Pete’s Dragon, Trigger Warnings, and Safe Spaces

I took my son to see the new Pete’s Dragon movie. (It was good.) It got me thinking about trigger warnings, but not in the way you might think. (Mild spoilers ahead.)

Just before Pete’s parents die, his mom says something complimentary to him. Then, years later, the new mother-figure in the movie says almost the exact same thing to him. From the way his eyes light up and soften, you can see the emotional impact that statement is having on him, bringing back all his feelings for his mother and binding him more strongly to this new woman. The idea that she’d make the same statement may seem far-fetched. But Pete’s reaction isn’t. The moment depends on us recognizing the power of only a few words to build these powerful, positive connections for Pete.

If we believe this can happen with positive emotions, why is it so hard to understand that this might be the case for negative emotions? More specifically, why can’t we recognize how easily a few words or a difficult topic might bring back a past trauma in a way that feels very immediate and interferes with the learning process. That’s not the positive frisson of encountering new or alien ideas for the first time. It’s a negative experience of reliving in a new setting – one that we expected to be safe – an old trauma. It’s hard to imagine that such an experience would do anything but impede learning.

Those who argue against trigger warnings and safe spaces seem to do so from positions of great privilege. Like me, many of them are white, heterosexual, married men with a steady job, a good education, and no history of experiencing sexual abuse or violent trauma. They have plenty of safe spaces to return to each day, including their homes, their jobs, and perhaps their own classrooms – where they control the atmosphere and content. I share all those traits. And yet I can imagine at least in a small degree what it might be like if I didn’t.

My mother died when I was only 22. It was the long, agonizing, hopeful and then hopeless, battle with cancer. It was hard; it is still hard. But for me it is pretty manageable as far as traumas go. And yet, for years, I couldn’t read anything in which a key figure was dying of cancer. It was just too painful. If something like that had been assigned in a class it would have been traumatic for me. I don’t know how I would have handled it. It didn’t happen and I don’t think the failure to face that particular challenge in any way weakened my education. So I don’t buy the arguments that others who have been traumatized must face those subjects in academic settings in order to show they are ‘serious’ about learning, nor that ‘serious’ institutions of learning should force students to do so. Encountering new ideas, even distasteful ideas is one thing. Reliving trauma is something else entirely.

Recently I read A Monster Calls. It was a wonderful piece of literature and one I’ll be passing along to my brothers. In reading it, I was able to face my own experience in a way that was positive and healthy. Significantly, I was able to do it in my own time and on my own terms. I hope we can learn to let our own students deal with their trauma in similar ways and make sure our classrooms are safe spaces for those who might not otherwise have them.

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