Op-Ed: Trigger warning — free speech

We are all extremely lucky to be surrounded by our bright peers, friends and families as we graduate this weekend. For a few years, we had the privilege of sharing unique perspectives with each other. I certainly learned a lot, and I look forward to continuing to grow.

Thus, it is unfortunate that some were afraid to share their perspectives on campus. Even if one may disagree, it is important to listen and try to understand. Everyone has value and something to add; yet I have noticed that some of the people most involved in social justice advocacy are quick to judge and feel entitled, certain that they are right and that others are not only wrong but deserve to be shunned, censored and disrespected. In fact, I have spoken with many who are afraid to disagree with activists because they fear that they’ll reply by yelling, rather than respectfully debating ideas grounded in fact.

Many can easily resort to black-or-white, polarizing thinking and demonization, when the reality is far more nuanced and gray; social justice itself is a vague term. For instance, the trigger warning camp and the free speech camp are both right and wrong. Some people can truly become physically sick if they are triggered; thus, it is important to be sensitive. But this is simply the right way to treat our peers, and it should not be forced. People should want to communicate effectively and frame their discussions so that others want to listen. We do not have a right to not be offended, but we should not be trying to offend if we want to get our points across. And sometimes, we just need to relax and live lightly. Activists would hope that their audience is open-minded, humble and respectful; activists should share these traits and be less focused on turf and pride, which often harm their causes.

These are the safe spaces that work — not spaces that require “muscle” to exclude, discriminate and oppress expression. If activists are seeking to change society, they must seek to change individuals. That begins from within, not from censoring the world. To change individuals, one must bridge the gap between them, helping people come together to solve problems, question assumptions and connect, learn and grow. One should never be afraid to express oneself — be it through humor, artwork or fashion — and groups that seek to quell thought, rather than question it, are wrong. We have freedom of speech, not freedom from speech. Government belongs to us; we do not belong to government.

When safe spaces are created for certain agendas and those who disagree are silenced, they become ironically unsafe, and they do not change any hearts and minds. Who gets to decide what’s discussed or what counts as appropriation? After all, for students with suicidal tendencies, a die-in, when activists pretend to be dead in order to disrupt events, could be triggering. For others, simply hearing the term ‘trigger warning’ could be triggering! Clearly, we cannot coddle ourselves away from all triggers and microaggressions.

A balance needs to be struck. And especially on a left-leaning campus, with the majority of faculty identifying as liberal, all perspectives need to be heard. On our campus, advocacy is generally one-sided and often not challenged, leading to an echo chamber of radical ideas. But societies do not change if individuals do not decide to change. We should be challenging ourselves and seeking discomfort in order to grow. The world can be a triggering place, but one can choose, from within, how to not be a victim and how to deal with external stimuli in order to become a stronger, more resilient and more empowered person.

Our century is far more interconnected, and it requires interdisciplinary, integrated collaboration and constructive communication in order to solve problems and think beyond boundaries. Indeed, our newest academic buildings are physically breaking down walls but also breaking the boundaries between fields, faculty and students in order to foster creativity.

I recommend that activists also seek to bridge the gap. Activist groups should not only consider their positions but how they express themselves and the narrative — the framework – that they choose. Words need to be chosen carefully, and efforts need to be conducted professionally. Perhaps, these groups could also implement tangible, practical and productive goals, strategies and priorities, rather than impractical demands. And could they send out surveys in order to measure their success? Tactics are as important as the message, and often, tactics can become the message.

Martin Luther King, Jr. fused his tactics with his message, urging all Americans to bridge the gap between Black and white and love those who hated them. He walked over to his opposition, listened and acknowledged their beliefs and framed his argument assertively but compassionately. Jumbos should lead by this example and reach out to each other personally, with kindness, in order to make a positive impact and change minds. We should be questioning each other with disarming friendliness, not correcting each other with hostile rants.

Few at Tufts are consciously trying to oppress, and attacking them on the basis of their identity is ironically oppressive. For instance, declaring that white, straight, wealthy, American males do not know what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes, so they do not matter, is wrong. This belief would assume that people can be generalized into categories (the opposite message activists present for those who identify into unprivileged groups), and it also means that entire groups of people can be devalued. It is difficult to navigate complex social relationships, but everyone should be valued — none should be valued less, or more.

I certainly need to learn how to listen better, and I have noticed that many of my peers could improve, too. As an example, while Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) may disagree with the ideas of an Israeli speaker, they should not seek to shut down the event, especially if they host controversial events themselves. Also, many SJP members support trigger warnings and safe spaces but not for their events. When walking around campus with fake guns — literally with triggers — perhaps SJP could place warnings around their protest sites for students with PTSD?

Either trigger warnings should be applied to all discussions, regardless of ideology, or they should not be applied at all. Either everyone should be able to express their political preferences, or no one. At Emory University, students were triggered by chalk messages supporting Donald Trump, and many expressed that they were hurt and no longer felt safe. Of course, their emotions are valid, but they should not lead to censorship. Plus, perhaps the Trump supporters also felt unsafe, because their chalk messages were drawn at night? I do realize that power and privilege are extremely important factors to consider, and I certainly do not assume that because a group has more power, they’re more virtuous. But I also do not believe that those without power or wealth are necessarily more righteous. However, this is an assumption that many activists share, and it is often how they justify their tactics.

To be clear, activists should be making us uncomfortable, and they should express themselves — including Trump supporters. However, in almost every respect, some of our activists are doing the exact opposite required of effective communicators, which requires a respect for the audience. Good communicators realize that it is not just about their message but about how it is received. They spend their time listening actively, making sure that everyone is heard so that trust and tolerance are built. They speak honestly and assertively, not aggressively, and with more focus, rather than force. They know that communication is about understanding and finding middle ground, not about winning and forcing an opinion, or interrupting, judging, blaming and criticizing.

Perhaps these lessons are learned by the end of one’s college career, but they’re often not passed down. Our transient community recycles the same arguments every year. Our campus bubble may not be broken, but within it, we’re certainly broken records because perspective is not retained, and history is not remembered.

Here is some history: in the 19th century, Jumbo was sent across the newly constructed Brooklyn Bridge in order to convince citizens that it was stable. That physical bridge helped to bridge the social, economic and political divide between New York and Brooklyn, eventually leading to the consolidation into Greater New York. Similarly, rather than demonize and shut out difficult conversations, 21st century Jumbos should reach across the aisle and try to respectfully express sensitive, controversial ideas. The more ideas that are expressed, the better we’ll be informed as a whole, and the more we’ll connect our polarized society.


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