Over the summer, University of New Mexico administration updated its employee training. In doing so, the University entered the fray of a debate that has been dominating the higher education landscape recently, one centered on balancing meaningful discussion on uncomfortable issues while taking into consideration what might be considered a “trigger” for some people.
The problem is that, on a national scale, the debate is being presented as black and white — as if such a balance cannot possibly be achieved.
Last month, the University of Chicago made headlines when its Dean of Students wrote in a letter to freshman that they should not expect “intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” emphasizing the importance of free speech and academic freedom.
That approach was then criticized by the president of Evergreen State College, who said access to a safe environment is “critical” to a student’s college experience.
In the meantime, various opinion pieces have been written on the subject exploring the question from both sides. How can students expect to grow if they aren’t exposed to uncomfortable and unfamiliar discussion? At the same time, how can students best convey to others the potential dangers of revisiting what may be a traumatic experience through that discussion?
Throughout it all, the term “safe space” has become synonymous with “intellectual solitary confinement,” in which, generally, those who seem too weak-willed to discuss a particular concept should be excluded and criticized for “not being able to handle it.”
This is the wrong mindset to have. Why? Because there seems to be one critical concept being forgotten in the madness — that of perspective.
For hundreds of years, the U.S. university has been a place where any idea can be explored, any concept can be discussed and dissected, and beliefs and norms that are taken for granted can be challenged. It is important that this intellectual freedom be protected. Students should not be shielded from uncomfortable information or opinions, and people with unpopular beliefs must be free to express them without fear of retaliation or ostracism. However, that does not mean that we shouldn’t be sensitive to the experiences and differences of others. We can challenge each other and even violently disagree, and still remain respectful and tolerant.
UNM, through its newly-implemented employee training, is rightly taking the side of precaution, and applying that responsibility to its employees. And while the training is focused on how employees can help foster an open but tolerant environment, students can learn from its focus as well.
In essence, the training emphasizes the importance of thinking and acting towards people as individuals with their own experiences, opinions, and possible insecurities.
In even briefer summary, the training is all about perspective; about taking stock of someone’s experiences, political affiliations, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation. When considering these differences, one can see that it will be next to impossible to find someone who thinks exactly the way you do, especially on a college campus.
These things are especially relevant on a diverse college campus. Like right here at UNM. It is possible to achieve a balance between taking part in multi-layered discourse and avoiding what might be a trigger warning for someone else, because, again, it’s about perspective.
It’s a simple concept, one we all learned in kindergarten and have had many years to master: the act of putting ourselves in others’ shoes.
In doing so, we’re on our way to being more inclusive, to engaging in vital discourse while taking care not to subconsciously project our own identities and impressions onto someone.
This isn’t a black and white topic, contrary to what the national debate might suggest. There is a line between disagreeing with someone and trying to understand a difference in mindset, and disagreeing with someone, putting our foot down, and refusing to acknowledge their experiences.
Fox News, in recently criticizing portions of the updated UNM employee training, refuses to see things from other than its own perspective, thus shutting off an important avenue for discourse. They represent one group that wouldn’t be affected by some things that the training warns against, and one-sided thinking has never led to effective discussion.
There are countless sub-communities in the larger one that is the University of New Mexico. Some are more established on a cultural and social level, while others have in recent years just begun to have their voices heard. Don’t mistake that youthfulness of inclusiveness for immaturity simply because society may deem it so.
The world is constantly changing, and to understand the myriad of contexts as to why, we can’t forget to place ourselves in the shoes of others. In that way, we can have balanced discourse, where the “safe space” doesn’t allude to an environment of closed-mindedness, but rather one of tolerance.