Engaging with the discussion of Trigger Warnings in 2016 we are talking about a mesh of old and new understandings. The old understanding is from the area of mental health with specific relation to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Trigger Warnings are used to make someone suffering from PTSD that the material or event that they are going to be exposed to will potentially onset a traumatic episode. The new understanding presented by Intersectional Feminists and Liberals alike is that trigger warnings are needed to bring warning to potential provoked emotional responses of disdain or discomfort. This new understanding has taken over the old understanding by using it as a hostage for politics within higher education and the narrative that higher education needed a change to be more inclusive and a safe space.
When we talk about provoked emotion we talk about emotion that is transferred with intention from one person to another through a medium. Take for instance the medium of film – horror films (e.g. Wolf Creek) provoke the feeling of fear through scare tactics. Comedy (e.g. The Rat Race) films provoke the feeling of happiness through comedic behaviour and timing, and drama films (e.g. Bridget Jones’s Diary) provokes the feeling of sadness. These emotions felt are understandable through the context for which they are transferred. Which in this case is the genre of film and the engagement of the person watching. This engagement is individual choice. We have the choice for how we engage with film and to what extent. We have the choice to make how much the movie affects us and in what way. This choice is not presented what it comes to evoked emotion. Evoked emotions are brought on through subconscious mind from external influences. For example different smells can influence the emotions by evoking emotions of past experiences. Like the smell of baked goods and reliving the emotion of going to grandmas and enjoying her baking. Music also is a powerful tool to evoke emotion. Songs can take people back to when they went to their first live concert and experience the emotions felt. Songs can take people back to their wedding day to experience the emotions of getting married or the song they had their first dance to as husband and wife. Evoked emotions are not controllable, they are in the subconscious and react to things that we can not control – they can happen wherever and whenever. What can cause evoked emotions is anything and it is unpredictable. A provoked trigger warning is to control a sense of what to experience, an evoked trigger warning is a preventative measure to not have someone with PTSD experience an episode. These warnings and these emotions are exclusive but they are being meshed together to fight for change in higher education.
I have mentioned in past blogs about academic and proud feminist Christina Hoff Sommers has provoked the Third Wave Feminists and Liberals alike into imposing trigger warnings and safe spaces with her speeches and presentations around American Universities. Many other presenters suffer from the same opposing force when talking on American campuses – Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder are further examples. As there is a belief that Sommers is a threat to the mental health, well-being and safety of the students – so measures were needed to have taken place. Take into consideration the old understanding of trigger warnings around PTSD and analyse the behaviour which is presented publicly in many online videos (this is just one of many – Georgetown) where Sommers has talked. And the behaviour at which people who oppose her want the new understanding of trigger warning introduced. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious issue for which people suffer – there is no control over what can trigger a PTSD episode as it is an evoked subconscious reaction. To push for the new trigger warnings on people who are presenting opposing information to the ideology of only a section of the student populace questions the importance of this specific agenda.
The individual well-being is questionable when you know you are going to a speech by someone who has a different viewpoint to your own. How are you going to engage with the fight for the new trigger warning understanding when you silence those that wish to engage different points of views – views that you present to be ‘triggering’. Psychotherapy is a solution to PTSD which has been found to be a success in treating and getting rid of PTSD. One therapy within psychotherapy is exposure therapy where the patient who has PTSD – under the guidance of a trained professional exposes themselves to their trigger in which they can engage and understand the difficulties around that trigger and then to further be cured of that trigger. The introduction of the bastardized version of trigger warning is meant to be seen as a preventative measure to the old meaning of trigger. To have a trigger warning on content that is a trigger of an evoked emotional response does not get rid of the trigger. It presents the person with PTSD a chance to decide on the engagement with the trigger, but if they so choose to engage there is no certainty that an evoked emotional reaction will not happen. This ‘preventative measure’ is not a solution to curing a patient of PTSD but an attachment to the new understanding of trigger warnings. There are disciplines on university subjects where people will have to engage with material that is seen to be a trigger (both old understanding and new). Law students have to engage with criminal law and the cases that involved rape. This can be a trigger for evoked emotions but it is a necessary engagement in the field of law. There is no way around the degree where someone can not learn about rape with regards to the law. To understand this, to engage with the material, yet require a trigger warning is not understandable as there is a difference between professors using intense examples to explain a point compared to a requirement in the field of study that has to be learned.
