College Safe Spaces & Trigger Warnings: Are They Counterproductive?
By Luke Redd
| Last Updated June 23, 2020
This is one of the most important—yet divisive—issues of our time. Microaggressions, content warnings, and safe spaces on college campuses have ignited serious debate about the merits of trying to protect the minds and emotions of vulnerable and marginalized students. Do these concepts empower all college students and represent progress in the fight against bias, oppression, and discrimination? Or are these ideas well-intentioned but misguided, threatening to undermine some of the main goals of higher education, harm students' future well-being, and erode our democracy?
The answer depends on who you ask. It may be too early to tell whether the spread of these ideas is having an overall positive or negative effect. One thing is certain: Nobody wants to live in fear because of their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, or past trauma. Everyone deserves the opportunity to get a college or university education without being harmed, harassed, or discriminated against.
But some people believe that enacting the concepts of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and microaggressions may promote a culture of shaming and victimhood that tears people apart, hinders free speech on campus, stifles intellectual growth, and makes students less emotionally resilient. Instead of moving forward to a more just, equal, and harmonious society, we may actually be moving backward—causing deeper divisions and allowing the roots of hate and oppression to grow stronger.
That's why it's so vital to understand the complexities of this issue. We have the chance to create a better world for students of every background—the kind of change that lasts. But we have to be smart about the methods we use to get there. Real progress will require courage and a willingness to embrace uncomfortable and counterintuitive ideas. Here's a guide to get you started:
- What are microaggressions?
- Is the push for emotional and intellectual safety in college doing more harm than good?
What Are Microaggressions?
Chester Pierce, a psychiatrist at Harvard University, coined the term microaggression in 1970. But according to an article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the concept didn't gain a broad audience until psychology researchers from Columbia University wrote an article in 2007 that began to influence people in the mainstream academic community. However, exactly what constitutes a microaggression is still fairly murky. It depends on the perception of the person being "aggressed" or on the guidelines of a particular college, university, or workplace.
In general, a microaggression is a subtle action or statement that indirectly or unintentionally makes someone from a marginalized group feel that he or she is being vaguely attacked, insulted, or discriminated against. So a white person asking someone with dark skin where he or she is from is an example of a microaggression (of the racial variety).
Similarly, females and transgender people can experience gender microaggressions. And this kind of subtle, often unintended, insult can also be experienced by people with disabilities, economically disadvantaged people, gay and lesbian people, and people with nonconforming gender expressions, as well as by people who practice minority religions, come from non-Western nations, or identify with other marginalized cultural groups.
(In contrast, a macroaggression is an action or statement that openly demeans an entire group of marginalized people on a larger scale. One example would be a political leader publicly implying that Latino immigrants can't be trusted.)
There are three main types of microaggressions:
- Microinsults are statements, actions, or environmental cues that subtly communicate animosity or a lack of compassion. A microinsult is unintentional, but it makes a person wonder whether he or she is being demeaned.
- Microinvalidations are interactions that convey the sense that someone's feelings, thoughts, or experiences don't matter. A microinvalidation is also unintentional, but it is experienced as a subtle exclusion or denial of a person's importance or legitimacy.
- Microassaults are small yet deliberate actions or statements that are meant to make someone feel demeaned or excluded. A microassault is always intentional.
So two out of the three kinds of microaggressions are unintentional. The "aggressor" usually has no idea that he or she has said or done anything offensive or demeaning. And the person on the receiving end often feels slighted without knowing exactly why.
At first blush, such microaggressions might seem insignificant. But experiencing many microaggressions over an extended period of time may add up to genuine harm. After all, each incident can make you feel hurt, angry, confused, unworthy, or even worn out. That's why some researchers believe that people who are frequently on the receiving end of microaggressions can experience consequences such as:
- Mental health problems
- Decreased physical well-being
- Reduced productivity
A lot of people have a hard time grasping this concept, especially those who come from privileged upbringings or aren't part of groups that have been historically oppressed or marginalized. In fact, microaggressions—in the workplace, at school, or just about anywhere else—tend to occur because many of us are unconsciously biased, even if we consciously believe that everyone is equal and worthy of our respect.
So we may inadvertently express unconscious bias in situations where we mean no harm at all. Some of the things we say or do might seem innocent to us but come across as offensive to those who have lived under the clouds of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other types of oppression or marginalization. Even statements that we mean as compliments or simple matters of curiosity can sometimes be taken as hurtful or disrespectful.
