This week a professor friend of mine posted and lauded the letter that University of Chicago president sent out to all incoming freshmen which said a bunch of reasonable and universal/noncontroversial stuff, and also this paragraph:
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.
They, being a professor, then did some research into what exactly trigger warnings and safe spaces are, and then posted that this letter was “an embarrassment.” So why did my friend have such a change of heart? For that, let’s learn what these phrases mean.
A trigger warning is a statement given before someone interacts with new material (e.g. a book, an article, a video, etc.) which alerts them of potentially disturbing content (e.g. graphic description of sexual violence, war scenes, etc.). There’s a great op-ed piece in the NYT from last year that delves deeply into this:
Triggered reactions can be intense and unpleasant, and may even overtake our consciousness, as with a flashback experienced by a war veteran. But even more common conditions can have this effect. Think, for example, about the experience of intense nausea. It comes upon a person unbidden, without rational reflection. And you can no more reason your way out of it than you reasoned your way into it. It’s also hard, if not impossible, to engage productively with other matters while you are in the grip of it. You might say that such states temporarily eclipse our rational capacities.
The idea behind trigger warnings is that they give time for the reader/viewer/listener to prepare themselves or brace themselves for what’s coming, in hopes that they can rationally deal with the material. In practice, they’re basically the same as the little box that says “this movie rated PG-13 for containing partial nudity” and most people can ignore them (idea from that op-ed). There are many arguments out there against trigger warnings; one of the most cited is the “Coddling of the American Mind” article, where they analogize avoiding difficult subjects with phobias:
A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.
There are great points in that article; namely, that turning disclaimers of difficult readings into optional readings does a disservice to students (they offer the example of professors not wanting to teach rape law). I think the authors of this article and the professor of the first op-ed can agree that the point is for students to engage with difficult material. However, the Atlantic piece authors believe that not including trigger warnings is the way to do so, while the NYT piece author believes the exact opposite. So which is it? Why the different views?
This is why mathematicians love definitions. The Atlantic piece authors start with the same definition as I did, but then add another consequence:
Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.
And therein lies the problem! Trigger warnings exist so that students can engage with a work, but the authors say they exist so students can choose to not do so. This jumbled definition is why there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between some news sources which laud “not supporting trigger warnings” (The Federalist (conservative/libetartarian), Reason magazine (libertarian), Intellectual Takeout (conservative/liberal)) and those that do not (Slate (liberal), Vox (this is a great piece), New Republic (this is not as good as the Vox piece)).
Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum (besides math?). This whole controversy is part of a larger trend as demographics change, political landscapes change, and universities change. There are many examples in practice of students actively refusing to engage with material that might question their assumptions (first example that comes to my mind was the Duke freshmen not wanting to read the non-required recommendation “Fun Home”), and this is something that all these public intellectuals of various political backgrounds want to avoid.
There’s a lot to say about this, but I want to move on to the next definition, so I’ll leave you with this article by NYMagazine, which happily acknowledges that the U of C letter totally messes up on ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ but also says that it has some important things to say. Here’s a quote:
First, in addition to the absence of evidence that trigger warnings have any impact on the average college campuses, there’s also solid evidence that many of the tropes that have taken hold about “coddled” or“microaggressed” or “oversensitive” or anti-free-speech college students are seriously overblown. In many cases, these ideas have been bandied about so gleefully and frequently and uncritically by conservatives that the terms themselves have lost all meaning….But: There have absolutely been recent instances in which campus outrage has snowballed out of hand, in which protesters have actually impinged on the ability for real debate to take place, and these episodes matter.
Funnily enough the article refers to the controversy at Yale as also being disproportional, which I also wrote about in a similar vein as this post.
Next, a safe space is a physical location for marginalized people (historically LGBT folks) to exist with allies without fear of marginalization/hate speech. Examples are church basements for Christian youth groups, gay bars, and the U Chicago LGBTQ Safe Space program. The U of C letter refers to “intellectual safe spaces” as what it’s against, and includes a semi-definition as spaces where “individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” This is not a normal use of the term, and there again seems to be some confusion about what the phrase “safe space” means. There’s a fantastic article on Vox that goes into what a safe space is and why it matters in depth:
You don’t have to explain to other black women why your hair is the way it is, she said, or what a certain word means, or countless other little cultural signifiers. “Everybody has a need to just be able to be themselves somewhere, without having to do that translation and without having to always be on guard to justify yourself.”
I liked this Vox Explainer article so much because it really delves into the reasons that people are against the idea of safe spaces. To close this SUPER LONG blog post, here are the last three paragraphs from it:
Some people get upset because they don’t understand why they can’t be included in a certain group, or why their input on certain issues might not be welcome. A man might ask in good faith whether catcalls are really just “compliments” when women are trying to discuss their own experiences with street harassment, and he might be taken aback when those women get immediately upset or exasperated with him. To him, perhaps he was just asking an innocent question and trying to have an intellectual debate. But to the women, it’s pretty insulting to suggest that their life experiences are up for “debate” — plus they’ve heard remarks like these a hundred times, and nine times out of 10 it just derails the conversation, so they’re just sick of dealing with it.
The question of who belongs and who doesn’t, who is excluded and who isn’t, is a constant worry for most of us. But on top of the personal rejections that everyone faces in life, people in marginalized groups also have to face the feeling that society wasn’t really designed for them; that it considers them an afterthought at best. People in dominant cultural groups are used to rejection, but they’re probably not used to that kind of rejection. And they’re probably not used to being forced to pay attention to all the little social cues and codes that others pick up when trying to navigate a society that isn’t inherently made to fit them.
It’s not easy to deal with shame, hurt feelings, or fear during these kinds of cultural clashes. But particular spaces or identities are rarely the most productive things to blame for the strife. Inside or outside of safe spaces, the real problem is usually a failure of empathy, and the real solution is treating others with humility, respect, and compassion and being willing to learn from our own mistakes.