University of Chicago Bravely Defends Free Speech on Campus

Incoming students at the University of Chicago were treated to a diatribe against trigger warnings loaded with false claims about intellectual freedom.
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August 29, 2016
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trigger warnings, university, higher education

My friends, have you heard the good news? The University of Chicago has struck a bold blow against the forces of political correctness and the opponents of free speech with a searing letter declaring that it won't be babying its students by sullying syllabi with "trigger warnings." I for one am deeply appreciative that this paragon of academic freedom has finally said what no one else has been willing to say in this oppressive climate.

It's really a pity that no one ever has debated the subject of trigger warnings on syllabi. We should be thanking the University of Chicago for being willing to open up an important dialogue; certainly, no one has referred to trigger warnings as "bad," said that they're damaging campus mental health, called them "censorship," termed them a threat to academic freedom, or claimed that they interfere with pedagogy.

So let's take advantage of this moment to go in deep on the trigger warning — or, as is perhaps more apt in many cases, the content note. For all three of you who haven't found yourself under an oppressive cloud of censorship and political correctness, a trigger warning is a heads up that a piece of media may contain material that could be retraumatizing for some people; like, say, an explicit rape scene, extreme violence, or child abuse.

Some trauma survivors appreciate a warning about such content so they can make an informed decision about how and when to engage with a given piece of media. For example, maybe Siouxsie Q. Banshee was violently raped as a child, and her university class is reading The Lovely Bones (an excellent book exploring rape and trauma, by the way). She might like to know that the book contains some explicit sexual violence so she can prepare for it by whatever means make her most comfortable.

The concept of trigger warnings originated in the feminist blogging community, with "trigger" adapted from the psychiatric concept of an emotional trigger — something that can elicit an intense emotional response like a panic attack. Any number of things can act as triggers for trauma survivors, not everyone has them, and not everyone has extreme emotional responses, but might still appreciate a warning. Triggers don't make people "unhappy" or "uncomfortable": They cause significant and sometimes debilitating stress.

College students started asking for such warnings with the goal of creating safer spaces (OH NO!), environments where they could focus on academics and learning instead of being stressed about being retraumatized. This has been a particular issue around rape, which I don't know if you've noticed is a pretty significant problem on and around college campuses. (Here are the University of Chicago's legally mandated crime statistics; you're welcome.)

It turns out that when people are empowered as issues are taken into the mainstream, they get more assertive about asking that people take them seriously. The more people push for a culture shift, the more people are emboldened to join them. This is how you end up with, say, the University of Chicago holding a #BlackLivesMatter seminar, and it's also how you end up with students asking that their college experience not include psychological trauma, if possible. (Of note: Very few students actually request content warnings, even when explicitly invited to do so, so this is hardly a rash of students rising up in defense of their fee-fees.)

So the claim goes that whiny millennials are arriving on college campuses and expecting people to cater to their every need, and that this includes harassing professors into including arcane "trigger warnings" every time they talk about lettuce or tigers or orange couches. This in turn is suppressing academic freedom by terrorizing professors into only talking about a limited range of "safe," boring things. Students, you see, aren't just asking for a "reasonable" heads up about clearly traumatizing content in the classroom — they're demanding that professors insulate them from everything that upsets their special snowflake view of the world, such as intellectually challenging content or things that make them sad (RIP Harambe).

Lots of professors have piled on board here — often over the voices of professors who say that they find their classes enriched by using content warnings and have never had students abuse them. It turns out that using such warnings makes students feel safer and allows them to focus on class rather than ghosting out, skipping large numbers of sessions, and missing important components of the syllabus.

Providing content or trigger warnings overall offers a net good. This is university, not Twitter, and whining about "spoilers" that might affect the way people interact with content is pretty ludicrous. Students who feel they can benefit from a warning can engage with content and play a lively role in class discussion. Students who don't benefit from a warning can disregard it. Students who are dealing with fresh or unprocessed trauma might opt to take classes with professors who have indicated a willingness to warn (the University of Chicago didn't ban trigger warnings, and some professors will continue to offer them), avoiding classes with those who do not, and that's a personal coping strategy.

And yes, some students do hide behind the shelter of trigger warnings as a form of intellectual protectionism. But does it matter? Really, genuinely? Does it? Does it harm other students in the class? These students are making a choice to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans for their education, and if they're indifferent to intellectual opportunities or so scared at the thought of encountering things that upset their worldview that they'll go to elaborate lengths to avoid them, that's their loss. So they don't show up to your lecture on the history of lynching because they don't like to think about racism: They're limiting their own intellectual freedom all by themselves. Meanwhile, the Black student with family members who were actually lynched can also opt out of that lecture, or can prepare for it more effectively so she's ready to engage during the question and answer period.

Professors aren't being asked to change their syllabi here, or limit the things they talk about in class. Those who interpret trigger warnings that way are not understanding the principle. And those obsessed with ferreting out the fakers from the real survivors are missing the point. Warnings enrich academic culture and create equal ground and footing for people from underrepresented groups who have historically struggled in college in part because no one has made any accommodations respecting their past — like, say, not inviting avowed racist eugenists to speak on campus, or asking professors to not be sexist creeps.

In many ways, this serves only as a false flag: The University of Chicago gets to satisfy potential donors who like whining about PC culture, while also validating other colleges and universities that are vehemently opposed to the notion of allowing students to engage more fully with their educations. But it also serves a more sinister function, alerting students in positions of dominance to the fact that the university will continue to cater their needs while ignoring students from underrepresented backgrounds. This is about an exertion of power and an assurance that the U of C won't stand for the disruption of the status quo, because accommodating the needs of other people is scary, and diversifying lecture material and campus populations may expose people to viewpoints and experiences they haven't previously considered.

The announcement is, dare I say it, possibly, maybe, perhaps, even coddling students who don't like to have their worldviews confronted.