Trigger warnings, safe spaces and common sense.

Scene 1. The postponed drama. Last week the Danish hostage drama series Below the Surface was not aired on BBC 4. There was no explanation offered but I took it to be out of respect to the victims of the act of terror in Carcassonne the previous day, Friday 23rd March. The following week the drama resumed, and the continuity announcer duly offered the explanation I had anticipated.

Was this a trigger warning – a concession to snowflakes, or a sensitive realisation that the content of this hostage drama might reasonably cause distress to friends or relatives still learning details of the tragedy in France? To my shame, the cancellation caught me by surprise. I had been expecting to spend my Saturday evening transfixed by suspense in the safety of my living room. To find another film substituting in that spot made me, instead, think about somebody other than myself.

And that is the point. Though we hear a lot about people who claim their free speech or liberty is infringed by safe spaces, trigger warning, no platforming or policies on hate speech, it is usually from people whose rights and comforts are not generally intruded upon. They are so unaccustomed to having to shift perspective to see the world from another’s vantage point that any attempts to decentralize their privilege appear to them as an unwarranted attack.

So there was the dilemma of the BBC: mild irritation of viewers having to wait for another week to catch up with the drama versus a thoughtless misjudgement which might exacerbate the grief and shock of other human beings. Common sense and consideration point to the obvious choice.

Scene 2. A classroom in a state college in upstate New York in 1990. The class: LING252 Introduction to Phonetics. Topic: The articulation of consonant sounds. The teaching resource was a video with the innocuous title of The Articulation of Consonants. Perfect. The classroom was linked to a central Audio Visual hub which controlled the relay of the video to the classroom at a pre-arranged time. I had chosen the video from the catalogue purely on the basis of the title – I had not viewed it. I greeted the class and briefly reprised the main points of the articulation of consonants to prepare them for the video. And at the appointed minute it started.

The film was in black and white, which surprised me. The credits acknowledged it as a product of the US Veteran’s Administration, which was also unexpected. The film opened with a shot closing in on the profile of a seated man. With no introduction, the next view was a close up of the man’s profile, minus the prosthetic which had covered the missing left side of his face.

There was a clue in the military origin of the film. The subject was clearly a veteran whose gunshot wound to the face afforded students of phonetics an unobstructed view of his entire vocal tract. I was incredulous. I’d never seen anything like this except in an anatomy laboratory. As the man started to talk, and the movements of his tongue, soft palate and lips took shape, a student screamed. Others were momentarily horrified. As the video was streamed from a remote location on campus, I had no means of stopping it. But anyway, it was absolutely the most fascinating demonstration I had ever seen. To their eternal credit, the class hung in with it, and a great deal was learned, on all dimensions.

I didn’t feel the need to stop using that remarkable video though, but I did make sure, on future occasions, that students were better prepared to see it. If this can be called a trigger warning, this is how I went about it. Principally, I tried to make sure they were all able to visit the local medical school’s anatomy dissection laboratory during the course of the module. There they were able to view and handle dissected anatomical specimens of head and neck, larynx, tongue, brain etc. This helped build familiarity and break down the yuk factor. They were better able to visualize how a bullet could cause such a terrible injury, and how a prosthesis might be designed to remediate it. Importantly, they were able to ask questions and make choices about how much they wished to engage with these teaching materials.

Scene 3. Introducing myself to first year students. As a lecturer I held to a principle about coming out as a lesbian to students. There are those who think it is private information and not necessary to share with students. On the other hand, they wouldn’t question the practice of straight lecturers who will inadvertently and unconsciously reveal their sexuality to students. They will mention spouses or children and in other ways cement the implication that they are heterosexual. And this is entirely appropriate and welcome. Students like a certain amount of self-revelation and they appreciate honesty and candour in the classroom. This is denied to the LGBT lecturer who decides to conceal their identity. Not only that, you lose the opportunity – I prefer to see it as an obligation – to be a role model. I really don’t like the term, with its implications that students should want to emulate some supposed virtue, but what I mean is, that at least students see you standing there, reasonably competent at your job, approachable and interested in teaching them.

