The Vocabulary Of Safety: Why We All Need Safe Spaces

StockSnap / Luis Llerena
StockSnap / Luis Llerena

I was taught to be afraid. To fear walking down the street at night, to carry my keys lodged between my fingers. I was taught to fear parking lots, getting on planes, and sleeping in a house alone. I was taught to fear the Internet and any predators that might be lurking there. I was taught to fear people who did not look like me or believe like me. My parents were not completely responsible for this, and I am not alone. Most members of my generation, and those who came after me, were taught to feel this way.

From “stranger danger” to “your brain on drugs” to “homeland security,” Millennials sat at our parents’ feet and learned to speak the language of fear and safety, reinforced by the PSA boom of the eighties and nineties. To be secure meant to stay close to home because “out there” was where the danger was. And for those of us who came of age post-9/11, security was paramount.

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Growing up with the Patriot Act, body scanners, and NSA hacks sends the message that safety is priceless, and we should not question the cost lest we be considered anti-American. But the young people who lived under this language and this sentiment had no part in creating it. We received it through our government, our parents, our news and our books (according to Google Books n-gram, the use of the word “security” has increased by 61% since 1965). So I am always surprised when the generation who gave us this feeling of fear and vocabulary of safety rebukes us for using it on our college campuses and in our workplaces.

In a recent article, which is hardly the first of its type, students were criticized for wanting “safe spaces” on their campuses—and in particular for using the language of safety since it invokes the mandates of Title VII and IX, which are to prevent a “hostile environment.” Because of these mandates, the author, Judith Shulevitz, characterized students as manipulating the universities in question to protect them from differing ideas. Safe spaces are not a product of, as Shulevitz claims, “the conviction…that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.” This same argument—that students are asking for protection against differing ideas—has been used against trigger warnings as well. And though differing ideas and beliefs may have been something we were taught to fear, I would argue that it is a fear that we are willing to confront, just as we confronted our fear of predators on the internet and became tech-savvy as a generation. The use of the word “safe” is not a manipulation, but rather a response to a political and social ideology that began brewing well before we stepped foot on campuses and started insisting that they be places where security is given priority.

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But are students justified in using this vocabulary? The first day on a college campus is supposed to signal a new life phase, a beginning. It means moving away from home, making your own academic decisions, being given the freedom of adulthood for the first time. When we think of orientation, we often picture the bright eyes of those taking their first steps into the world at large, leaving the comforts of parental safety and boundaries. These first steps can be daunting, especially when the world you are leaving was not safe or comfortable at all.

When I arrived at my freshman orientation, I was nine hundred miles away from home and excited to be there. I didn’t sleep much for the first couple of months, and I barely ate. The excitement and the energy of New York were infectious, creating an emotional high. But when I started to come down, I came down hard. I had been living with undiagnosed PTSD for several years following the death of my mother. I had, instead, been diagnosed with other complementary disorders: anxiety and depression. But the emotional numbness, the nightmares, and the flashbacks should have clued in my therapists that something was wrong. I tried desperately to leave my problems back in my hometown, but they followed me and came roaring back as if angry to have been ignored for so long. I was put on anti-depressants that backfired and made me reckless and suicidal as well as decreasing my alcohol tolerance. This led to me going home with the wrong sort of guy who didn’t stop when I told him to stop.

Like it or not, students are bringing their trauma into the classrooms with them, and colleges and universities have to figure out a way to accommodate this history so that all students can receive an intellectually vigorous education—and the numbers make this urgent: In 2009, the National Survey of Exposure to Children’s Violence found that out of 4549 children ages 0-17.2, sixty percent had either experienced or witnessed violence, including, but not limited to, physical and sexual assault, maltreatment, and dating violence. About five percent will develop PTSD. One out of six women will be raped in her lifetime, most occurring during college years. We forget to think of trauma upon the return to the everyday. We think of it as the thing that happened over there or way back when. But acknowledging the truth of trauma is to acknowledge that it has a way of hanging around. This is what safe spaces acknowledge.

