As the school year starts, universities are welcoming college freshman onto new campuses across the country. But at the University of Chicago, that welcome has become extremely controversial.
The University of Chicago sent a letter to freshman stating, "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 letter made waves in the national debate about 'political correctness' and freedom of expression.
Trigger warnings are notes placed before content to warn readers of potentially unsettling material. Usually, trigger warnings are aimed at those who have survived significant trauma or have related mental health conditions. They aim to create intellectual safe spaces—as the University of Chicago noted—in which topics considered "triggering" are treated delicately (though this does not mean these topics are cannot be discussed.) Topics for trigger warnings usually include sexual assault, violence, suicide, and addiction. In some cases, trigger warnings have been expanded to include classism and racism, among many other topics.
Why is it important?
As trigger warnings have become more popular, they have been held up as an example of 'political correctness' interfering with intellectual freedom. The accusation defies traditional partisan politics; though often focused on liberal students' complaints, socially conservative students' objections also made news—for example, in the Duke 'Fun Home' controversy.
The trigger warning controversy asks the question, where is the line between creating a safe and productive learning environment and stifling the difficult and sometimes troubling process of learning itself?
Was the University of Chicago right to oppose trigger warnings?
Trigger warnings prioritize emotion over education. At their worst, trigger warnings gut a meaningful education by making optional anything that might contradict or complicate a student's current point of view—the goal of education itself. Other schools should follow the University of Chicago's example.
Even if materials with trigger warnings are not made optional, the warnings still harm intellectual pursuit by encouraging faculty to remove works from syllabi and setting infantilizing standards. In one heinous example, a policy at Oberlin (now tabled from the outcry that followed) noted that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart might “trigger readers who have experienced racism" and professors should "remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” Instead, the school could have embraced the book as a required tool to openly discuss issues of race in America.
Perhaps most significantly, trigger warnings feed the damaging idea that offensiveness can be determined objectively as opposed to being a subjective feeling that can—and must—be discussed for true education to take place.
By opposing trigger warnings, the University of Chicago is also limiting true mutual respect in an educational environment, one that acknowledges different backgrounds and perspectives and works to include them in conversation.
As a group of University of Chicago professors wrote in an open letter, "the history of “safe spaces” goes back to gay, civil rights, and feminist efforts of the mid–20th century to create places protected from quite real forces of violence and intimidation. They also served as incubators of new ideas away from the censure of the very authorities threatened by these movements."
The University of Chicago does publicly support the creation of "safe spaces" in dorms and mentoring situations, but seems to think these are different from "intellectual safe spaces" created by trigger warnings. As the professors put it, "it would be naïve to think that the University of Chicago is immune from social problems. Yet the administration confusingly disconnects “safe spaces” it supports (see the list of mentoring services on the College’s own website) from “intellectual safe spaces” that it does not, as if issues of power and vulnerability stop at the classroom door."
- The University of Chicago's letter to incoming students:
- "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."
- University of Chicago professor's open letter opposing the school:
- "To start a conversation by declaring that such requests [for trigger warnings] are not worth making is an affront to the basic principles of liberal education and participatory democracy."
- The Atlantic's popular piece on trigger warnings:
- "Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense."
- One professor on why he adds trigger warnings in his classes:
- "History is often heartbreaking. As a professor, I have an obligation to my students to raise those difficult subjects, but I also have an obligation to raise them in a way that provokes a productive reckoning with the material."
- President Obama's statement on political correctness and education:
- "I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view."