I would always seize the opportunity to come out at first encounter. Day 1. Introduce myself, teaching and research interests, and then, “As a lesbian I’m very willing to discuss issues of sexual identity with students or support them when they are questioning their sexuality. You can find my contact details on the syllabus and consider my office a safe space for those discussions.” And many did. So what did I mean by a safe space? That a student would not need to fear being judged or derided. They wouldn’t need to explain or justify beyond what they felt necessary. They could rely on finding an older person who had been in their shoes and whose currently stable identity had been tested, interrogated and retrieved from the depths of shame and fear. That did not mean there was an absence of vigorous argument in some of those cases. There was often also discussion of ‘passing’ and covering and how that might protect a person from danger sometimes.

As I have said in these pages before, it is important to remember that the majority of undergraduate students are in their late teens. Let’s also remember that those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender have probably spent their entire childhood hiding their identities and feelings. Schools can be somewhat unregulated spaces of homophobia and sexism. Studies by Stonewall show that 45% of trans teens have attempted suicide and 45% of LGBT teens have been bullied at school because of their sexuality of gender presentation.  Research by me and my colleague Helen Sauntson has shown that when young LGBT teens talk about their school experiences, their discourse is imbued with markers of illegitimation At the same time, our analysis of coming out stories shows that the climate at university offers a more accepting environment where young people can find their identities are validated by the institutional structures (Morrish & Sauntson 2007). Furthermore, the availability of LGBT student societies and organisations can bring about a transformation of confidence and self-worth. Meeting other LGBT young people, sometimes for the first time can be transformative. Research by my partner, Kathleen O’Mara shows that when students work for equality and representation with other LGBT students and  faculty, this can be a life-changing experience (O’Mara 1997). This of course requires acknowledging the organising principles located in identity politics. In this instance, it means realising you are a member of a sexual minority and that you may have faced discrimination and hatred, but you have common cause with others, and together you can effect change.

It should be obvious now that there are institutional and personal dangers when the university spaces occupied by diverse groups are not safeguarded for all. This is documented very recently here and here. Add to that institutional refusal to tackle sexual harassment seriously, and it is no wonder that universities now appear rather intimidating and exclusionary places, and, as a consequence, we see a huge rise in anxiety among students.

There is a tension when universities are required by the Office for Students to meet apparently conflicting agendas: to guarantee ‘free speech’ and to eradicate ‘no platforming’ policies – all at the same time as ensuring equality of outcomes for BME, WP and students of all genders. That goal is unlikely to be met when the campus culture signals that students from these these groups are somehow less entitled to belong.

These contradictions, amplified in the media, are now the subject of a recent parliamentary joint committee on human rights (JCHR) , chaired by Harriet Harman on 27th March. This concluded there was no evidence of a wholesale censorship of debate on university campuses as some media reporting had suggested, but warned “there were nevertheless factors at work that actively limited free speech in universities.”

This report was responding to the annual free speech university rankings published by Spiked Online with its breathless headlines on ‘the new blasphemies on campus’. Among these appear to be infractions of legally-mandated policies (which you might also find endorsed by other respectable employers), such as:

 Free Speech and External Speaker policies

 Bullying and Harassment policies

 Equal Opportunities policies

In the UK, such policies offer little more than a hat tip towards compliance with the law, eschewing any measurable impact on equality and diversity. It is still enough to have the team at Spiked Online clutching their pearls though. A piece by Tom Slater from 28th March refers to ‘transgender ideology’ (whatever is meant by that) and alludes to a forbidding climate for free speech, even if actual prohibition is hard to prove.

Witness for the defence is Jim Dickinson who blasted out a thread of tweets around Christmas time, and followed up with this excellent piece in January 2018 in which he tries to offer a another perspective based around respecting and safeguarding those students “who just wanted to get through the day without having to justify their own identity or existence. And the students who just wanted a heads up if their class was about to discuss something they’ll find traumatic, which without warning would prevent their active participation.”

What if this is not an issue of free speech prohibition at all, but instead an issue of old fashioned values of consideration and common sense. What if defending ‘protected characteristics’ is essential to making sure the academy legitimates the presence of very different groups of people? And what if we decided not to call it infantilisation, but instead recognise it as humanity?



I am grateful to @eSocSci for sending me the link to this thoughtful piece for creating a respectful classroom environment.


One thought on “Trigger warnings, safe spaces and common sense.”

  1. Alas the ‘Prevent’ strategy of avoiding extremism doesn’t really help balance free speech either. Way too much guesswork in what is okay for the current government, or the reporters.


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