That's why it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with a lot of microaggression examples, which are easy to find online. For instance, many people take advantage of social media websites to share the microaggressions they've experienced. Such websites can help you see the kinds of actions or statements that are often perceived as offensive.
Your daily interactions with people—whether they be classmates, teachers, coworkers, friends, neighbors, or total strangers—may have more potential for unintentionally offending someone from a marginalized group than you realize. So, depending on the particular person and situation, additional examples of microaggressions in everyday life include statements like:
- "I should introduce you to my gay friend."
- "I can't figure out how to pronounce your name."
- "You're very articulate."
- "You look so young."
- "What other languages do you speak?"
- "I think we can all succeed if we work hard enough."
- "It's amazing, you don't look like a transgender person."
- "I don't see color when I look at you."
- "You people make me laugh."
- "Why do you wear a headscarf?"
- "You cope with your disability so well. You inspire me."
- "Is your hair really that long and smooth?"
- "Where were you born?"
- "Wow, you don't look disabled."
All kinds of actions can also be perceived as microaggressions when directed at people from marginalized groups. Here are a few examples:
- Assuming someone's race, gender, or sexual orientation
- Confusing the names or identities of people who are part of the same minority group
- Suggesting that someone is lost or in the wrong location
- Mistaking someone in a store, hotel, or restaurant for a service worker
- Ignoring or refusing to accommodate someone's religious traditions
- Minimizing someone's mental illness
- Interrupting someone and making his or her ideas sound like your own
- Clutching your possessions extra tightly as someone approaches you
- Questioning the validity of someone's experiences
- Imitating a person's accent or way of speaking
- Expecting someone to represent the opinions of an entire minority group
- Assuming that someone with a disability or mental illness is less competent or capable than you
In addition, everyday life can be full of environmental microaggressions such as:
- Movies and television shows with predominantly white characters
- Team names and mascots that use Native American symbolism
- Advertisements that feature white people as the ideal of beauty or success
- Institutional buildings named only after privileged white males
- Political debates in which the needs of marginalized groups are ignored or disregarded
- Public schools in minority neighborhoods that are comparatively overcrowded and underfunded
- Corporate boardrooms that display the portraits of past directors or CEOs who are all male and/or white
Why the Concept of Microaggressions Is Controversial
Even the simple act of questioning this concept might be considered a microaggression by some people. After all, if you believe that microaggressions are real, then you may feel offended by any criticism of that belief. But the science behind implicit bias and microaggressions is hotly debated. The Perspectives on Psychological Science article notes that although most researchers agree that subtle displays of bigotry do happen, fewer of them agree about the scientific validity or real-world usefulness of applying the concept of microaggressions to everyday situations.
For one thing, microaggressions are completely subjective. One person may take offense to a particular statement, whereas another person from the same minority group may perceive no insult at all. The whole concept hinges on the unpredictable and wide-ranging feelings of individuals. Under identical circumstances, one person may feel like a victim; another one may not. And almost any statement or action could potentially offend someone.
For another thing, the very term "microaggression" suggests that a person is intentionally trying to harm someone else. It implies deliberate violence and hostility. But most so-called microaggressions are accidental. In most cases, people aren't consciously trying to hurt or offend anyone. Oftentimes, their motivations are just the opposite. Yet, if someone feels victimized, he or she may respond in a truly aggressive way, causing the other person to react defensively—and creating unnecessary tension or ill will.
Also, some people are just more prone to perceiving hostile intent in others. But the concept of microaggressions may be expanding the number of people in society who feel victimized since it encourages us all to be on the lookout for subtle insults and suspect the worst when we aren't sure about someone's motivations. From that standpoint, the concept isn't particularly constructive or psychologically healthy. It makes everyone more defensive.
On the other hand, one researcher pointed out that objective scientific study of microaggressions isn't easy to carry out. And trying to apply rigorous scientific standards to this concept may inadvertently minimize the genuine experiences of marginalized people in our society—people who deserve to be heard and understood. Plus, we can all benefit from being a little more aware of how what we say and do may reveal our unconscious bias.
