The University of Chicago released a trigger warning in this year’s welcome letter to incoming freshmen that it will not support trigger warnings on campus. The irony here is appreciated. In the letter, they also condemned the use of “safe spaces”. All of this was said for the sake of “intellectual freedom.” I think we can all agree that the freedom to learn and discuss intellectual topics is an essential thing to have on a college campus. The university, however, seems to not understand the reasoning behind trigger warnings and safe places and the reality they are meant to bring about.
When used correctly, trigger warnings don’t prohibit words and ideas from being accessed and argued, they simply give people a heads up about what they’re walking into. As an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University, Kate Manne both uses and supports trigger warnings. She wrote an enlightening article for The New York Times outlining her case.
She brings up the fact that trigger warnings are not new and that they were first used on the internet for PTSD victims. She compares the flashbacks that PTSD victims experience to the involuntary and uncontrollable states that victims of abuse or violence can be sent into by triggering words or depictions. She goes on to say, “The thought behind trigger warnings isn’t just that these states are highly unpleasant (although they certainly are). It’s that they temporarily render people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so.
Trigger warnings can work to prevent or counteract this.” In this lies the true purpose of trigger warnings: to prepare, not censor.
Safe spaces are incredibly useful to have if an institution can spare one. We have to define what a safe space really is, though. It is a place where students can go and know that they will be comforted or heard after dealing with something triggering to them. These safe spaces can be clubs, organizations, or just casual meetings. They differ from a classroom or a debate team in that one can feel free to express their feelings or issues without having to rationalize or justify them to others.
We have to understand that, though academics should be discussed logically and rationally, human emotions that come from a violent or abusive past don’t always follow suit with that ideal. It is a dangerous idea to simply ignore these emotions, since doing so could likely lead to either skipping class for fear of being sent into a triggered state or shutting someone else’s opinion down because our emotions haven’t been understood. Having somewhere to go on campus where a person’s history of abuse or violence isn’t an argument, but rather an understanding, allows for healthier students, and thus, better classroom discussions.
Here is my proposal, and I believe it’s one the University of Chicago would appreciate: we accept and even embrace the right kind of trigger warnings and safe places on campus without refusing to hear anything in our academics because of them. We don’t change book assignments, we don’t cancel guests, we don’t push out voices of offense (however offensive some people on college campuses may be).
The choice of using trigger warnings would be left up to professors, who undoubtedly understand what constitutes a triggering selection and what doesn’t. As Professor Manne puts it, “Common sense should tell us that material that is merely offensive to certain people’s political or religious sensibilities wouldn’t merit a warning.
True, politics and religion can make people irrationally angry. But unlike a state of panic, anger is a state we are able to rein in rationally — or at least we should be able to.” For example, a professor might assign a reading that includes an argument for the French Revolution. Now, someone in the class might disagree with that argument on a political stance. He or she might have passionate ideas about this stance, but the student will most likely be able to think about these ideas in a logical manner without a damaging memory of a violent or abusive history coming up. This wouldn’t warrant a trigger warning, because there is most likely not an abusive memory directly attached to it, and if there is, it would probably not be a direct correlation.
In another situation, a professor might assign a reading that includes a very detailed description of rape. The professor then decides that he or she will make a note on the syllabus to warn the students of when they should prepare themselves to read and talk about those issues. This would be a good use of a trigger warning, because a depiction of rape can be directly linked to a triggering memory of a rape, and it’s useful for the student to be able to prepare for the reading beforehand.
It should be rational now to accept that trigger warnings and safe spaces can and should be used as guides, not stop signs. It would be worth the time to stop trying to hinder the optional choice of incorporating trigger warnings and, instead, hold discussions on how we can use them to better understand one another and communicate our ideas. One such topic that will be important to discuss is the issue of keeping the use of trigger warnings and safe places in check. I can personally see no set way to keep students from limiting themselves, triggers warnings or no. A student will get what they want to get out of a course, and will read what they want to read, whether they worry about being psychologically hindered by it or not.
The best way to encourage students to engage and expand their minds is to let them know that a trigger warning is not an excuse to close themselves off from something. A student should use a trigger warning or a safe space to use with a reading, not against it. Professors could encourage this by not giving out excuses for students simply on the basis of being triggered. By having the exact same expectations for every student in the class, we can keep the practice in check. This also will give validation to the student who genuinely uses trigger warnings and safe spaces to his or her full advantage.