On Safe Spaces,

Trigger Warnings,

and Why They’re Important

Note: I do not and cannot speak for everyone who have had past traumatic experiences. I only choose to speak hypothetically for the most part, and anecdotally on occasion. This article has mentions of sexual assault, abuse, suicide, eating disorders, drugs and alcohol, and violence. I am a survivor of sexual assault and emotional abuse.

There’s been a lot of controversy as of late about the validity of trigger warnings and safe spaces, especially in the college environment. People have been talking about how we’re “breeding the next generation of self-infantilized Americans who don’t like to hear dissenting opinions.” This, of course, goes back to the idea of censorship of language, and what we gain and lose by censoring some parts of our discourses, especially in academic settings.

I’m here today to tell you that this is bullshit.

Now, before you scroll down to the comments section and start lambasting me for being “unprofessional”, I think it’s important to understand not only what safe spaces and trigger warnings are, but also what they serve to accomplish.

So…

What are Trigger Warnings, and what do they do?

Trigger warnings are small warnings at the beginning of a work (academic or otherwise) that simply note what the work will be discussing in-depth. Generally speaking, these can range from widely triggering topics like sexual assault, rape, murder, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, drugs, suicide, etc. to more specific triggers, like mentions of food or alcohol. Usually, it depends on the audience of said work and what the audience might be triggered by.

For example, a lot of people might be scratching their heads and wondering, “How the hell can food be triggering? You have to eat! That’s the point of food!” But, imagine someone writing an in-depth analysis of eating disorders and how they can play off of existing mental disorders. Now, imagine being someone who struggled for years dealing with an eating disorder which almost killed them. Imagine seeing that discourse in a college setting for a class on mental disorders. Imagine having to read that in-depth analysis for class, having a mid-term on it, having to discuss it with your peers.

If you’ve done a goob job of imagining this situation, you’ve probably figured out that this person would be rather incapable of attending class that day, or even that week. If you haven’t, then perhaps it’s time to examine empathy in regards to trigger warnings.

Trigger warnings exist to circumvent that problem, to understand who your students/readers are and why they might not be able to handle certain topics. In a college setting, as a professor, it is your job to make sure that your students are capable of handling the course material. If you have not done this, you’ve failed a student, or three, or five, or perhaps the entire class if you wanna go that far.

And here’s the secret to all of this: if someone can’t handle it for whatever reason, chances are they already know more about it because they’re living it. This isn’t always the case, as researchers and people who study trauma and violence will probably also have a good grasp on it, and sometimes people who have undergone traumatic experiences might have been misinformed about their particular situations. However, the odds of someone understanding a particular topic from experience are generally much, much higher, and therefore, that discourse isn’t going to end up being productive for the triggered individual.

Trigger warnings are an exercise in empathy. They are an understanding and an acknowledgement that perhaps you don’t understand what makes other people want to curl up in bed and cry, shaking for several hours. They are a helpful hand to those that don’t have the capacity to handle these topics in depth.

Is this censorship?

Not at all. Trigger warnings are not meant to stunt or stop discourse. They are only warnings. Those of us who live with trauma generally understand that there is no way to eliminate certain words from others’ vocabularies, and that at some point in time these topics will re-surface.

Look, we get it. If the topic is sexual assault, we are by no means suggesting that a trigger warning be a removal of that topic from discourse. The last thing that anyone who has been through traumatic events would want is to not talk about it entirely. If nothing else, we are asking to be informed ahead of time so that we can be prepared in that moment to deal with it effectively. And hey, if we don’t want to share our experiences in regards to that topic or if we aren’t ready, then that isn’t on us. We are not a font of information for you. We are human beings, and either you’ll respect what makes our brains tick, or there’s no reason to continue talking.

What are Safe Spaces, and what do they do?

Safe spaces are, in theory, places where people can go to escape should they need to. Generally speaking, safe spaces are meant to be places where people can openly and honestly talk about their experiences, or, in the event of a triggering, be a place of assistance, of catering toward a person who might, in that moment, be incapable of catering to themselves. Or worse, be actively considering harming themself.

They become a place of respite, a way of easing back away from the edge and back to a place where one can handle the pressures of every day life. They are meant to be communicative in nature, and be respectful and empathetic of others’ problems, regardless of where they are coming from. Most often, safe spaces are geared towards people that don’t normally have safe places to rest, such as minorities of any kind.

For critics, they seem to be concerned that we are coddling adults by giving them places of respite that are devoid of conflict. But hey, once again…

If you need a safe space at any point in time, there’s a good chance that most of your life has been in conflict with something else. And sometimes, that something is, well, society at large. And while critics may once again cry, “You can’t escape society.” To that, I say…

We know. We are well aware that escapes don’t just happen. In fact, most people that utilize safe spaces understand that no space is 100% safe. There have been efforts to create the fabled 100% safe space, but in reality, there is no surefire way to make sure that a space is a total escape from the harshness of reality. If it were, then we’d all just go there instead of having to deal with violence.

So, to wrap all this up, safe spaces and trigger warnings are by nature not perfect. We are not trying to concoct the perfect escapes or a way of stopping discourse when it gets too personal. We are simply trying to create a more empathetic way of handling these discourses. We are trying to do what society refuses to do: to help those who can’t get help.

To do otherwise would be to deny yourself the possibility of being empathetic towards others. And if that’s your angle, then don’t be surprised when people stop talking with you about something serious.