Avoiding triggers harmful for learning environment

Recently there was a lot of hullabaloo at Reed College over issues of free speech, classroom etiquette, trigger warnings and how colleges should handle classroom discussions. The controversy involved a young student who was asked to leave his intro-level humanities class after he voiced some ill-received opinions.

These controversial opinions usually had to do with his views on rape, rape culture and men who were falsely accused of rape. According to his professor, he was dismissed because he was making students uncomfortable and was being disruptive, making it difficult for classroom discussions to take place.

The student quickly claimed the college was infringing upon his first amendment rights and published a petition online for people to support him.

He was told he could still obtain credit for the class but was simply asked to not attend the discussion portion of the conversation.

Despite the fact that most media outlets have picked this up as an issue of free speech, I have no interest in seeing it this way. Anyone with a basic knowledge of the constitution knows that the first amendment does not allow citizens to voice opinions like a jackass and then not face any consequences.

Clearly this student was being disruptive and a nuisance, regardless of his opinions. From what I’ve read, I feel the professor was justified in taking disciplinary action with this student. On the other hand, as someone who honestly feels that political correctness and safe zones often go too far, it saddens me that the only martyr which people like myself have to look to is an obnoxious student such as this fellow from Reed.

Despite the fact that this student was in the wrong, I can’t help but agree with his sentiment that establishing safe zones in classrooms, which would force everyone to be conscious of potential triggers, could hurt the mission of higher education.

In my opinion, college campuses should be a place where any idea, belief, opinion, philosophy or theory can be called into question, attacked, supported or discussed, regardless of whether or not you agree with it and especially if you do not agree with it. On our campus there should always be room for the neo-conservative Baptist to express nationalistic feelings and for the Marxist, free-love vegan to express why farming is a form of modern-day slavery.

With this in mind, a university should never be a place where only safe topics are discussed. It should be a place where issues of war, violence, illness and sexual abuse are hashed out and discussed in respectful ways.

If a university can be bullied to limit certain forms of expression and opinions for the sake of other students, it begins to lose its credibility as an institution of higher learning.

This is why I feel that actively trying to avoid triggers in the classroom is a silly notion. This whole rhetoric of establishing safe zones operates on the idea that there are places which aren’t safe which would demand that every other place should conform and become safe.

While I agree that people should be polite and courteous, I would argue that if you have a trigger then that is a personal problem and not one that the rest of the world needs to tip-toe around.

Obviously, in personal circles, making your trigger known is a perfectly valid thing to do, but in the public sphere, in a coffee shop, on public transit, on the streets and even on campus you shouldn’t expect the world to conform in such a way that would suit you. I have no interest in going through my day constantly doing my best not to offend someone or trigger someone. That is not my responsibility.

If you politely tell me during a one-on-one conversation that you don’t want to talk about something for personal reasons, I will smile, agree and then change the subject. However, demanding that a class can’t touch on a certain subject defeats the whole purpose of the university.

It shouldn’t be the university’s job to protect you from potential discomfort or distress. In fact, it should do the opposite. If you don’t squirm in your seat during a lecture at least once during your time in college, then the university is not doing you a favor.

While most of the time rhetoric, which seeks to establish safe zones, is done from a compassionate point of view, recent scholarship has found that certain aspects of the trigger rhetoric is doing little in the way of helping people cope with trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Evidence compiled by the Committee on Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder from the Institute of Medicine found that avoiding potential triggers can actually prolong PTSD. They found that frequent exposure to traumatic memories reduced PTSD symptoms. The medical researchers found that by confronting triggers, victims were able to better overcome traumatic memories and PTSD.

An article published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress by two medical researchers from Harvard University found evidence that when people make their triggers and abuse an important part of their personal identity it actually prolongs PTSD and recovery.

So, in the end, creating safe zones and avoiding triggers would not only be harmful for a learning environment, but it also carries potential harm for those trying to
overcome PTSD. Places where victims can feel safe from bad memories and distressing conversations should always exist. However, the campus should not be one of them.

I think this guy from Reed was clearly being disruptive and disrespectful. Nevertheless, if there ever comes a day when a student is thrown out of class for expressing controversial opinions that might contain triggers, that would be a sad day for higher education.