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Politicising Empathy: On Safe Spaces, Mental Health, And Chicago

02/09/2016 15:34 | Updated 02 September 2016

Last week, the University of Chicago sent out a letter to its incoming class affirming its commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom - and against mandatory Trigger Warnings; turning universities into "safe spaces"; and the worrying trend in the US of disinviting commencement speakers when they're considered too controversial (a fate which notably befell former Dutch Parliamentarian and critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis). Such an attitude could not come quickly enough. In Missouri, a "safe space" for protestors meant that journalists should be prohibited, with the infamous Melissa Click attempting to have them forcibly removed, and Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis's criticisms of Trigger Warnings and defence of professors having relationships with their students led to an opaque investigation by her own university. In the UK, similar controversies are nothing new, with even Peter Tatchell targeted for no-platforming by the NUS's LGBT Office, ironically for opposing no-platforming, and Germaine Greer targeted for her views on transgender issues - even when not scheduled to speak on the subject.

In such a climate, it's little wonder that the Chicago letter proved controversial. To clear up one misconception from the outset, however, the University released a follow-up statement that it would be up to professors whether Trigger Warnings would be used in classes rather than either banning them outright, or indeed making them compulsory (which, contrary to some of the letter's critics, does appear to have happened in some American universities). While students are certainly free to request such warnings, professors should be equally free to deny these requests - and to do so without automatically being assumed to lack empathy or compassion. Sadly, such responses have been quite prevalent on social media in the aftermath of the letter, with supporters derided as such in what seems to have become little more than a trope for sections of the activist Left. What this ignores is the simple fact that one can be empathetic and compassionate and yet oppose trigger warnings, "safe spaces", and no-platforming - and that empathy and compassion are not simply political buzzwords.

To take "safe spaces" first, the first thing to remember is that students are, of course, free to set up such spaces if they wish. Problems, however, quickly arise when the spaces in question also promise to allow for some measure of free discussion. In Oxford, for instance, the infamous Cuntry Living group cast itself as perhaps the premier (and certainly best-known) space for discussion of feminist issues. That is, until you happened to disagree with the group's administrators on whether, for instance, there could possibly be another motivation than sexism to a political cartoon not featuring any female party leaders.

More problematic still is when it is demanded that universities themselves become "safe spaces". In the first instance, it's never quite clear when a space becomes "safe", but if you're Nicholas Christakis the process of ensuring this involves being screamed at by students who insist your place of work is their "home" because your wife sent an e-mail suggesting that Halloween costumes not be taken too seriously. If you're Brendan O'Neill, it means you can't present a pro-choice argument in a debate on abortion purely because you're a man, and if you're a woman you shouldn't be allowed to make a pro-life argument. And if you're Maryam Namazie - an ex-Muslim feminist and self-identified Marxist - not only will it involve disruption of your talk by Islamists, but the Feminist Society will stand with them over you. It seems abundantly clear that to make a space "safe" for one group will necessarily preclude it being so for another - especially when actual violence - is used to enforce it, so it should be little wonder why many are loathe to see universities, where free thought is supposed to flourish, declared as such.

Similar objections can be levelled at the use of trigger warnings in universities today. While there are certainly cases where a professor may wish to add warnings to their material, today, trigger warnings can be found for anything from Pokemon, to the Women's Equality Party, and even "mentions the [General] Election" in the wake of the 2015 election in Oxford. Ironically, it is those who question the general utility of trigger warnings - and attempt to do this with evidence of how a culture in which they are ingrained can make recovery more difficult (cited multiple times in The Atlantic's seminal piece on the subject) - are accused of mocking the idea, when it is the proliferation of clearly-unreasonable TWs that has done far more to turn a device designed to prevent attacks of diagnosed illness and trauma into little more than an ideological laughing stock.

However, trigger warnings are not simply denigrated by over-proliferation, but by the overtly political way in which many are used. It is far from uncommon to see "TW: racism" or "TW: ableism" or even "TW: Zionism", as if their purpose is to prevent exposure not simply to traumatic themes when this can cause an attack, but rather to any idea with which an activist may disagree. Alternatively, maybe it is indeed being seriously suggested that people with mental health issues are so fragile that merely listening to an opposing view will cause irreparable harm - and then we wonder why mental health stigma persists. Moreover, it invites ideas to be pre-judged and discarded before one has even read them, and ultimately, as the upcoming book "Why Academic Freedom Matters" points out, invites a culture where our first response to ideas which make us uncomfortable is to try and avoid them rather than engage with them. Part of the point of a university is surely to broaden one's mind and arguments; it's not a parent-free Seventh Form for one to be spoon-fed the required material to become a lawyer or a doctor.

The end result of all of this, ostensibly in the best interests of those with mental health issues (as if, when one in four students will experience these problems, they can be said to be a bloc for whom activists can claim to speak) is ultimately a culture of infantalisation, where play-doh and puppy videos are offered as an alternative to sitting through a debate to its end if your "deeply held beliefs" are challenged, and where censorship becomes the go-to suggestion for accommodating mental health on campus. It is a culture whereby far-left activists again assume they know what's best for the full quarter of students affected and to speak on their behalf (despite the diversity of those affected), just as with other groups, and a paternalistic saviourism anoints such people with a duty to "protect" people with mental health problems from anything remotely disturbing, which is unlikely to be good for recovery in the long term, or ending the stigma of mental illness.

Most disturbingly, it is a culture whereby any critic is assumed to have no mental health problems themselves. It is far from uncommon for critics of trigger warnings in particular to be patronisingly "educated" (aka, talked down to) about panic attacks (thereby assuming they have never experienced one, or told that they must never have experienced mental illness. In fact, many critics of safe space and trigger warning culture themselves have suffered from mental illness, and more still likely do but choose not to disclose it to the world - and nor should they have to, precisely because they shouldn't be assumed to have no such problems purely on account of disagreement.

One's measure of empathy and compassion - or one's presumptive mental health, for that matter - cannot and should not be judged on the basis of whether they agree with proliferating trigger warnings or politicised "safe space" saviourism. As ever, the debate is not between ignoring mental illness versus accommodating it, but between those who disagree on the best way of achieving the latter. Then again, when empathy and compassion are turned into political buzzwords, failure to appreciate this by those anointing themselves the spokespeople of those with mental health issues should not be surprising.

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