I care much more about people being safe than I do everyone feeling safe. And yet, in our culture today, we seem to have this backwards.
While we, as a country, stubbornly refuse to take action on things that would decrease the violence and actual harm that is perpetrated, especially to marginalized populations, we are increasingly treating painful feelings or thoughts as dangerous or harmful.
“Trigger warnings” abound, reinforcing the idea that certain feelings are dangerous and must be avoided. What are meant to be “safe-spaces” turn into echo chambers, shutting down any diversity of perspective or thought. And while I choose to believe that these attempts started with good intentions, the data coming out suggest that they may actually be doing more harm than good.
Research coming out of Harvard University suggests that trigger warnings may actually result in increased anxiety and increased stigmatizing beliefs (including self-stigma) around certain groups of people. These findings are consistent with the general premise of Lukianoff and Haidt’s thought-provoking and controversial best selling book The Coddling of the American Mind.
One of the main concerns I have with this trend is that it has a strong potential to backfire. We are shutting down dialogue in a way that doesn’t allow for the opportunity for repair or understanding. We are increasing the “us” versus “them” divide and in doing so we lose valuable allies. In striving to create “safe spaces” we end up creating more segregated, homogenous spaces.
We, of course, all feel most comfortable around people who we perceive as being “like us”, that think like we do, believe in what we do, share similar life experiences, or even look like we do. So if the aim is to make sure I “feel safe,” I’m ultimately going to close myself off to anyone who differs from me. And in the end, the people that will be most harmed are not those in power, they will be the most marginalized voices in our community thereby perpetuating more actual threat and harm.
Rather focusing on creating spaces where we all feel safe, what would happen if we focused on engaging with one another from a place of openness and respect, where we welcomed and embraces a diversity of thought, perspective, life experiences, and beliefs? In doing so we are almost certainly going to step on each others’ toes. We are going to say or do things that are painful to others. But if we are willing to remain engaged even while we feel that pain, we allow for the possibility of healing and learning.
If you’re interested in learning more about how discourse might, in the end, create more actual safety than silencing does, I’d encourage you to check out the resources at the National Institute for Civil Discourse
and the Center for Nonviolent Communication