Microaggressions have the potential to serve as starting points for meaningful and enlightening dialogue. But instead, they too often serve as reasons to erect new walls or deepen existing divides. In fact, many self-deemed victims of microaggressions take offense at any suggestion that they should help educate those who've offended them. Rather, they frequently believe that their "aggressors" should already know better. So they lose the opportunity to help transform other people's ignorance or thoughtlessness into awareness and understanding (without shaming them).
How to Avoid Being a Microaggressor?
Regardless of your self-awareness and good intentions, you're bound to accidentally offend other people from time to time. It's part of life. Human communication is imperfect. Even long-time friends and spouses struggle with misunderstandings and doubts about each other's motivations sometimes. So the best thing you can do is pause and think a little more deeply before choosing your words or taking action.
Ask yourself: Do the words or actions you're contemplating carry a certain assumption about the other person? What kind of impact could they have on that person? Might you be coming from a place of unconscious bias, even though you see yourself as a good, moral, non-discriminating person?
In a lot of situations, your best course of action might be to say nothing at all. Rather than thinking about how certain words or actions wouldn't offend you, try to see things from the other person's perspective. Is it possible that he or she has had very different experiences in life that deserve your validation? Being receptive to other people's realities—no matter how different—is vital if you want to cut down on the number of microaggressions you commit.
Since microaggression in the workplace and at school is such a hot topic, many employers and institutions of higher education host or conduct workshops on the subject. In general, microaggression training is a type of group instruction that's designed to raise awareness about implicit bias and help participants learn techniques for avoiding and responding to subtle verbal, behavioral, or environmental insults. Some schools and employers also distribute lists of specific microaggressions to avoid.
What Are Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings?
All of us want and need places where we can feel comfortable recharging mentally and physically. For most of us, that means we don't want to be around people who irritate us or make us angry. We need to feel like we have some personal space and the ability to avoid outside threats and annoyances.
But many college and university students who live on campus have a hard time satisfying those needs, especially if they have roommates. For students who are part of marginalized groups, that challenge can be particularly daunting. No matter where they go on campus, they may be confronted with people or ideas that provoke them or cause emotional distress. Simply put, they may feel triggered on a regular basis.
Today's college students generally define triggered as a state of being offended or emotionally wounded by some outside cause. An emotional trigger is a person, idea, or situation that makes someone anxious, afraid, sad, angry, or distressed in some way. A triggered student may even experience pain or other physical symptoms.
Some students can even be set off by reading or hearing a certain word. As just one example, "violate" is a trigger word for some people who have been sexually assaulted. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may also experience disturbing flashbacks when they are triggered. (PTSD can cause a victim's brain to hold on to painful memories and bring them forward as nightmares or daytime terrors.)
All of this is why creating safe spaces on college campuses and issuing trigger warnings for certain kinds of course material has become a growing trend. Many marginalized students are demanding that their schools and professors do more to protect them from intellectual and emotional distress.
So, what exactly is a safe space? And what is a trigger warning? You're about to find out.
Originally, safe spaces in universities and colleges were rooms where marginalized students with shared backgrounds—such as female, black, or LGBTQ students—could temporarily meet to discuss their problems and experiences in a private, exclusive environment. But increasingly, the typical safe spaces definition is expanding to include permanent living quarters for students of particular cultural groups.
Today, safe spaces in college are meeting places and residential halls where students of like backgrounds can, to some extent, segregate themselves from students of other races or cultural identities. In some cases, only one kind of marginalized group is in a safe space. That way, students can relax and interact with each other without the fear of being taunted, challenged, or attacked because of who they are or what opinions they hold. The idea is that marginalized students deserve shelters they can retreat to when they don't wish to engage in open or challenging discourse elsewhere.
Harvard has safe spaces on campus. And so do several other colleges and universities. The trend is fairly common, despite strong opposition at some schools. In one survey, about 36 percent of college students agreed that safe spaces are definitely needed.
College safe spaces are different than the "safe places" that you might have seen signs for throughout various communities. "Safe Place" signs mean that certain community buildings and businesses are part of the National Safe Place Network. At-risk youth can go into a designated safe place and get immediate assistance from an employee if they are in a crisis situation or need guidance and support.
Also, a college "safe zone" is a bit different than a safe space. On many campuses, safe zones are fully inclusive environments where marginalized students are welcome and supported. They are places where staff, volunteers, or participants have completed special training or made other efforts to truly support student diversity.
