In the past weeks my newsfeed on Facebook has been filled with articles about safe spaces and trigger warnings. My impression from the headlines and comments alone is that most people are understanding these things differently than I and my colleagues do. Very briefly, I understand a trigger warning to be a kind of heads up that the topic to be discussed will go into graphic detail about a topic, e.g., rape, that may “trigger” past trauma. The point being to allow someone who is not yet ready to hear, much less discuss, their experience to bow out—for even if they are not explicitly the subject of the conversation, if the subject concerns their kind of traumatic experience, it is their experience under discussion. I have not had occasion to use trigger warnings in my philosophy classroom simply because I have not discussed topics that deal with trauma. There seems to be some confusion or worry that trigger warning are used to allow students to avoid hearing things that make them “uncomfortable.” However, if some use them that way, that is unfortunate, but I do not have reason to believe it is the norm. There is, of course, a huge chasm between the uncomfortable and the traumatic. I’m guessing that most teachers would catch on that something disingenuous is up if they gave a trigger warning and half the class walked out.
Similarly with safe spaces: there’s a ton of confusion. Unlike with trigger warnings, I have used the phrase, “I consider this classroom to be a safe space.” What I meant and what I said to my students was that that means people can speak up, share their thoughts and experiences—fully be themselves—without worrying about being ridiculed, made fun of, or otherwise made to feel bad for what they have said or who they are. It most definitely does not mean that we won’t be discussing difficult or controversial material or material that will make them uncomfortable. As a philosophy professor, I don’t believe I’m doing my job unless I’m leaving my students confused if not also uncomfortable. Confused because I believe that they cannot deepen their understanding of the world and themselves without first working through confusion. Uncomfortable because my philosophy classroom is not about telling them how things are, but rather challenging them with questions they wouldn’t otherwise be asked to consider.
Enter an intro to biology classroom and you can expect (I’m guessing) to learn fairly definitive things like plant cells have cell walls, animals cells don’t; mitochondria do this, organelles do that. Not so the philosophy classroom. This is one reason why the movie God’s Not Dead was so ridiculous: any philosophy professor worth anything is not going to stand there and tell you: this is how things are. As Rilke said to a young poet, you’ve got to live the questions. So we raise questions about God existence, God’s goodness, the relationship between mind and body, about what constitutes the good life, the nature of justice, and on and on. A variety of possible answers are canvassed but not in order to say: this is how things are. They are already too full of: this is how things are. This throwing of themselves and the world into question without coming back down definitively in any way makes many students terribly uncomfortable.
And yet, the classroom where I hope to introduce my students to a world of lived questioning is the ultimate safe space. I, they, we are safe to put everything on the table, to question the most cherished and sacrosanct beliefs. It is a safe space because we are free to do this without fear of retaliation, whether verbal or physical. (One reason why so many professors, including myself, are uncomfortable with conceal and carry being allowed on campuses and in the classroom.) This doesn’t mean that things don’t get heated or that feelings aren’t hurt. After showing the first episode of the web series “Mr. Deity” in which the problem of evil is brought up in a funny as hell way, I had a student nearly jumping out of her seat with her hand raised. When I called on her, she was obviously very frustrated and said passionately, “I just want to say that that is not how it happened!” She was certainly right, but that wasn’t the point, of course, of the video.
It’s true that there may be gray area or fine lines between what is healthy questioning of someone’s beliefs and what is ridicule. My student may have felt that the video ridiculed Christianity. However, the issue in this case, I think, is that she did not like the feeling of having her religious beliefs questioned and was uncertainty how else to respond. And there is a vital difference between a humorous video that could be interpreted by some as ridiculing their beliefs and a situation in which a person shares their personal religious beliefs and I or another student says they are ridiculous or stupid, etc.
Again, unlike so many situations/places in life—the internet, the kitchen table, the Thanksgiving table, the subway, the office, etc.—the philosophy classroom is a safe space where we can challenge every idea, every thought, practice, and belief system without worry of ridicule or violence, without being made to feel stupid. This is one reason I enjoy teaching intro philosophy classes so much. There are not so many opportunities in life to safely call into question everything that a person believes. Many students are put off by it and I’ve even had students tell me they don’t like philosophy because they don’t like “thinking so hard.” But at least some students in every class light up when they are given the space to question the things that everyone around them, including themselves, has taken for granted their whole lives. In my classroom they are given the permission to step back from themselves and their conception of the world. For at least some of them, this is incredibly freeing, incredibly liberating. To me, it is incredibly beautiful to behold.