Recently ranked the 4th best college in the nation, the University of Chicago issued a letter to its incoming freshman class. In this letter, the dean warned incoming students that “we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ . . . and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.'” The measure was introduced by the University of Chicago College Republicans after three speakers were interrupted by protests throughout last semester. The University has interpreted the interruptions as a violation of freedom of speech and an inhibition to academic freedom.
I’d like to examine the extremely problematic assumptions that the University has made in issuing this statement. The first assumption is that safe spaces somehow degrade the integrity of intellectual discussion, and equate to being able to, as they put it, “retreat from ideas.” Safe spaces have nothing to do with retreating from ideas and everything to do with surviving. Safe spaces are not about surrounding oneself with “like-minded people” but protecting oneself from harassment and in some cases, physical violence. People of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community often find themselves in situations where they do not feel safe emotionally, physically, or sexually. This is not because of their “sensitivity” or lack of exposure to misogyny, homophobia or racism, but their constant exposure to ideas that threaten and invalidate their right to live freely. If you are not a member of a group that experiences targeted harassment or violence, whether this is based on gender, orientation, or race, it is understandable why you would not see the importance of safe spaces.
Lastly, I would like to examine the importance of trigger warnings. Contrary to popular belief, trigger warnings aim to protect people who have experienced, abuse, sexual assault, and other types of trauma from being caught off guard and reliving these experiences or suffering from other symptoms of PTSD. Here are a few examples: Letting your veteran neighbor know that you will be setting off fireworks for the Fourth of July, running a quick disclaimer that a news article or video contains graphic and disturbing content, or perhaps telling your class that the next reading contains descriptions of rape or domestic abuse. I would label each one of these examples as compassionate rather than oppressive, but I also care about whether or not those around me feel safe because I know what it is like to experience trauma and suffer from PTSD.
I think failing to recognize the importance of safe spaces and trigger warning results from a lack of experience. That does not mean that I would ever wish trauma, oppression, or abuse upon any person, but there is a dissonance between those that have experienced it and those who have not. Instead of criticizing the tools that minority groups have created to feel safe and protected, The University of Chicago and other critics of safe spaces and trigger warnings should consider why they feel threatened by a person’s attempt to feel safe in the face of trauma and oppression.