Also known as anti-bias training, safe space training is individual or group instruction designed to help people better understand and become more sensitive to the issues faced by one or more marginalized groups (such as LGBTQ students). Similarly, a safe space kit is something that can help an educator create a learning environment that is more welcoming and inclusive. Kits typically include helpful guides, resources, and visual communication tools like stickers and posters.
A "brave space" is basically a different kind of safe space. Also called a "free speech zone," it's any place where students—of any background—can feel somewhat protected in openly discussing ideas, expressing themselves, and challenging each other's opinions and beliefs. That's because brave spaces are often defined by certain ground rules like being respectful, not taking things personally, and agreeing to disagree.
Colleges typically define trigger warning as an alert—issued by a professor—about something within a book, video, presentation, discussion, or other type of course material that may cause a student to experience intense emotional distress. A "content warning" is basically the same thing. Trigger warnings are for giving students a heads-up that they will be exposed to content that includes words, references, or graphic images related to things like:
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Racial violence or other forms of brutality
- Racist, sexist, or homophobic ideas
- Suicide or self-harm
- Eating disorders
The idea is that you prevent a trigger by providing advance warning and offering a choice to either brace for possible danger or avoid the content altogether. But what is triggering for one student is rarely triggering for more than a small minority of other students in a class. And it can be impossible for a professor to predict all of the subject matter that has the potential to trigger one or more students.
Since mental triggers can cause emotional trauma for certain students, some professors err on the side of caution by removing anything from their courses that could be remotely problematic. But teaching to the most sensitive student in a class can deny the other students a full learning experience. The majority of students may miss out on the personal and intellectual growth that happens when you engage with uncomfortable subjects.
Plus, trigger warnings essentially signal that certain content is dangerous. In effect, they tell students how to feel about certain course material instead of giving them the opportunity to experience it without preconceptions and arrive at their own conclusions.
How this will all play out going forward is anyone's guess. Some college and university administrators believe that you manage triggers by having professors follow official policies on content warnings. However, in a nationwide survey of college educators, fewer than one percent of them said that their schools had adopted such policies. That contrasts with the 15 percent of students who had requested trigger warnings at their schools.
Is the Push for Emotional and Intellectual Safety in College Doing More Harm Than Good?
When it comes to deciding whether to support student requests for trigger warnings and safe spaces, college and university administrators are in a tough position. On the one hand, marginalized students certainly deserve to live and learn in a welcoming environment, free from harassment or discrimination. And some students do have mental health issues, such as PTSD, that warrant special consideration—perhaps even content warnings. On the other hand, embracing a new paradigm of emotional reasoning may encourage mindsets and behaviors that actually damage students' well-being, limit their potential, and hold society back from a more harmonious future.
After all, discomfort affects every person on the planet in some way. It's a part of life, no matter how much we wish it wasn't. And we can't simply demand that everyone change overnight in order to ease our particular kind of suffering. Lasting change—grounded in what's morally and ethically right—doesn't usually happen all at once. Sustainable progress tends to happen slowly, often with temporary setbacks.
In the meantime, we must share this planet with other human beings, who each feel their own kinds of pain and have their own dreams, values, and expectations. We are all in this thing together. And, yes, that makes life messier than anyone wants it to be.
So as you explore the issues of microaggressions, safe spaces, and trigger warnings in college, consider this: Actions borne by our noble intentions can sometimes have unintended consequences that run counter to what we're striving for. That's why, as we strive for true social justice and equality, it's wise to think about the possible effects of embracing these concepts on a larger scale.
Effects on Students
Being triggered is a highly charged feeling of having been provoked or attacked (non-physically) by something or someone you wished to avoid. Although that kind of feeling is uncomfortable and sometimes frightening, in most instances, it is unlikely to damage you. Even if you've experienced a traumatic event in the past, the real power of a trigger lies in your desire to avoid it. The longer you avoid possible triggers, the longer the effects of your past trauma are likely to stick around.
Psychological research and real-life clinical outcomes support the idea that you deal with triggers by exposing yourself to them, little by little, until they stop causing you grief. That's why trigger warnings may actually be counterproductive, especially if a choice is offered to completely avoid certain content. Trigger warnings have also been shown to increase students' perceptions of their own vulnerability and to boost students' beliefs in the vulnerability of trauma survivors. Simply put, trigger warnings may make students less emotionally resilient.
