“Welcome to the University of Chicago! Just an FYI, we will not be warning students if a class, speaker or event could potentially contain upsetting or anxiety-provoking content, and we won’t be accommodating students whose emotions get too strong to handle during said events.”
While other students across the country are being welcomed with overdone orientations and way too much school spirit, this, is how the University of Chicago chose to “welcome” their incoming class of freshmen: with a message to toughen up. The letter came from John Ellison, Dean of Students, who emphasized the school’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” According to Ellison, with that commitment comes a lack of safe spaces and trigger warnings. Unfortunately, I think Ellison and the administrators at the University of Chicago are missing the point on why we have safe spaces and trigger warnings.
College is a time for growth, the chance to step out of the hometown bubble and experience new ideas, hear different opinions, and gain a fresh perspective. The best way to do that requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone, which obviously can be a little uncomfortable, and that’s good! We should all feel uncomfortable and have our beliefs challenged a little bit in college; it’s how we learn. But what happens when it goes beyond just feeling uncomfortable? What happens when it goes to a personal level, where anxiety and mental health are concerned?
Trigger warnings are not just ways to shield students from bad language or controversial content: they warn students that the topic may bring back personal traumas or experiences that could give them anxiety or panic attacks. Ellison says, "You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort." Yes, feeling uncomfortable is essential to the learning process, but we all have the right to know when the subject will get controversial and to decide if we can handle it. Trigger warnings are not a luxury, they are a necessity.
Should a student who experienced sexual assault have to sit through a lesson on domestic violence, without any warning or way to escape? What about the student attending a criminal justice seminar whose dad was unlawfully shot by police? Or the student struggling to stay sober whose feelings are triggered by images or videos of people drinking alcohol? These students’ experiences give them feelings far beyond “uncomfortable,” and we need to be considerate of those.
Cornell professor Kate Manne writes in the New York Times, “It’s not about coddling anyone. It’s about enabling everyone’s rational engagement.” Trigger warnings help accommodate students who have experienced traumas so they can participate in their college’s academic scene to the best of their ability.
Furthermore, we all have the right to be able to speak openly about our beliefs and experiences without those beliefs being challenged each time. We all need a little time to vent and just be listened to, not debated against. That is why colleges need safe spaces. At Northwestern University, safe spaces are offered for multiple minority groups. A recent graduate of the school says that the school’s Hillel House, a safe space for Jewish students, provided her the only place on campus she could discuss her religion without being interrogated by students with different beliefs. That student isn’t closing herself off from other people’s opinions, but rather she’s simply seeking refuge to be able to express her own.
Providing trigger warnings and safe spaces on a college campus isn’t asking students to close off and remain ignorant, it’s warning them and giving them a place to debrief without feeling judged.