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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

“Free speech” is no excuse for harm

<n English major and a newspaper editor, free speech is something I care about and value. It’s enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It would be pretty difficult to find either a college student, professor or administrator who would declare themselves opposed to it. So why does it often feel, when “free speech” comes up in academic contexts nowadays, like students, professors and administrators are referring to entirely different ideas by the same two words?

Seemingly every week, I come upon some new impassioned op-ed, in-depth interview or news headline about the current state of free speech on the college campus. “College students don’t understand free speech,” people who don’t know any college students claim. “Professors suppress speech from conservative students,” say people who haven’t been in a professor’s classroom for years. And, most frequently: “Content warnings are bad for free speech,” say people who don’t know what content warnings are.

This argument is the one that frustrates me the most. It seems that people who believe that content warnings (also known as trigger warnings) are harmful think that they create an environment where people cannot discuss challenging material, when this is actually one of the things that they are trying to combat. Content warnings benefit free speech, and this is the crucial point that I think college administrations often do not understand.

To illustrate this point, let’s talk about a condition which, unlike mental illness or having survived sexual assault, is not stigmatized in American society: asthma. I want to preface this by saying that my metaphor is a clunky one; I want use it to talk about the stigmatization of mental illness, PTSD, and other conditions that might be benefited by content warnings, but I don’t want or intend to draw a false equivalency between physical conditions and mental ones.

I have asthma that can be set off by colds and other illnesses. If I feel myself developing a cold, I start using my inhaler in order to prepare my lungs for the flare-up of asthma that is created by the cold. Although I usually still experience the flare-up, preparing myself ahead of time allows me to better manage its effects and continue to go about my daily life. If I don’t prepare myself like this, the flare-up is more severe and is much more likely to impact my daily life.

No one I’ve ever met has found this concept difficult to understand, so I don’t see why people can’t apply the same logic to content warnings—except, of course, for the clear reason that mental health is so stigmatized in our society. Being warned of material that provokes mental reactions doesn’t prevent discussion; it allows people who are affected by certain types of content to take care of themselves and, often, better engage with the material than they could have if they hadn’t been warned ahead of time.

But across the U.S., it’s clear that many colleges and universities see content warnings in a vastly different light. The University of Chicago took the trouble to write to its freshman class last fall in order to state that the university does not support trigger warnings in any way. Protests at colleges like Oberlin and UC Berkeley prompt worried think pieces across the American media. What is it about the concept of a content warning that so frightens these enormous academic and journalistic institutions?

I have occasionally run across the worry that professors cannot possibly predict everyone’s content-warning-related needs, but might be held responsible for this lack of knowledge. It’s true that content warnings can be highly specific, but there are a few that are common enough, especially on college campuses, to warrant inclusion without a second thought. Content warnings for sexual violence, for example, harm no one and help many.

I haven’t personally encountered very much bashing of content warnings at Carleton in particular, but that doesn’t mean that it, and its underlying attitudes, don’t exist here. And I don’t think Carleton is immune to the wider trend in which college students across the country are incorrectly viewed as sheltered and sensitive, when in reality, they are taking the initiative to ask that the same consideration be given to mental conditions that is given to physical ones.

Until administrations and faculties across the country are able to agree with student bodies on the definitions of “content warning” and “free speech” that they are using, I’ll expect to continue to see many heated articles on the subject popping up in my news feed. But I hope we can all agree on this soon. When we do, we might be able to bridge many other gaps in understanding.

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