There are times when I am simply stunned (by the way, that has been considered a derogatory term – I can recall in primary school, some pupils asking others, “Are you stunned?” meaning, “Are you stupid? A dunce?”) by the arguments put forth by some for “safe places,” and “trigger warnings” in universities. It has got to the point in some circles, where even discussing the merits (or lack of them) of so-called safe spaces and/or trigger warnings is considered “offensive.” Some apparently even see it as a lack of respect or lack of empathy to someone who has experienced a “traumatic” experience.
I for one don’t deny that traumas occur and can have dramatic effects on individuals. I’ve experienced more than a few traumatic experiences in my life. That doesn’t make me special, but it does mean I have some experience with trauma. I also get “flash backs” from one in particular – responding to a call of gunshots and being first on the scene to discover a young person shot in the head. His brains were oozing out on to the sidewalk. And I was pretty much helpless to do anything except remove my jacket and put it over his shivering body while we waited for the ambulance to arrive. I still have flashbacks from time to time, recalling how utterly helpless I was to save this individual.
Perhaps I should have posted a trigger warning alert before writing about that experience.
I’ve also had a few other traumatic experiences in my life that have included spending the better of a four year period as a child on strict bed rest and having to use a wheelchair when mobility was required. I had to learn how to walk all over again – and I did that on my own, against “Doctors Orders” at Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto.
As a teenager, I experienced the shame (to me) of being sexually assaulted by another man, and I know first hand how these predators operate.
I am not writing about these traumatic experiences to ask for your empathy or to read your “Sorry for your experiences.” Indeed, I can recall from back in high school, some of my school mates expressing a sentiment of being sorry for my earlier illness and its consequences; but deep down, I actually felt embarrassed when the sentiment was expressed. I don’t doubt for one minute that they were genuine – but my perspective was that I was Very Happy to somehow have managed to overcome the illness and could walk when I had been told that I might never walk again. I also believed that the experience actually gave me some positive ways to look at life in ways others could not. In high school, I tended to try to make friends of some of the friendless and defend those who were bullied or made fun of for their own background or physical limitations. Yes – bullying did go on back then as well.
The reasons I am including my experiences is to show that I do have some ideas of what many people go through.
The Problem With Empathy
Actually, there is no problem with empathy, and it’s a very important human characteristic and one I value. I wish more of our law enforcement types understood and had empathy. I remember following the trial of Constable Forcillo in Toronto who shot a knife wielding young man. During the trial, Forcillo mused, “If you are pointing a knife and are refusing to do what I say, why will things magically be OK if I ask if he wanted a glass of water?”
I wanted to exclaim to Forcillo, “We don’t know if it would be magically ok, but you’re showing empathy and in doing so, immediately changing the dynamic of your relationship with Sammy Yatim (the man who was shot). You’re coming up with a surprise element that Yatim likely was not expecting. Yes, offering a glass of water while showing empathy could have changed the outcome of that event completely.
On the other hand, I don’t believe that empathy ought to be a consideration in universities when teaching difficult material. Universities ought to be places where professors and students have the freedom to express ideas, regardless of how some might find them offensive or “triggering.” Indeed, it seems to me that many students have missed out on some basic philosophy: that words and symbols are merely the expression of ideas, and neither ideas or words are “things.” A word or symbol in of itself cannot be offensive unless there is some offense in the mind.
Additionally, every word has at least two meanings. If someone uses a word in a way that expresses an idea that they are communicating, but you stubbornly refuse to accept that meaning of the word, and insist that somehow the word is “offensive” because you are refusing to consider other ways it can be used, it is you that is being childish and probably ought not to be in university. You are actually refusing to learn about other meanings that a word can have.
Learning and facing up to this fact – that words are merely an expression of ideas – might actually be helpful to you in your road to overcoming traumas. If you have been traumatized in life, that is your goal, isn’t it? To get past being a victim of trauma, and to find ways to thrive in life, despite your experiences? I don’t care what your therapists tell you: The best way to overcome your trauma is to meet them head on. Demanding empathy of others, and thereby requesting or forcing them to alter educational content is NOT going to help you get over your traumas.
Words indeed can have power – until one grows up and recognizes that words are expressions of ideas. You may not like the ideas being expressed, you may not agree with them, but so what? Are the only ideas that ought to be expressed are the ones you agree with, or that give you warm fuzzy feelings inside? Or only words that you’ve decided on because you reject that they can have more than one meaning?
You can never ever change this truth that words are expressions of ideas. If they offend you, it is you that needs to take ownership of your offense that is in your mind. Stating this is not a lack of empathy on my part. It’s just a simple fact. If by pointing out this fact, it offends you, that is your problem. It does not mean I am not an empathetic person. It does not mean I don’t have empathy for your traumas or life situations. While I do think empathy is very important, valuable, and a quality I admire, I have a higher value of defending the free expression of ideas.
In fact, I believe that the freedom of expression actually leads to more empathy and I respect your freedom to talk about your traumas and express them. When you, as a person who claims trauma or marginalization, demand a limit on words that are acceptable, or a limit on expression of ideas, so that no one’s feelings are “hurt,” you’re actually being tyrannical.
You are infringing on my right to hear someone else’s ideas, because you don’t want them to express them because of your “feelings.” How are your feelings more important than my right to hear someone’s ideas, just because they hurt your feelings?
On The Importance of The Expression of Offensive Ideas
I’ve changed my own beliefs over the years, dramatically. Some of my friends and family who have not come along on the same journey as I have, don’t appreciate how my core values and beliefs about many things have changed. That actually could be “trauma” for me; and indeed, sometimes it has been traumatic.
Reading and hearing the expressions of ideas that I once found offensive at one time motivated me to deeper thinking about my own premises. They challenged me, and I am glad those expressions were not censored. Some of those ideas expressed “hurt my feelings.” But those were my feelings, and I am the one who needs to take ownership for the projection and emoting that was in my mind.
There are also many ideas expressed that I have issues with – and would never support, but I support the right and the freedom of their authors to express them. Some of their ideas have motivated other ideas in me, and further argument and support for “negative rights” of human kind. I have learned to enjoy controversial subjects, and have learned, within myself, to not emote or project over them. I support and will continue to support the satire of anything, even so called “cherished beliefs.” If you want to regulate that, then perhaps a better place for you is in a cave; you can try to regulate it and you might be successful for a time, but you’ll never ever be able to universally and totally eliminate the expression of ideas that offend you.
The freedom to express offensive ideas is vital. It is vital to learning, it is vital to you, and indeed, to individuals who have somehow felt repressed or traumatized, this defense of freedom of expression of even ideas that might be “offensive” is vital to you.
It is vital to defend the expressions of that which you vehemently disagree with. Or even are offended by. And you ought to also have the freedom to express your own opinions – and the can all be tested by logic and checking premises.
Look.. don’t emote on what I have written here. I’m a man that’s had a challenging life at times. I’ve been in a wheelchair. I’ve been sexually abused. I’ve seen people die. I saved a son from being adopted out. I am not an “unfeeling” person but when it comes to the expression of ideas, feelings have nothing to do with it.
I invite offensive ideas. I often toss away those that have premises I know to be invalid, but I still accept their right to be expressed.
I’m very worried about this new idea of limiting expression based on “feelings” and trauma some have had.
Please feel free to comment and show me where I am wrong.