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So what exactly are safe spaces and how can they help college classrooms to be more open, accessible places? What a safe space is can vary wildly—anything from a comfortable space for students to sit in during or after a potentially triggering event (evoking past trauma), to a class agreeing on rules for discussion (discussion norms) on sensitive topics. These may include guidelines such as using “I statements” and identifying offensive language. Some have insisted that such rules impede intellectual conversation; students may be afraid to speak in fear of breaking the rules.

But it has been my experience that, rather than impede discussion, they make the conversation accessible to people with varying life experiences by ensuring that they will not be attacked personally for sharing their opinions. While writing this article, I reached out to Colleen Walsh, an instructor in the School of Education at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus and a former instructor of mine who used classroom discussion norms. She says, of her role as instructor, “Intuitively, I always felt, when I’m the instructor, my job is, bar none, to make sure people are safe, that students feel valued and respected. There’s also a real, practical reason to do this: with difficult conversations, some students need structure. Creating norms allows for space to develop so that we can see who is who and what is what. This sets up the class dynamic. Whether or not students ultimately feel safe, they sense that I am trying to achieve that.” Safe space rules do not disallow disagreement, but they can give students better communication skills in order to express that disagreement. And shouldn’t that be a valuable part of any education?

Another essential part of creating a safe space is the introduction of trigger warnings. These should warn the students that potentially triggering material is going to be discussed and give the student a chance to opt out and do an alternative assignment. Critics say that this is unenforceable because everyone has unique triggers and that professors cannot possibly warn against them all. This is a valid point. I understand that students cannot reasonably expect that every individual trigger will be identified and warned against. So what I’m advocating for are reasonable precautions: warn against material most associated with post-traumatic stress (physical violence, sexual violence, war, life-threatening danger, death) and provide a place for students to go if they are feeling triggered.

Moreover, diagnosed PTSD has typically been granted disability status, and more and more we’re seeing cultural recognition of the debilitating effects of similar disorders such as anxiety and depression. In the same way that wheelchair ramps made education accessible to the physically disabled, these small adjustments to classrooms, such as safe space norms, can help make an education accessible to those who live with mental illness. And for those worry that students will take advantage, I offer this: as a high school teacher, I regularly use trigger warnings in my classroom, giving students (many of whom have experienced traumatic events) at least twenty-four hour notice to make alternative arrangements with me for class that day. In three years, I have never had one student take me up on my offer.

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I have never missed a class or an event based on the content of discussion. However, I have often left feeling on edge, as if my nerves were exposed. After years of therapy, I have learned to navigate this feeling with deep breathing, meditation, and exercise, but these coping methods aren’t one hundred percent effective. But with trigger warnings and safe space rules, I can scaffold my emotional experience. I can prepare myself mentally and emotionally, and, knowing that the discussion will be sensitive, I can breathe slow and deep. I can be present.

I do not presume that we are now in greater danger than previous generations, or that we have experienced higher rates of trauma, but that perhaps out of this former danger came the words that we’ll use to help fight the emotional impediments to a strong education. No matter how you feel about the fear-based education we received from our government and in our homes, the resulting movement in the education system is not “self-infantilizing,” as Judith Shapiro claims, but rather a mature acknowledgment and assessment of the risks we were taught to fear: previous, current, and future.

Safe spaces and trigger warnings are not meant to be punitive measures against universities, nor are they meant to coddle students. However, if reasonable measures are taken, we can equip students who have experienced trauma, or who are simply having a new experience, to enter classroom discussions without reservation, and to hear viewpoints which otherwise might have been excluded from the conversation because of a lack of emotional support. This is not a sign of weakness, but rather an accommodation for traumatic experience. And hopefully, by learning these skills, we can also learn from our elders’ mistakes: not all fear is good. Our national fear has been preyed upon to justify further violence, both at home and abroad, as well as severe civil liberties violations. But if we educate a generation of both students and teachers to listen with empathy, to consider the multiplicities of identities and experiences in decision-making, then perhaps we can alleviate some of that fear. Then, just maybe, our national conversations will become a little more democratic. TC mark

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