long as they do not act to diminish the power of that space. If a person truly wants to learn and be part of a larger conversation, they are invited to join. Sometimes, there are conversations that can only be had by people of the same identity. A straight person will not be able to identify with many things that a Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual person is discussing. A white person will not be able to identify with everything a Black, Latinx, or other person is discussing. Often Times, Gay men are excluded from Lesbian and Bisexual Groups and vice versa. Black groups do not always interact with Latinx groups. But that does not mean that they do not value those ideas and opinions. It simply means that this particular group needs a space where they can discuss the issues they have and create language and skills to help them better discuss it in the outside world.

Safe spaces allow for people to determine the best way to respond to a homophobic or racial slur. Safe spaces allow people to be on the same page so they are not sending inconsistent messages. Safe spaces allow people to vent frustrations without causing a public uproar. Safe spaces empower our students to lead social movements. It allows them to gather and collaborate and plan. It allows them to express their rights without fear of being disregarded.

Take, for instance, a young gay man who attends many meets at his local safe space. They have strong discussions and he feels confident with his viewpoint. He is in a class one day, and a discussion starts about something related to what he discussed in his safe space. He expresses his viewpoint and has many others who disagree. Because of his safe space, he now has the language and confidence to continue that conversation and introduce a new idea to the others.

Ideas cannot be contained. Information travels. People fear that safe spaces are cutting off communication and the spread of ideas, but they just do not. They facilitate the generation of new ideas and teach people how to spread them.

 

Trigger Warnings

Many people who argue against trigger warnings claim that they somehow fundamentally change conversations. They make people who “don’t want to deal with something” able to leave a conversation and not partake in it. They make it so that people do not learn to deal with their feelings and instead “coddle” and “comfort” students.

I disagree. Triggers warnings do not stifle conversation and coddle students. Trigger warnings allows students to prepare for a conversation. When a rape survivor is told that there will be a discussion of rape in a lecture, this allows them to emotionally prepare for it. This allows the person to think something along the lines of “Ok, we are going to talk about rape. I know I feel X way when rape is brought up, so I can now deal with those feelings and be part of this conversation.”

Does every person respond in such a way? No. Some people are not ready to engage with a particular topic. Allowing that person to leave that conversation before it starts is more conducive to that conversation. Nobody wants someone having a break down or freak out in the middle of a conversation. Nobody wants a veteran with PTSD screaming and running around at the sound of gunfire on a video. Nobody wants a person to have a strong emotional response to something and interrupt the conversation. Trigger warnings literally allow these people to figure out what their role in the conversation is going to be. Are they going to mention their experience, or are they going to be quiet? Are they going to be emotional or logical? Trigger warnings allow more effective lectures and conversations with fewer interruptions and more intellectual discussions.

“Politically Correct” Language

Probably the largest issue most people have is with language. They often find that trigger warnings and safe spaces lead to “PC Language” and contribute to “PC Culture.”  This is true. However, their idea of PC Culture is misinformed and incorrect. Firstly, politically correct means nothing. It’s a phrase that sounds right but has no meaning. We need to stop using and validating the term “Politically Correct” and just start saying “Correct.” Political things can be contested. Correct things cannot.

What people tend not to understand is how language shapes our cultures and our minds. Words carry meaning – much more meaning than a simple definition. Slurs and hate speech carry with them history and experience. Calling someone a fag isn’t just calling them gay. It’s calling them gay and saying that they are worthy of abuse, denigration, and hatred. Calling a Trans* person a “tranny” or a “trap” doesn’t just say they are trans, it says that they are a manipulative joke who is trying to dupe men into believing a lie. This type of language isn’t politically incorrect. It’s just incorrect.

And people do not realize how the words they chose express their own thoughts. People who know that you shouldn’t call gay people fags or black people niggers but chose to anyway are saying that they don’t care about how that language affects that group of people. And there is a common misconception that this language is problematic because it upsets individuals. That is not why that language is problematic. The language is problematic because it reinforces social systems that negatively affect that entire group. These words have negative connotations, and even if you do not fully know what they are, you know they are negative. You then associate those people with negativity and are more likely to identify their negative aspects than their positive ones.

There is a lot of sound psychology that goes into it, which I physically cannot teach people over a blog post. However, this correct language also facilitates conversations. It shows people that their thoughts, feelings, and opinions are valued, which makes them more likely to share ideas. It shows people that others are open to change and compromise, making them more likely to listen and share ideas.

There is so much more to it than just that though. People are not one dimensional. They have thoughts and feelings that they do not even understand to know about. A university’s responsibility is to educate all their students, so if a student is subject to language and ideas that make them feel unsafe, they are less likely to utilize the resources there. They are less likely to stay at the university. When they feel safe and supported, they stay and learn.

You do not support free speech and the free spread of ideas by alienating students who have different experiences than the average person.

 

When people fight against Safe Spaces, PC Culture, and Trigger Warnings, they are not thinking of others. They are not worried about the quality of an academic institution. They are simply thinking of themselves and the fact that they may need to actually think before the speak. They do not like that they are being called out for their less than honorable behaviors as it shatters their own self-image. Safe spaces, PC Language, and Trigger warnings force people to evaluate themselves and sometimes they do not like what they might learn, so they fight against it. They do not care that the language people use reinforced decades if not centuries of oppression, hatred and mistreatment. All they see is a bunch of millennials whining about their feelings. It’s simply not true.