Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces: What are they for?

Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces: What are they for?

Story by Izzy Farrell Graphic by Allison Anderson

Wednesday, September 21, 2016 | Number of views (2091)

The University of Chicago ignited a national debate on safe spaces and trigger warnings this August after issuing a letter to incoming students denouncing both ideas.  

The letter, written by Dr. John Ellison, Dean of Students at the University of Chicago, describes how he feels trigger warnings and safe spaces limit academic freedom.  

A safe space is generally accepted to mean a place dedicated to making marginalized groups feel comfortable and empowered.  This means hateful speech and oppressive behaviors are not tolerated.  

Trigger warnings are used by professors to give students a heads up when the text they are working with includes difficult topics, such as sexual assault.  

This allows students who may have encountered such trauma in their past to mentally prepare themselves.   

At Fort Lewis, a variety of safe spaces are available and professors use trigger warnings at their own discretion.                

In the letter Ellison argues that such practices create an environment "where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

Anthony Nocella, assistant professor of sociology and criminology at FLC, has a different perspective.

Nocella said he believes both trigger warnings and safe spaces are necessary to protect students, especially those who are marginalized due to race, gender, disability, or a variety of other factors.    

"Trigger warnings are very important for people when we're looking at practical daily actions," Nocella said. "Safe spaces are actually long-term spaces and places to have deeper conversations. So you need both of them."

Nocella said in his own criminology class, he gives students notice before showing potentially triggering material.

The most recent instance was with the movie Seven, which Nocella screened for his students last week.

"People that are marginalized and oppressed go through a lot more trauma, and that trauma is real," he said. "I think a lot of people in power think that's made up."

As far as safe spaces go, Nocella points to El Centro de Muchos Colores, the Native American Center, the G Spot in Reed Library, the Black Student Union, and the different gender and sexuality based groups on campus.

"Schools are microcosms of society," he said. "We need to make sure and reinforce that Fort Lewis College, a public liberal arts school that's affordable in the Southwest, is inclusive of all different types of people."

Nancy Stoffer, the coordinator of Diversity Programming at Fort Lewis, said she understands why the University of Chicago might be concerned about the oppression of important issues.  

"I think that it's important for people to actually be talking and having conversations around issues, and to do so mindfully," Stoffer said.

Stoffer said one component of having mindful discussions is working in tandem with the support systems that are on campus and within the community, such as the counseling center and Title IX.

"So that the conversations can be had, but in a way that's not going to reinjure people." Stoffer said.      

Stoffer also points to different programs such as Common Ground training and SafeZone Ally training that can help students and faculty discuss difficult topics mindfully.      

"How do you balance out finding a way to discuss, and not oppress issues that need to be talked about?  Because if you don't talk about them then we can't change, we can't heal from past and current wounding that are happening," Stoffer said.  "Like with any wound, you need to be able to both give it protection and also air it to heal."


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