‘Trigger Warnings’ and ‘Safe Spaces’: A Response to UChicago

By: Val Bauer

In August, incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago received a controversial letter from Dean of Students Jay Ellison, in which ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ were disregarded as an excuse for “individuals [to] retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”  

The letter, published online by Intellectual Takeout, cites UChicago’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression” as a defining characteristic of their academic setting, Ellison said. “Members of [the] community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.”

Trigger warnings and safe spaces are central to much of the academic debate in recent years. Oftentimes, they are stigmatized as a symptom of over-sensitized millennials. In 2015 article “The Trigger-Happy Generation,” Wall Street Journal writer Peggy Noonan questions whether those who condone trigger warnings and safe spaces are “really frail, special and delicate little thing[s] that might melt when the heat is on.”

A more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of the role trigger warnings and safe spaces play in an academic environment may lead us toward greater compassion for those who see them as necessary, instead of shaming those who have endured traumatic experiences into silence.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘trigger warning’ as “a statement cautioning that content may be disturbing or upsetting.” Trigger warnings allow students with traumatic experiences to prepare themselves accordingly; if they encountered triggering material without warning, they might relive those experiences, which adversely affects their mental health and learning experience.

Students at any university will undoubtedly run into a subject matter that they find disturbing or upsetting. However, there is a significant difference between students who are simply disturbed by the subject matter, and students who have experienced similar traumas and are triggered by the content. With a trigger warning, these students can prepare themselves accordingly.

Associated Students of the University of Puget Sound (ASUPS) President, Noah Lumbantobing, notes a key disconnect between the intended function of trigger warnings and safe spaces. “I think what UChicago thinks trigger warning and safe spaces are about is students walling themselves off and not engaging with things that they don’t want to, which is not what it’s about. I think trigger warnings and safe spaces essentially [are] about being a respectful and compassionate person, and recognizing that people come to the table with different experiences.”

Trigger warnings are not meant to silence conversation, contrary to what Ellison’s letter implied. “My issue with the conversation about trigger warnings is that it’s really derailed from what the intentions of trigger warnings are,” Student Diversity Center Coordinator and student Jae Bates said. “A lot of people just think that safe spaces and trigger warnings mean that you don’t talk about things—which isn’t true—we talk about them in a way that respects and acknowledges all of the experiences that everyone in the room is bringing.”

Safe spaces, on the other hand, are more difficult to simulate, according to Lumbantobing. As of right now, “we don’t have a lot of [safe spaces] in our academia,” Lumbantobing said, but although “some professors do, some professors don’t — I think it should be the norm at the University of Puget Sound.”

What is more practical is the idea of “brave spaces,” Bates said, “where you can challenge yourself and feel that you’re being respected and that you’re being cared for but that you’re supposed to step out of your comfort zone.”

A safe space implies that “you are going to be 100 percent safe, there’s no one that’s going to say anything that could possibly be triggering or offensive,” Bates said. This is attainable in demographic-centric clubs, but in departments such as African-American or Gender and Queer studies, often students are taking these classes to learn. They may not know the correct vocabulary, and unintentionally offend a student, Bates explained.

How can Puget Sound create a safer academic environment for those with trauma? Trigger warnings alert students that they may have to make other accommodations in the process of learning, but at least this way they can effectively learn. Safe spaces can be found in clubs and organizations, but in thinking about academia, Bates argued that brave spaces are more attainable.