Spaces and Trigger Warnings

The University of Chicago made news earlier this year when its dean of students, John Ellison, sent a letter welcoming freshman to the school. Unfortunately, the letter was not perceived as welcoming by all. Why? Because its primary purpose was to warn incoming students that the leading U.S. university does not “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’.”  While this may have been the first many people had heard of safe spaces and trigger warnings, it’s far from the last. In fact, the floodgates have since burst open with people coming down strongly on one side or the other.

All of which begs the question: What are safe spaces and trigger warnings, and are they necessary? Let’s take a closer look at this controversial topic, along with highlighting some arguments for and against their use in academia.

Defining Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a trigger warning as, “A statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material.”  It defines a safe space as, “A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.”

The concept of trigger warnings is nothing new in the context of the entertainment and media industries. Referred to as a “content warning,” it advises people about the presence of graphic content. Meanwhile, the underlying idea of safe spaces is a hard one to argue against: After all, in which settings should we as a society tolerate bigotry, racism, and other behaviors which threaten our collective wellbeing?

The debate arises, however, when these two ideas are transferred to university campuses — bastions of free thought, free speech and information exchange. Do trigger warnings and safe spaces become a form of censorship? And in doing so do they end up limiting understanding and ultimately doing more harm than good? That depends on who you ask.

The Case Against Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

Opponents of trigger warnings and safe spaces argue that their existence puts political correctness over academic freedom.

In an essay published in the Wall Street Journal, University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer reinforced the school’s anti-trigger warning position explaining that, “Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex environments. Having one’s assumptions challenged and experiencing the discomfort that sometimes accompanies this process are intrinsic parts of an excellent education. Only then will students develop the skills necessary to build their own futures and contribute to society.”

Specifically, academic leaders worry that in disinviting speakers with unpopular beliefs and putting ideas which make students uncomfortable off-limits, we’re ultimately shutting down the opportunity to confront these ideas, learn from them, and apply them to their own decision-making as they move on with their lives.

This viewpoint is also backed by a report on trigger warnings from the American University of College Professors (AUCP) which determines that, “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual….Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens.”

In Defense of Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

But there are plenty of people who believe that the benefits of trigger warnings and safe spaces far outweigh their potential downsides. In fact, while those in the opposing camp argue that trigger warnings and safe spaces creature a culture of fear rather than fearlessness, proponents counter that they are actually necessary for students to truly learn without fear.

One Huffington Post piece contends that the arguments against these are due to a “fundamental misunderstanding” about triggers and triggering — a phenomenon which transcends academic discourse.

Says the piece, “The problem with this interpretation of trigger warnings is that it presumes all participants have the same level of privilege. But many discussions are not just intellectual exercises for everyone ― people who face discrimination, have experienced violence or simply struggle with brain chemistry are at a disadvantage because they’re potentially dealing with a mental health issue. A desire to be warned about potential triggers has nothing to do with people not wanting to “challenge” themselves academically.”

In other words, they’re not about shutting down or avoiding conflict, but rather they serve as an essential mental health measure. Not only that, but failure to acknowledge triggers and the need for safe spaces can further victimize and marginalize people and lead to more significant mental health issues. And just as it’s a college’s responsibility to educate students, advocates insist, they’re equally obligated to safeguard student health and wellbeing.

Supporters further argue that trigger warnings and safe spaces do not actually pose a risk to freedom of expression in a world in which there are near-endless outlets for idea exchange due to the unmoderated internet. In other words, it’s not that difficult concepts and topics shouldn’t be explored, just that they shouldn’t be explored in university settings if they threaten the wellbeing of students.

A recent Gallup poll reveals that 78 percent of students believe that higher education institutions should strive to expose students to a broad range of ideas in order to facilitate open environments. However, 69 percent were also in favor of limiting content that was intentionally upsetting to certain groups. Can these two beliefs co-exist on campus? Seen through this lens, perhaps the larger issue becomes not one of either/or, but of how to reconcile these viewpoints in a way that promotes freedom of expression without supporting oppression.