Regan Detwiler: Justifying our compassionate generation

Thursday, September 15, 2016 - 6:53pm

Over the past year or so, and especially recently with the University of Chicago dean of students’ letter, trigger warnings and safe spaces have become a widely debated topic on campuses across the country. Like every issue these days, it too has become politicized along extremely polarized party lines. I'm here to argue that truth exists on both sides, and in these truths we can find a clear justification for trigger warnings and safe spaces that are so hotly contested.

Social conservatives argue that justifications for trigger warnings and safe spaces reflect a general coddling of college students, while liberals argue we should respect the traumatic experiences of people in general — especially those exhibiting symptoms of PTSD or who fall into marginalized social groups.

Though I don't agree that college students are being coddled with safe spaces and trigger warnings, there's something to be said for the argument that our generation is more openly emotional than generations past. Millennials are often described as sensitive, empathetic and open to change — some argue too much so.

Maybe this is true because of what Princeton professor and New York Times opinion writer Christy Wampole calls "the emotive spectacle" in her new book of essays, “The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation.” Wampole writes, "There seems to be an emphasis on showing people in the process of feeling strong emotions."

Wampole suggests that maybe this emphasis "works in lieu of audience members experiencing real emotions themselves." I'll be the first person to tell you that my generation's habit of assigning emotionally difficult interactions to the realms of texting (versus speaking face-to-face) has a dulling effect on emotions. But I'd like to offer a slightly different argument: With the media millennials have been faced with most of their lives — a large portion of which is likely to have been emotionally focused — it's likely this generation is at least more aware of a wider sample of emotional experiences across demographic groups than generations past.

Wampole mentions, "All of this is staged to toy with our mirror neurons. Somebody wants to use empathy against us." Here Wampole suggests that mass media outlets know we'll feel affected by these accounts and images of the affected person. They're using people's emotional experiences to draw the consumer in, to get as many clicks as possible.

Perhaps millennials, to a greater extent than any preceding generation, have been made the commodities of mass media outlets owned by big corporations and media conglomerates. But maybe there's something redeemable in this kidnapping of our mirror neurons. Maybe the influx of emotional images has made us, at least in part, more empathetic in very real, very deep ways that can allow us to better understand one another across demographic groups.

I say this all only to highlight that, yes, our generation is more openly or outwardly emotional than prior generations. The origins of this could be in mass media's emotive spectacle, it could be in Facebook or it could be a revolt against less emotional previous generations that are seen as oppressive (of such emotions, of marginalized populations). An effect could be that we're too sensitive of each other's emotions at times. But I argue these occasions are the exceptions and not the rules.

So when it comes to trigger warnings, one may ask: What is it people are asking to be warned about, exactly? What is it people are asking to be kept safe from? Groups that come to mind, which can intersect with one another, are the LGBTQ community, people of color, Muslims who walk to class in the morning only to find the words "stop Islam" written on the Diag. These are all groups that face different but interwoven systems of oppression that often manifest themselves in distinct events that can be traumatic for some. To claim trigger warnings and safe spaces are unwarranted delegitimizes these experiences for marginalized groups. To borrow from a recent piece by Daily columnist Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven, if someone says they're hurt, you don't get to tell them they're not.

It is also crucial to consider who, exactly, is speaking out against trigger warnings and safe spaces. At the University of Michigan's 2016 Spring Commencement ceremony, Michael Bloomberg spoke out against safe spaces, trigger warnings and code words, saying, "Microaggressions are exactly that: micro." It's worth noting that Bloomberg is a white male who grew up in a middle-class Boston suburb which was more than 75 percent white. During Bloomberg's time as mayor of New York City, he ran an administration that was, according to Federal District Judge Shira Scheindlin, "deliberately indifferent" toward discriminatory stop-and-frisk policing. Today, Bloomberg is worth more than $48 billion. I'd say it's clear that Bloomberg is hardly one to talk about how universities might approach creating a welcoming and inclusive campus for marginalized groups.

Another recent example whom I mentioned previously is the University of Chicago's dean of students, John "Jay" Ellison. Ellison, also a white male, is the son of an epidemiologist and spent most of his childhood in Georgia (and some of it in a small community in Minnesota that is more than 80 percent white). Here he eventually served as a police officer for four years before finishing his education at Southeastern University, which the Harvard Crimson describes as a "Bible college in rural Florida." While I'd like to avoid stereotyping, Ellison's background makes me doubt the validity of his criticisms of safe spaces and trigger warnings.

Yes, millennials are too sensitive, but we are a generation that is considerate of others. Because of globalization, we are more connected than ever. Many of these sensitivities aim to respect experiences of our friends across demographic groups who've experienced hardship at the hands of systematic oppression built over centuries. And that is something honorable.

Regan Detwiler is a co-editorial page editor of The Michigan Daily.