Hey UChicago, Trigger Warnings & Safe Spaces Are For People Who Already Know How Harsh The World Can Be

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Trigger warning. Safe space. Political Correctness. Arguments over this so called “coddling” are no longer just for comments on Facebook or justification from your racist/sexist/homophobic relative when they say something outrageously offensive about a historically oppressed group of people.

The University of Chicago recently released a letter that they will not support the use of trigger warnings or safe spaces. 

On the surface, their reasoning makes sense and seems justified. A “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression”? That sounds essential to the formation of an intellectual identity. “At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort”? Well, sure, no one really likes to have their thoughts and ideas challenged. Of course it can be uncomfortable to realize you might be wrong, or to accept a new perspective, but that’s part of growth and the learning process.

It doesn’t really seem to make sense that any student who is voluntarily attending school would oppose these things. College is all about pushing you out of your comfort zone both inside and outside of the classroom.

I wholeheartedly agree with the University of Chicago’s refusal to cancel guest speakers whose ideas may be controversial, and I think most students would too. I don’t know too many college students who don’t have thoughts or opinions on controversial topics and don’t want to talk or hear about them. I think the only real problem or argument people could make against invited speakers was if the university was continually inviting speakers that only represented one side of a controversial topic.

But the university’s refusal to support “trigger warnings” is where things start to get interesting. I think it’s important to first establish that there’s a difference between a university refusing to require trigger warnings, and stating that they will not support them.

If the university is really concerned about accepting all forms of expression, why will they not support professors who make the decision to voluntarily provide trigger warnings? There is no university, at least not that I am aware of, that actually requires trigger warnings.

Trigger warnings aren’t about censorship. They don’t prevent any sort of information or sensitive topic from being discussed or covered at length. A trigger warning is simply a courtesy warning. It’s a warning that class material will likely be graphic and could cause serious discomfort for a trauma survivor—people who have survived war or rape, for example, not just kids who don’t feel like hearing about something they don’t like.  

The next thing that stands out is the statement that the university will not “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.’’’ Now, it’s pretty difficult to find an actual definition of what an intellectual safe space actually is. I can only assume that this is because it is not a rampant problem the way detractors seem to believe it is. But according to good ol' Wikipedia, safe spaces are places where marginalized groups can be free of violence, harassment and hate speech against them.

Personally, I can’t begin to understand why anyone would have a problem with having a place where people were free from violence and hate speech, but they do.

I think the problem some people have with safe spaces is that they force us to realize that we are prejudiced. Opposing safe spaces the way this letter does is absolutely a restriction of freedom of expression. Sure, the university can say that policy of freedom of expression does not grant people permission to harass or threaten others, but that doesn’t prevent threats or harassment. Why are those who feel discomfort or who disagree not allowed to have an alternative space?

The University of Chicago isn’t promoting freedom of expression for everyone. They’re promoting freedom of expression for those in a position of power—for the guest speakers they choose, the professors they hire. Those people should absolutely have a freedom of thought and expression, but students should also be allowed a space where they do feel comfortable. Safe spaces don’t exempt anyone from class. They don’t hide people from “reality” or make them soft. Safe spaces exist because the world is harsh and people can be terrible, because prejudice exists and there are groups of people who experience this prejudice significantly more than others.

Safe spaces and trigger warnings aren’t for people who don’t want to hear “different opinions,” or for people who are weak. They aren’t for creationists being forced to learn about evolution. They aren’t for Democrats who aren’t interested in hearing from a conservative professor. Safe spaces and trigger warnings are for people who already know and have experienced just how harsh the world can be.