If you’re happy and you know it, don’t clap your hands—that’s been banned.
On March 24, organizers of the National Union of Students (NUS) Women’s Conference in the U.K. asked delegates not to applaud , but to use “jazz hands” instead. Clapping was said to be a trigger for some attendees with anxiety.
Trigger warnings are meant to be a way of recognizing the traumatic experiences of others and being sensitive to their needs. In the case of the NUS, the organizers were trying to provide a safe space for their attendees.
It’s a notion that’s been widely embraced on university campuses, with student groups banning actions, events, and speakers that some students—often but not always the ones in student government—find objectionable.
These bans are well-intended and some are absolutely necessary. For example, a ban on rape chants at 101 Week is something that shouldn’t even warrant debate. Joking about violently assaulting other people isn’t acceptable behaviour.
But banning actions as benign as hand clapping is a sign that we’ve waded too far afield.
At private events, it is certainly up to organizers to define what a safe space is for their environment. Ostensibly, lessening the likelihood of exposure to triggers for people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) seems like a kindness. Safe environments are one of the first things a therapist establishes to help someone who has undergone trauma.
However, there is no scientific data to support the idea that PTSD survivors require their entire world to be a safe space. Furthermore, the avoidance of triggers has actually been found to increase anxiety and prolong the effects of PTSD.
Professor Metin Basoglu, head of trauma studies at the Istanbul Centre for Behaviour Research and Therapy in Turkey, has researched survivors of torture, war, and natural disasters. His work focuses on exposure intervention, finding that exposing people to triggers related to what caused their PTSD decreases traumatic stress in more than 80 per cent of cases.
Being exposed to a trigger at a conference is not the same as being exposed within a therapy context. But that’s why this kind of therapy exists: so that people with PTSD can go through everyday experiences like sitting in an audience where people are clapping for speakers.
More importantly, a ban on hand clapping is symptomatic of a larger issue. Every person who goes through trauma will have triggers. This is unfortunate and terrible. But learning how to survive in the world after trauma is a reality of continuing on with life.
The best way that student leaders can support those who have survived trauma is not to insulate them from the world, but ensure that universities are spaces where everyone can get the support they need to deal with anxiety. Rather than pretending a conference can stand in for the safe space provided by a trained therapist, they should ensure that resources available on campus are well-known and accessible.
Furthermore, no one suffers from PTSD because they were exposed to contrary ideas.
At the University of Ottawa, student groups have shut down speaker events because they didn’t agree with what those speakers were going to say. This includes Ann Coulter, Janice Fiamengo, and pro-life groups.
Student governments are shutting down speakers they disagree with all over. In a New York Times op-ed, Judith Shulevitz writes about students protesting a debate about rape culture between Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy. The students created a “safe space” filled with toys and other items intended to provide comfort to anyone who found the debate upsetting.
While discussions of rape can be triggering for rape survivors, the students interviewed were not upset that rape itself was being discussed, but that their ideas were being challenged.
According to the New York Times, one student, a sexual assault peer educator, said she had to leave the debate because, “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.”
This is not what safe spaces are for. Being able to hear dissent is a function of existing in the world. Being able to hear dissent and not feel personally attacked is a life skill. It’s considered a part of thinking critically, one of those things you’re supposed to learn how to do in university.
The decision to ban hand clapping comes from a good place, but it’s misguided. Banning innocent actions and controversial speakers isn’t inclusive, it’s censorship. And this isn’t the direction the modern university should be moving in. Universities should strive to be places where conflicting ideas can coexist, not get picketed off-campus, or silenced by jazz hands.