Safe spaces

By | August 24, 2016

There’s a lot of continuing interest in the concept of “safe spaces” and the role of so-called “trigger warnings” in establishing them. Like a lot of us, I have such a space to which I can retreat when things get too complicated – it’s called “my room”. I go there when I’ve read enough about Trump to feel my gorge rising and enough about the state of the economy and the job market to realize the utter hopelessness of it all. The entire world ought to bear a trigger warning attached – “Much about this world will appall and frustrate and scare the bejeezus out of you and occasionally cause you great pain, but there aren’t any other ones conveniently available.”

In my safe space, I can turn on the TV and watch “Ancient Astronauts” and “Real Housewives” and “The Fairly Oddparents” until a degree of peace returns to my soul, I can begin to pick up the clothes littering the floor, and there appear to be at least some handles on the buzzing blooming chaos of the world outside. The space becomes unsafe only on those occasions when my partner opens the door to call me a “freaking idiot” (gotta investigate a lock). But the safety extends no farther than the door.

The world in general serves up a pretty steady stream of adverse stimuli, some of which are likely to be “triggering”. You never know when something adverse is just around the corner, and if you’re solely in reactive mode, you’re going to “get triggered” on a pretty regular basis. Ultimately, there is no “safe space” outside of your own head. As long as the world is still out there, the choice is to attend to it or ignore it. Ignoring it is fine for a while, and sometimes (often?) it’s necessary to do so. But it will still be there, and eventually there is no way to avoid its demands. And it sends few if any trigger warnings that nightmares are about to ensue.

I’m not trying to minimize anyone’s pain – it comes in widely varying doses – nor suggest that it’s just a matter of “getting over it”. But humans have only two basic strategies for dealing with adversity – flight or fight. Flight includes manipulating the environment to minimize chances of encountering adversity; TWs fall in this category. Fight includes confronting the stimulus and eventually reducing its power over your reactions. I do not judge anyone’s choices of how to mix these strategies in their own case; for me, a confrontational approach has been generally useful, and I’m a lot less debilitated by my experiences than I used to be.

I make no claim that this could or should be anyone else’s choice. But I do think that people can and ought to be proactive in managing their stimuli in various ways. A TW can have value in providing some advance time to prepare for a stimulus, but it doesn’t make the stimulus go away. And the world outside the college does NOT provide such warnings, so it’s not a good idea to come to rely on TWs for stimulus management.

If a “physical safe space” is a place where threats are kept on the other side of a door, then an “intellectual safe space” would be an arena of ideas where ideas that might cause pain are likewise excluded. Obviously, this can never be absolute, and the more people involved, the less absolute it can be. The only way to exclude all painful stimuli is to exclude all content. On the other hand, it’s possible to have appropriate intellectual rigor without necessarily forcing all the students to wallow in equal amounts of doggie-poo.

All classrooms ought to be intellectual safe spaces, at least to the degree that students know that pain will not be inflicted gratuitously or gleefully; as we all know and have experienced, that is not always the case. And certainly any instructor ought to be sensitive to students’ reactions, and not push things to the point of personal pain if at all possible. But there are only so many things under hir control, so varying degrees of pain are likely to be experienced by almost everyone at one time or another. If classes are a way of learning about the world, then perhaps using the generally protected environment of the class as a place to explore and understand pain may be better than just waiting for the uncaring world to serve up its triggers, unwarned and unexpected.

I have no problems with giving people some notice within the context of a class that things may be disturbing. But I don’t see it as my responsibility as a teacher to anticipate everything that might be disturbing to someone. And I would expect that those who do find some material disturbing would make an effort to understand why it’s included in the course, and figure out how to use this material for their own education. Ultimately, there’s nothing that can be said or discussed in a class that won’t eventually make itself known in the world at large. “Safe spaces” may temporarily insulate you from these things, but ultimately your safety can come only from yourself and in yourself.