Think about what that means in the context of a campus environment where safe spaces are encouraged and microaggressions are policed by students and/or college administrators. Might all of this create a culture of victimhood in which students see dangers nearly everywhere and therefore develop a stronger desire for constant protection? What does that do to their mental health, relationships, and long-term ability to cope, let alone thrive, in a world where no place will ever be 100-percent safe?
Learning how to deal with adversity is what enables human beings to grow stronger. And exposure to challenging ideas and diverse opinions is what helps us become critical thinkers—people who are able to examine our own beliefs and change them when the facts or circumstances demand it. We can learn a lot from those we dislike or disagree with.
So if you really want to understand the world, you have to immerse yourself in it and stay open to the possibility that you may be wrong. Your identity must be fluid enough to change when necessary. And you must recognize that the world will always be filled with ideas, words, and people that you don't like and cannot control.
Those who leave college with a victim mentality and a strong yearning or expectation for intellectual or emotional protection are likely to feel constant disappointment in the real world. Outside of college or university, people and employers generally aren't too sympathetic to those who feel so easily threatened or aggrieved.
Success usually requires the recognition that your subjective feelings aren't necessarily a reflection of reality.
Effects on Freedom of Speech
Both on and off campus, free speech gets stifled when anything that students find offensive, triggering, or contrary to their worldview is equated with a form of violence against them. After all, if you feel under attack by other people's words or expressions, you may feel justified in defending yourself with actual violence. Or you may encourage public shaming of your "aggressors," even going so far as to call for them to be removed from school or fired from their jobs. Fearing those kinds of reprisals, a lot of students and professors err on the side of caution and avoiding sharing their viewpoints, even when they may not be particularly controversial.
But in response to student demands, some colleges and universities have adopted policies that restrict what people can say—or where or when they can say it. Campus speech codes are rules that prohibit certain kinds of expression that, elsewhere in society, are protected by the First Amendment. For example, any language deemed to be "offensive," "demeaning," or "intolerant" may be banned. And any protests or demonstrations on campus may only be allowed in a college "free speech zone," which is a designated place where students can gather to publicly express their grievances or viewpoints (as long as they get permission in advance to do so).
But federal courts continue to rule that free speech on public college campuses is a constitutional right. That's why college speech codes at public institutions are especially controversial; they violate the First Amendment rights of students who are on public land. Still, there are exceptions.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in many cases that so-called "fighting words" are not protected by the First Amendment. Fighting words are generally defined as a type of speech that is intended to incite immediate violence or lawless action and that is highly likely to actually result in such action being carried out right away. In general, both conditions must be met. So even if someone gives a speech advocating violence against a minority group, that speech may be protected—unless it is directed at spurring immediate violent action.
Obviously, hate speech makes people angry and uncomfortable. Most of us do not condone such ugliness, regardless of our backgrounds. But in public spaces, expressions of extreme viewpoints are mostly protected under the First Amendment. They test our resolve to uphold the Bill of Rights, which seems to be weakening with each new generation.
According to one survey, 40 percent of millennials believe that the government should have the power to stop people from saying offensive things about minorities. That compares to 27 percent of Gen Xers, 24 percent of baby boomers, and 12 percent of those in the Silent Generation. In another survey, 61 percent of college students agreed that their campus culture stops some people from expressing their viewpoints. Yet only 56 percent of students agreed that it is extremely important to protect free speech rights for the sake of our democracy. In fact, most college students support the idea of campus speech codes.
The problem is that many students now equate any expression that doesn't match their particular worldview to fighting words or hate speech. They push to have their colleges ban or disinvite certain people from speaking or sharing their art on campus—even many popular comedians. If a potential speaker, performer, or artist has said or done anything before that is considered remotely offensive, there's a good chance that he or she won't be allowed on certain campuses. (Even if he or she is invited to a particular school, student protestors may try to shut down the event.)
The result is that everyone on campus receives the same message: Certain viewpoints are not welcome. And you'd better be "pure" in your commitment to a particular cause. Within a lot of groups, any sympathy for "the other side" is not tolerated. If you acknowledge that someone from the opposition has a valid point about something, you risk being ostracized by your group. So when free speech gets suppressed, critical thinking does as well.
Students become champions for more and more restricted speech. And professors fear that they will lose their jobs if they dare to challenge their students with "offensive" ideas or opinions. So opportunities to understand other people's perspectives and gain wisdom from their interactions are lost.
