This summer, the University of Chicago sent out a welcome letter to its students that many perceived to be offensive, insolent and outright disrespectful. The offending letter boasted the university’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” It illustrated this commitment to freedom through its lack of support for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.”
The letter read: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” The fact that the University of Chicago views inclusive measures like trigger warnings as antagonistic to academic freedom reveals that the university’s administration has no understanding of what trigger warnings and safe spaces actually are.
A popular perception of trigger warnings indicates that the trigger warning is a form of censorship used by the archetypical “sensitive college student” in order to avoid encountering content with which they disagree. This perception is incredibly flawed. It ignores the reality that trigger warnings do not censor content, and actually make certain content far more accessible to people struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other mental illnesses.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “trigger warning” as “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).” Trigger warnings are usually used in the context of PTSD, cautioning those who suffer from it of upcoming content that might cause a panic attack or flashback. The trigger warning prepares the listener for any distressing content without actually censoring the content. In fact, these warnings involve far less censorship than traditional film, TV or book rating systems, which restrict the buying and selling of material based on inappropriate content. Trigger warnings do not restrict the potentially triggering material; they merely provide a warning for it, which PTSD sufferers or other individuals can use at their discretion.
Safe spaces are another frequently misunderstood facet of university life. The Wikipedia page for “safe space” provides an uncommonly succinct and complete explanation of the history of the concept of a safe space: “In educational institutions, safe-space[s]… originally were terms used to indicate that a teacher, educational institution or student body does not tolerate anti-LGBT violence.” The webpage then goes on to explain that “the term ’safe space’ has been extended to refer to a space for individuals who are marginalized to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization, typically on a university campus.”
This definition of “safe space” does not restrict the expression of ideas. It restricts the expression of personal insults or violence, which have never belonged in an academic setting. When participants in a discussion are discouraged by safe space rules from flinging insults or employing violent rhetoric, everyone involved in the discussion benefits. Without personal attacks, the ideological value of the debate increases, since all students feel safe enough to express their ideas in a respectful manner.
The University of Chicago’s affront to “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” for the sake of freedom of expression is paradoxical. When the university bashes “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” it closes its doors to students with mental illnesses and constrains meaningful academic discourse. Their commitment to “freedom of speech” silences marginalized people. It creates an unsafe and disrespectful environment which dedicates itself to exclusion rather than freedom. Without the inclusion provided by safe spaces and trigger warnings, meaningful, open academic discourse cannot occur. If the University of Chicago understood that, its students would inhabit a much more intellectually free and challenging environment.