Trigger warning: mentions of rape, sexual assault
In a letter to its incoming Class of 2020, UChicago warned that it “[does] not support so-called ‘trigger warnings’” or accept “intellectual ‘safe spaces.’”
Central to the nation-wide debate over safe spaces in institutions of higher learning is the blatant misunderstanding of what a safe space is, and what trigger warnings are for. Opponents commonly argue that safe spaces and trigger warnings are censorship, attacks on the freedom of expression, and unnecessary coddling of overly sensitive students.
First of all, trigger warnings are not censorship. If they were, the material to be discussed wouldn’t even exist; it would be censored. As Cornell University assistant professor Kate Manne explains, adding a warning may be extremely valuable to students who have survived trauma or suffer from PTSD, so that they can mentally prepare themselves to better engage in the material (or choose to opt out).
This is no equal comparison at all, but if students can read class descriptions before choosing their classes, and subsequently drop classes they don’t enjoy, there’s no reason why students can’t know about a subject ahead of time in case it potentially causes a panic attack.
Safe spaces operate with a similar goal. They are not about censoring intellectual discussions; they’re about not letting pointless, toxic, and hateful messages stifle such discussions and inhibit steps towards reform. Safe spaces allow for dialogue to happen in the first place.
For example, conversations about how to solve rape culture wouldn’t get very far if some people in the conversation deny the very existence of rape culture. The “safe space” that is created may be one exclusively for sexual assault survivors to heal, organize, and brainstorm without judgment, invalidation, or victim blaming from outsiders.
I have been a part of real life and online safe spaces. Many of them have a no-tolerance policy for anti-blackness, sexism, gaslighting, slurs, etc. We condemn these actions, not the discussion of them.
None of us are “sheltered” from the real world. We know what the real world is like. We’ve experienced the harsh realities of it, which is how we know what these things are in the first place. We’re not keeping ourselves ignorant from other perspectives– we’re creating a community where we can have solidarity, mutual support, and meaningful dialogue with other people who can understand, without fear of invalidation of our identities and struggles.
Not only is Dean of Students Jay Ellison’s condemnation of trigger warnings and safe spaces based on wrong information, but it also reveals the glaring hypocrisies of the administration’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.”
Unsurprisingly, there is one common opponent of safe spaces: the “level-headed,” “impartial,” “always rational” white cis man who prides himself as the champion of free speech and honest intellectual discourse.
Is it a coincidence that most of these people don’t need safe spaces? And ironically, when have we seen these same people apply those ideas of free speech, honesty, and discourse towards change and progress on college campuses?
Furthermore, universities like UChicago condemn safe spaces and trigger warnings for how they supposedly censor discussion and limit inquiry, yet the same UChicago administration silences student survivors of sexual assault who question the school’s actions.
What is even more ironic is that safe spaces are made necessary due to universities’ lack of regard towards sexual assault, rape, racism, and racial hate crimes.
Or, maybe it’s not ironic.
Maybe UChicago’s condemnation of safe spaces and trigger warnings isn’t in favor of intellectual freedom at all. If it were, wouldn’t we see it in the way they handle campus sexual assaults and student complaints? Instead, the school faces a federal investigation over mishandling of sexual violence cases.
Meanwhile, universities and the real world provide “safe spaces” and leniency to rapists all the time. So is the objection to safe spaces and trigger warnings really one in the name of defending free speech, or is it just an attack on marginalized people and survivors of trauma and sexual assault?
I’ll leave it at that.
The funny thing is, I was going to apply to the University of Chicago as my Early Action school. Now, I may consider not applying at all.
I don’t wish to go to a school whose administration does not view students who are suffering from trauma as worthy of accommodation or compassion. I’m disappointed that UChicago claims to value diversity, but does everything to shut us out.
I’m saddened that they smugly reject student safety and social progress in favor of the freedom to engage in hateful, racist, homophobic, sexist behavior– all things that safe spaces prohibit.