It's easy to lose sight of this fact: Freedom of speech is a requirement for true equality or any other kind of ultimate good. If we want real social justice in our society, then we must insist on freedom of thought and expression for everyone, even those who hate us. And we must trust that our values can withstand and overcome challenges in an open and fair marketplace of ideas.
Banning certain kinds of speech doesn't make them go away. It makes unwanted ideas go underground, where they simmer and boil under pressure—eventually erupting with greater force when a popular and charismatic leader comes along to lend those ideas some legitimacy. So, it may be better to let the "uglies" shine spotlights on themselves than to drive them out of sight where they can grow and fester incognito (only to emerge later on with surprising power and support that's hard to contain).
Effects on Society
In societies that are sharply divided, the oppressed sometimes become the new oppressors. After all, it's a normal human desire to want vengeance if you've been wrongly harmed or subjugated. It's only fair, right? But instead of a truly equal or harmonious society, we end up with one in which the only thing that matters is your side winning. The conflict never ends; it just gets more and more heated.
Self-righteousness becomes second nature. We each feel morally superior in our ideological beliefs. And we become quick to shame or silence those who offend us with their ignorance, inferior beliefs, or insensitive actions. It's a recipe for deeper divisions, greater tensions, and more frequent hostilities, which sometimes erupt in violence.
It's true that many people hold beliefs that are on the wrong side of history. They aren't comfortable with the speed of change happening around them. They fear becoming the newly oppressed. But shaming them or being hostile toward them in other ways only makes them defensive. And it often confirms the stereotypes they hold of certain kinds of people being crazy, unreasonable, untrustworthy, or even tyrannical. Instead of becoming open to the possibility that they are wrong, they become more convinced than ever that they themselves are right.
Plus, in a culture that embraces safe spaces, trigger warnings, and the idea of microaggressions, people are often incentivized to express or demonstrate that they've been victimized. In this type of culture, social credibility and status often accrues, automatically, to self-identified victims and those who support them. A mob mentality develops among those who wish to enact swift justice on the wrongdoers. With the speed of online shaming, there is little time for critical thinking or analyzing the evidence. What if the victim is exaggerating or being wholly dishonest?
When everyone so fiercely defends their own moral, political, cultural, or ideological identities, collaboration becomes almost impossible. Outrage is constant. Major problems remain unsolved. Eventually, our democracy may collapse—or turn toward tyranny or authoritarianism before its ultimate demise.
That's why putting so much effort into trying to vanquish microaggressions or keep everyone emotionally safe may prove to be disastrous. Policing minor slights and protecting ourselves from being offended may prevent us from doing what is truly necessary—working together to address big issues like climate change, poverty, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and so much more.
How to Cope With Feeling Unsafe
When someone triggers you, it means you may be holding on to your identity, memories, or individual expectations too tightly. Experiencing a psychological trigger is something that can reveal a lot about how you're coping in a world that won't conform to your particular thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes. For instance, you may have underlying anxiety or a condition like PTSD that could be improved with professional treatment. But that can only be determined by a qualified mental health professional. (You can't expect a professor to take on that kind of role.)
Plus, for most people, medication isn't the only treatment option. You may discover that certain forms of therapy help you face life with less fear or trepidation. For example, a lot of people benefit from therapies such as:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—A type of mental health intervention that helps people change distorted or unhelpful thinking patterns in order to make progress toward their goals
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)—A type of counseling that's aimed at helping people become more psychologically flexible so that they can move forward without avoiding the feelings or situations that trouble them
The goal is to find a way to live life without avoiding your triggers, perceiving things as worse than they really are, overgeneralizing the people or ideas you don't like, or exaggerating the significance of certain things. In short, you probably don't need to rely on safe spaces or trigger warnings. Rather, you can seek help that empowers you to actually live and thrive without those so-called protections.
After all, nobody really has a right to not be offended. But we all have the right to learn how to peacefully coexist in a world where possible offenses lurk around every corner.
How to Be a More Effective Social Activist: 9 Wise Tips
Protesting, shaming, and silencing aren't the only non-violent ways to support a certain cause. You can also write essays, maintain a blog, create podcasts and videos, support and vote for enlightened politicians, have civil discussions with your "enemies," or even perform stand-up comedy. In fact, when you consciously choose a strategy of creativity and generosity instead of opposition, a whole new world of potential connection and empowerment reveals itself.
