The Problem with Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings
Updated: Aug 28, 2021
There is a rampant movement afoot today on many college campuses to sensitize the public through safe spaces and trigger warnings. A trigger warning is a warning beforehand that content is potentially traumatic or offensive. An example would be a verbal warning about the novel Huckleberry Finn that it contains child abuse, racism, and so on. Safe spaces on the other hand are places where there will be no triggers, everyone will empathize with and affirm each other’s statements.
Anyone who violates the need for trigger warnings and safe space is purportedly displaying extreme insensitivity to others, bordering on “violence.” The predictable result of all this is a smorgasbord of emotional reasoning and even witch hunts to weed out those who differ.
The predictable result of all this is a smorgasbord of emotional reasoning and even witch hunts to weed out those who differ.
Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote a stunning expose a few years ago of this recent phenomena. They say that these demands result in a coddling of the American mind. The Safe-space approach reflects a belief in the fragility of the mind, one that is contrary to the classic view of education. Why is this? Well, according to the safe-space mentality, any information that runs counter to what a person feels or holds dear is intolerant or even violent. The classic vision of education, on the other hand, promotes the clashing of different ideas and visions of life. Ideas must be tested and tried, not simply felt and avoided. J.S. Mill once described the classic view of education when he said, “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” But with the need for trigger warnings and safe spaces, an opposing side to many arguments can rarely be voiced. If it does, it is quickly labelled and put onto the shelf of intolerance.
Not only is the safe-space vision contrary to educational values, it also is contrary to sound psychological principles. Haidt and Lukianoff point out that this attempt to protect the traumatized from small events that could bring to mind trauma will do the opposite of help. This is because research shows that traumatized people need these small challenges related to their trauma in order to heal. They ought not be shielded from disturbing ideas or content.
Protecting the traumatized from small events that could bring to mind trauma will do the opposite of help.
But one of the most disturbing aspects of trigger warnings and safe spaces is their promotion of emotionally based reasoning. Emotional reasoning means assuming that one’s negative emotions reflect the actual world. And as we all know, that often is not the case. Encouraging emotional reasoning even runs counter to the research on cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, an empirically verified approach to mental health that helps individuals develop coping strategies to deal with psychological pressures.
Emotional reasoning means assuming that one’s negative emotions reflect the actual world.
CBT shows people how to identify irrational reasoning and replace it with rationality. The idea is that if people can understand their own negative patterns of thinking, they can begin to identify when they are in the throes of emotional reasoning. Once they name the emotion, they can begin to think more clearly. One example of emotional reasoning is catastrophizing, thinking that if something happens, it will be absolutely disastrous. Another kind is fortune-telling, reasoning as if one knows the outcome ahead of time. Yet another is mind-reading, assuming you know what another person is thinking. A great example of this is when someone claims to know what another is thinking or their true intentions. The list goes on. For a more complete list see the bottom of Haidt and Lukianoff’s article.
Once they name the emotion, they can begin to think more clearly.
It occurs to me that understanding emotional reasoning will help us fathom a key aspect of our current society. People are often more comfortable expressing their feelings than calmly considering an issue. Social media only adds to this tendency when it constantly encourages us to post about how we feel. Civil conversations on crucial topics are rare on social media.
We know from experience what happens if we try to discuss contentious issues rationally on these platforms. Inevitably an emotional reasoner comes in and makes it almost impossible to proceed. But emotional reasoning is destructive and irrational; it needs to be redirected into healthy reasoning. And this in turn produces healthier emotions too. So what is the answer? The answer is: start with yourself. Each one of us needs to tackle our own proneness to emotional reasoning. G.K. Chesterton was once asked, “What is the problem with the world?” he answered, “Me.”
CBT or, in other words, good reasoning, is a helpful deterrent to much of the emotional turmoil and division today. If we can identify when we slip into emotional reasoning, we can work towards healthier communication and relationships and, thus, more human flourishing. Avoiding emotional reasoning can also help everyday problems, such as conflict with co-workers or spouses. So let’s seek to become better thinkers instead of infants who think with our emotions. That process begins with the realization that not everything we feel matches up with reality, and it continues with better education about what constitutes healthy thinking.
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