Safe Spaces are a problematic idea for Universities. On one hand they give groups of people the ‘freedom’ to go somewhere and be themselves. On the other who gets to say what groups need a specific space on campus and why do they need a space for themselves. Safe Spaces are places where students who feel they have been marginalized by either their sex, ethnicity, religion or sexuality can go and be themselves (with other people like them) free from any metal or physical strain. But how do you go justifying the feeling of marginalization and present this feeling as a problem for the entire University to solve and not a sole issue.
There is an ideal in society to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. To give a voice for those that do not have a voice of their own. While a simple idea the acting of this is to give people who are marginalized in society the opportunity and to teach the abilities of equity for all. But that is all of society. When we simplify the area to Universities – where the fight for Safe Spaces is currently occurring. Then we have to look at what Universities and higher education represents. Universities are the next stage in academia, a challenge for people’s perceptions of the world and, for the development into adulthood. They are accessible for anyone at any time of their life, it is the independence of the student that dictates the role in which higher education will play in their life and the success the student will get from attending. Universities are a safe place to talk, to live, to experience and to attend. The understanding of intellectual freedom underlines the understanding for what information is presented and why it is presented. When we are presented information (opinions, facts and discussions) that we do not like we know that they are not being shown to us for the purpose of mental harm but for intellectual enlightenment. To further understand why we have our point-of-view and why we do not have the point-of-view of others. The intention is not malicious but a safe engagement of information we otherwise would not engage with ourselves. Our lecturers, tutors, peers and other academics that we share the higher education experience with are debates, challenges and utilities to further get a sense of self-understanding and self-growth. Every University has an understanding of what is expected and what is understood even when it is not said so clearly.
Safe Spaces are challenging this representation of Universities and other higher education institutions by condemning that they are not safe, that there is a significant amount of students that are marginalized for who they are and nothing or very little is being done about it. These Safe Spaces are a solution to this perceived problem. The fights are in our Universities so the problem must be somewhere within. On the website the demands there is a list of at least 88 American higher education institutions that demand change for the systemic and structural racism that they believe is apparent on campuses. Under each school there are a number of demands that are expected to be undertaken on each campus to make up for and fix this injustice. Though it is one thing to believe the outcry of the student population it is another to provide adequate empirical evidence to support this claim – which has yet to happen. For each demand being made there is no specific understanding to how the demand should be done within the university. There are demands calling out certain faculty members of the Universities and demand that they create and enforce the plan that is then to be upheld. This pressure on Universities to abide by these demands has been having a negative effect on the University. University of Missouri for example has had instances revolving around faculty members and student protests. This barrage of bad publicity caused by groups pushing for justice has crippled the University. Missouri has faced a significant decline in student enrolments, a decline in alumni donations, the athletic football team has resigned, faculty members are getting sacked for partaking in the commotion irresponsibly and faculty members are also resigning if they are caught against the loud and vocal group. The University is a reflection of the students. When the students have caused a ruckus in their own University they are condemning the entire University to the public even for those who are not involved.
To create Safe Spaces on campus is to say that the campus is unsafe. That there are problem areas for certain minority groups that are a constant occurrence. For a university to have such a space is unimaginable – a space where there is constant aggression and offensive material to specific groups of people. Where is this space? When we give people areas in which they can escape to we separate the student body. When the entire University is a safe space then the entire student body can be a source for empowerment, confidence, communication and of course safety. But when we separate the student body into identity, then we have people engaging with only certain identities. We also force out identities of people by giving them a reason to feel marginalized. When we give people a reason to not feel like a piece of a whole collective they are automatically on the outside and that is not what Universities are about.
The phrase “Safe Space” has negative connotations attached to it – residing from the identity politics popularized by Intersectional Feminism Safe Spaces are seen as places to escape to when someone cannot handle some form of mental strain. The physical build of Safe Spaces has been described as a place where people can colour in, calm down reading a book, watch videos of puppies playing and escape from what caused them harm. While this is an escape it does not prove to be a solution to the problem, merely a temporary quick fix. What ailed the person can still happen, the person still has to leave the safe space and dealing with the issue at hand can still arise. This understanding provides the connotation that the inability to find a solution to the mental anguish that people will face at University is nothing but hypersensitivity.