Of course, backing away from a strategy of opposition may not feel natural. But it may be the very thing that finally creates momentum and progress toward the lasting change you want. It's certainly better than pushing things closer and closer toward violence, which should always be the absolute last resort (and ideally would never be used at all).
Here are some of the most effective ways to be a social activist or change maker in a splintered society that is growing more divided:
1. Visualize Your End Goal
What is your ultimate aim? Are you hoping to conquer your enemies so that you can oppress them? Is your goal to establish your own form of tyranny? Or do you want true equality, liberty, and the opportunity for everyone to achieve happiness?
If peaceful coexistence is part of your vision, then why in the world would you use hostile tactics to make it happen? Why would you insist on segregating people or censoring certain ideas?
You can try to force change (or your own brand of morality) on other people, but it probably won't last. Hostility breeds resentment and further hostility. So if your end goal includes peace and liberty, you'll need to find ways to build bridges and establish some common ground instead.
2. Don't Avoid Your Monsters (Approach Them With Kindness)
This definitely requires courage, and it won't feel comfortable. But it's important to remember that most people, no matter how much they bluster, have some insecurities. They live in glass houses just like the rest of us. They are flawed, stressed out, and suspicious of those who aren't like them. Yet, they also yearn for genuine connection.
That means countless opportunities exist to reach out and start dissolving the barriers that perpetuate ignorance and conflict. After all, if we stay in our own protective bubbles, those barriers continue to grow stronger, making compromise, collaboration, and understanding virtually impossible. Goodwill is the only thing that can truly overcome other people's defenses.
It happens person by person, from the ground up. So you don't need to start with the entrenched leader of a movement you oppose. Rather, it's usually more effective to start performing gestures of goodwill among the everyday people you meet and interact with, especially those who disagree with your values and ideals. Show them that, even though you disagree, you care about them as human beings and want to share this world peacefully. Show them that you yourself are not the monster they may perceive you to be.
Obviously, you need to be careful in situations that are clearly dangerous. People who wish to engage in immediate violence probably aren't going to be so receptive to your overtures of goodwill. But you may be surprised at how easy it can be to start breaking down the defenses of someone who has professed hatred for you or people like you.
For example, Özlem Cekic, a Danish politician who was born in Turkey to Kurdish parents, regularly has coffee or meals with people who have sent her hate mail. As she says, "We are living in a world where many people hold definitive and often extreme opinions about the others without knowing much about them." She also says, "If you want to prevent hate and violence, we have to talk to as many people as possible for as long as possible while being as open as possible. That can only be achieved through debate, critical conversation, and inspiring dialogue that doesn't demonize people."
Watch her must-see TED Talk:
3. Seek First to Understand
This is part of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for a reason: It works. Without understanding, there can be no breakthroughs. Listening attentively to someone who disagrees with you or has wronged you is one of the most graceful yet powerful actions you can undertake. So instead of trying to drown out other people's messages or immediately erecting a barrier by acting hurt and offended, invite them to explain themselves. Then, actively listen to what they are trying to share and convey.
And this is critical: Stay open to the possibility that you might be wrong—at least on certain points. Also, maintain eye contact. Keep your body posture open and loose. Repeat what you believe they are saying, in your own words. And ask questions that help clarify what they really mean. (Always remember that few people have the ability to articulate their thoughts as well as they would like to. They may not share your vocabulary or know how to say things without offending you, at least at first.)
You may think, "Is this really possible? How can I listen to people who are so wrongheaded? Why should I even try?"
Here's why: Because you want them to understand you and hopefully change as a result. That can only be achieved by making it a two-way exchange. And you have to be the one who makes the first move.
How do you get into the right headspace for this act of goodwill? By refraining from passing judgment. As Charles Eisenstein writes in his thought-provoking book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, "…let us not pretend that we are better than these people. Judgment toward them reflects only our lack of understanding, not any fundamental difference in our core being."
Eisenstein goes on to explain how incorrect we are when we believe that, if we were in the shoes of someone we judge or look down upon, we would do things differently. He writes, "A substantial body of experimental evidence shows that this statement is false, that in fact if you were in the totality of his circumstances, you would do exactly as he does."
