Controversy Needs No Warning for Free Discussion
We are known as the “swaddled generation.” A generation set apart from the ones before us as we are overly sensitive in how we act, what we say, and how we say it. We don’t want to offend anyone so we often take precautionary measures to avoid doing so. Society tells us to celebrate our differences but to be careful in what you say about them. We are often socially scolded for discussing controversial topics like political stances, race, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, rape, and assault. And, honestly, it’s extremely difficult to exercise the right of freedom of speech while not offending anybody with what you say in the process.
These previously listed topics are incorporated into many college and university courses as well as high school courses for open debate and discussion. Having this material that offers different opinions assimilated into coursework allows students to be engaged and learn the varying perspectives of others. What would college and high school classes be like if there were not topics that challenged your opinion? Why would we avoid learning the perspectives of others by avoiding these contentious topics?
In the fall of last year, John Ellison, the dean of the University of Chicago, sent an email to the incoming class of 2020. The email stated that students "are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn without fear of censorship" and that trigger warnings only allow “individuals to retreat from the ideas and perspectives” of others. College is a place that gives its students the ability to discuss diversity and share their opinions on current events and topics. Putting trigger warnings on classes makes it seem like the material is more serious than it probably is, making students uneasy to sign up for them. It gives the impression that they have to worry about sharing their opinions or that the class will be too emotionally difficult to participate in. And if trigger warnings are soon being applied to high school courses as well, they will pose the same problem.
No matter what the college course is, a student will never have a professor that forces them to sit through a class or make them read a book. College is about having the freedom you didn’t have as a high schooler. But with the same topics being integrated into high school courses, trigger warnings will soon become a controversial struggle affecting our preparedness for the issues of the world outside of education. So if a discussion is making a student uncomfortable or if a book assignment is too emotionally straining, the student has their own personal right to refuse to sit through the class or read the book. Trigger warnings are helpful for students to know what kind of educational course they’re paying for but in the end, it’s limiting our open mindedness and taking away our freedom of speech.
This generation is known for being very cautious in what we do and say to others. There’s a big difference between practicing your freedom of speech and being disrespectful. As future university students and the workforce who are expected to change the world, we shouldn’t be so apprehensive about discussing controversial topics and sharing our opinions, even in high school. That’s how problems are addressed and solved. Why would we label classes with trigger warnings only to limit our right to the First Amendment?
Anna Gosselin is a senior at Hermon High School. She produced this piece as part of the 2017 Raise Your Voice Workshop in Orono sponsored by Maine Public and the Maine Writing Project.
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