Why I Think the University of Chicago Got it All Wrong on Trigger Warnings

Note: This post includes discussion about the topics of sexual assault and consent. There are no graphic images or descriptions of sexual violence. If you are a survivor and looking for support, please visit RAINN.

Last month, the University of Chicago sent a letter to incoming students which included discussion on the university’s stance on both trigger warnings and safe spaces. In the letter, Dean of Students in The College John Jay Ellison states:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority—building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”

 

I agree that universities and institutions of higher learning should foster a diversity of thoughts and ideas. After all, that allows for the most well-rounded kind of education. But, I think that the university’s stance on this is misguided, if not downright insensitive. We’re not talking about preserving the right to academic “discomfort” here. We’re talking about the potential benefit of limiting further psychological damage in a patriarchal, misogynist and sexist culture.

The folks at the University of Chicago seemed to be conflating the ideas of free speech and reasonable access. Trigger warnings aren’t about giving in to “PC culture”. They’re about showing compassion to another’s pain and suffering.

Trigger warnings aren’t about limiting speech in the slightest. I see trigger warnings as being about two chief ideas:

  1. Accessibility
  2. Compassion

Accessibility

For those who have experienced traumatic events, such as sexual assault or abuse, the effects can be longstanding. Some go on to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, though not all survivors do.  Engaging in a culture which allows for trigger warnings means that before involved discussion about the ideas of consent and sexual assault, students would have the opportunity to not take part or emotionally prepare themselves for such a discussion.  A notification of the impending discussion doesn’t mean that there will be no discussion, it simply gives a survivor the opportunity to exit or prepare from psychologically damaging material.  For those in recovery, the power to opt out can not be overstated.

Compassion

What I find most incredulous about the whole controversy about trigger warnings is how difficult it seems to be for people to step outside of themselves and think with their hearts instead of their minds.  It may take 5-10 seconds to issue a trigger warning about a certain topic, so I think that it’s fair to say that it’s a pretty minor inconvenience for most.  What if that minor inconvenience for you enabled someone the ability to avoid further psychological pain?  Why wouldn’t you want to help someone in that way?

You may have noticed that there was a small notation at the beginning of this post. In essence it was a trigger warning about this post’s content.  That’s really what we’re talking about here.

I question any institution of higher learning that doesn’t seriously take into the account, or prioritize,  the mental health of its students. And given the rate of sexual assaults on campus, particularly among first semester women, it is astounding to me that the University of Chicago would not be more compassionate about such an issue.

Some may argue that participating in these discussions is somehow “good” for survivors as it desensitizes them to the language and content. In essence, some argue that this “no trigger warning, no safe space” policy enables survivors the opportunity to heal.  Well, they’re wrong.  Only in the context of a safe and controlled environment, such as a therapy hour, can that kind of systematic healing begin. It takes a highly experienced and trained mental health professional to foster that kind of trauma recovery experience.   The classroom is no place for that.

By giving trigger warnings, what do you really have to lose?

You may view a sample of the letter sent to incoming freshman of The University of Chicago at this link.