That's why one of the best ways to dissolve barriers and start understanding someone is to ask, "What is like to be you?" Learn more in this clip from Oprah's interview with Eisenstein:
4. Separate the Person From the Words or Misdeeds
When people make us angry, it can be hard to recognize their humanity. It's easier to demonize them and their ideas. But if we want peaceful coexistence, we need to remember that they are human beings just like us. Fundamentally, we are all more alike than different. That doesn't mean you have to condone everyone's behavior or accept their worldviews. It just means that you can be a more effective agent of change if you challenge a person's actions or ideas without attacking his or her humanity.
This simple shift in mindset can make a huge difference. It leaves space for connection and for the other person to find common ground with you. Person by person, you can open new doors to understanding—even with those who have a long history of ignorance, hatred, or oppression.
Daryl Davis, an African-American author and musician, embodies this idea well. He engages with and even befriends members of the Ku Klux Klan, many of whom have stopped holding white-supremacist views after being regularly challenged by Davis through civil discussions and simple acts of friendship.
See how Davis is successfully changing minds in the documentary Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America. It's available on Netflix. Or if you're in the U.S., you can watch it online at PBS. Here's the trailer:
5. Explain Where You're Coming From
After validating other people's humanity and giving them the opportunity to share who they are and why they believe certain ideas or behave in certain ways, you'll probably have a chance to explain your own side of things. They'll be much more receptive if you've already demonstrated a genuine willingness to truly know them and have a civil dialogue. This is your opportunity to be understood by them.
Acknowledge their experiences. Validate their emotions. Remind them that your intent is not to pass judgment. You are in this place of connection to learn from each other and perhaps find a constructive path forward. Try to appeal to their egos and values, put your feelings into words, and direct their attention toward what you have in common with each other—all while gently challenging their stereotypes. For example, you might use phrases like:
- "In my experience…"
- "Here's another way to perceive…"
- "I may not be taking this the right way, but it stung when you said…"
- "I wonder if you're undermining your own values, since it seems like you truly care about…"
- "Did you know you have several things in common with…?"
- "I bet if you worked together, they could help you with…"
- "I feel like I'm getting to know you, and you're too smart to…"
6. Avoid One-Upmanship
To be an effective agent of change at the personal level, you really need to set your ego aside. That means avoiding the temptation to elevate your suffering above other people's or make them feel guilty about their privilege. Here's the reality: There will always be somebody who has had it worse than you. And trying to figure out whether or not you are truly more oppressed than the person you're engaging with isn't very helpful. We've all experienced suffering.
So don't embarrass yourself or ruin the progress you've made by assuming that you've had things worse because you're part of a historically marginalized group and the other person isn't. Turning a civil dialogue into a competition about who the real victim is won't help you find solidarity. It will only give the other person a reason to continue seeing you as a stereotype.
7. Embrace Humor
People who laugh together tend to care more about cooperating with each other than those who resist any kind of humor in their interactions. Laughter can promote empathy and help heal divisions. After all, a little tasteful humor can ease tensions and foster a sense of being part of a positive shared experience.
So look for opportunities to share a laugh. And don't be afraid of making fun of yourself as a way to break the ice and lower everyone's defenses.
8. Don't Demand Purity or Perfection
Expecting other people to fully buy in to your worldview is naive at best and destructive at worst. Many social activists derail their opportunities for progress through infighting or demanding that those who adopt their cause remain 100-percent committed to a certain set of beliefs. That leaves no room for necessary changes based on new facts or information.
It also demonizes people on your own side for making simple mistakes or daring to acknowledge any valid opinions by the opposition. And it creates unnecessary obstacles for those who are curious about your cause and may want to slowly transition to a new worldview while understanding that they won't be perfect at living by it.
9. Let Go and Be Patient
Lasting social progress doesn't usually come all at once. It takes time to change hearts and minds. Sometimes it takes many generations. But every single person has the opportunity to plant hundreds, if not thousands, of seeds over the course of a lifetime. You have to trust that your efforts will pay off, even if you never get to witness the full magnitude of your impact.
And always remember that even those with the most extreme viewpoints can eventually see the errors of their ways. Never write people off just because they don't immediately change. Give them second, third, and fourth chances if necessary.
For added inspiration, check out this amazing TED Talk by Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church. Listen for why she eventually left the infamous hate group:
Help Light the Way to a Better Future
We all deserve a chance to thrive. And, yes, society gets messy. But by being kind to yourself and others, open to understanding, and willing to engage with those who disagree with you, you'll be well on your way to creating a harmonious life.