Response to Trigger Warning and Safe Spaces Letter

To the University of Chicago Community:

Two weeks ago, University administration issued a letter to the incoming class of 2020. This letter, written ostensibly in order to reassert the institution’s commitment to the values of academic freedom and diversity, explicitly states that the University does not support the use of “trigger warnings,” nor the creation of “safe spaces” on campus. The administration superficially justifies their opposition to such ideas by claiming they are at odds with free and open academic discourse. The letter, in fact, warns incoming students to prepare to be confronted by sensitive topics without prior warning and not to look for safe spaces. However, what may seem a defense of freedom of expression is, in fact, a deeply disturbing attempt on behalf of the administration to curtail not only the ability of students to speak and behave freely, but the introduction, however incidental, of hate speech, ideological violence, and entrenched power into academic discourse.

Unequivocally, free and open discourse is crucial to the flourishing of a healthy and productive academic community. And it is  precisely on the grounds  of ‘free and open discourse’ that one can reproach the University’s arrogant and intimidating message delivered to the mailboxes of its incoming students, thinly veiled as expressing its commitment to intellectual rigor. In the name of diversity and freedom of thought, the University dissuades students from shying away from debates or engaging in forms of dissent (like asking to “cancel invited visitors because of their topics might prove controversial”), but this is a biased and narrow characterization of the value of free and open discourse; one that overlooks its importance beyond the strictly defined academic space. Free and open discourse is in fact key to ensuring a dialectic exchange between the university and its surrounding community. This is particularly relevant in the context of southside Chicago and the Black Lives Matter movement. It took years of battles, in the form of petitions, sit-ins, and protests, before the University heeded the demands of the Trauma Center Coalition and pledged to open a trauma center at Holy Cross Hospital (here you can read the TCC statement). Before conceding the opening of a trauma center, the University responded to TCC’s actions by banning eight protests from speaking on campus. The “no-trespass warning” is one of the many instances that testify to the administration resistance to freedom of speech and expression.

Academic freedom is a complex issue, one that should be treated with due finesse and specificity. So, let us be clear: supporters of safe spaces and trigger warnings are not against difficult, dangerous, or emotionally troubling ideas being discussed, taught, and written about. This is not an attack on free speech; this is an issue of creating, sometimes quite literally, spaces in which those who have experienced personal or collective trauma may feel that their voices are being treated with the seriousness and sensitivity often perfunctorily granted to (and perfunctorily assumed by) others who have not undergone or been societally boxed into such troubling conditions. These ideas are, contrary to the claims of the letter, absolutely about protecting freedom and equality of expression and identity for everyone on campus, AS OPPOSED TO those whose protection is granted merely by their identity conforming to some imagined sense of what is normal. In short, this is about making sure that those who have not been treated with respect and dignity by virtue of their societal privilege are given equal footing. A university is a collaborative project: everyone has a right to be listened to and taken seriously.

It is also important to note that these ideas are new. Trigger warnings originally emerged as flags for trauma-related content that might “trigger” post-traumatic symptoms in victims of trauma. At the discretion of the lecturer, their use has been extended to other sensitive topics, such as politics, religion, racism, and sexuality. To warn students about potentially sensitive topics, however, does not amount to allowing students to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” as the letter claims. Trigger warnings are a sign of consideration. They can be used to support more rigorous engagement with challenging material, giving students the ability to prepare to grapple with difficult topics, thus enhancing discussion and learning opportunities. As didactic and pedagogical tools, trigger warnings might contribute to create “enabling classroom environments.” In this respect, the workshop Creating an Enabling Classroom Environment” –  initially set up by Graduate Students United’s Women in Academia group in collaboration with the Organization of Students with Disabilities, and now run as a funded programme by the Center for Teaching – is worthy of note. The event constitutes a unique opportunity to discuss tactics that help create enabling learning spaces. It should therefore be at the discretion of the lecturer and educator to adopt trigger warnings when necessary. To impede the usage of trigger warnings a priori is a manifestation of constraint – an imposition – rather than an expression of freedom.

What, then, are “safe spaces?” We define a safe space as a place where students can go to find a group of supportive allies that will ensure they are able to practice the mental and emotional self-care they need to be able to rigorously engage with the wider university community. Safe spaces do not denote spaces where individuals can retreat to avoid dialogue. They are spaces where certain groups can go to to hang out, temporarily, with their peers and develop strategies to make their voices heard. Within this context, protests should not be condemned as actions that jeopardize academic freedom. To the contrary, they are legitimate tools to express disagreement and, therefore, exercise freedom of speech.

It is important to observe that the university already operates safe spaces such as the LGBTQ safe space, making the letter’s dismissive attitude toward them all the more puzzling. The administration’s systematic attempts to curb criticism on campus and adopt punitive measures to suppress those forces that might challenge the status quo testify to its unwillingness to practice what it preaches. Only a few months ago, former president of student government, Tyler Kissinger, was threatened with expulsion by the administration a few days before graduation for having facilitated a sit-in and for having encouraged students to raise questions during a supposed open discussion with the Provost. The administrators’ regular dismissal of the request for more transparency in the way the UCPD operates or more protection for victims of sexual assaults indexes their reluctance to heed the needs of the community and engage in truly open dialogue.

Safe spaces and trigger warnings are new technologies of collective and self, new methodologies of organizing agitations for justice and group identity. To ignore them is tantamount to condoning racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, redpill-thinking, and all the other attendant forms of hatred and bigotry. If the University is truly a collective project, as we firmly believe, we therefore have an obligation to make our community as just, equal, distributive, weird, supportive, and intersectional as possible. Only through solidarity can real intellectual rigor emerge. For this reason, the recent NLRB ruling that recognizes graduate students the right to unionize acquires even a deeper significance. It is a historic moment for graduate employees. The recognition of bargaining rights opens up new possibilities for dialogue between different constituencies on campus. In contrast to the administration’s anti-union rhetoric, we believe that the right to organize will provide the basis for the creation of a truly democratic academic environment.

The shallowness of the language in the University’s welcome letter reflects an institutional history of dismissing the demands of students and community members asking for a higher quality of life coupled with a fierce unwillingness to recognize the nature of inequality and the presence of hate speech on campus. To suggest that students must sit quietly, must behave in only one way, and speak in only one way, goes against the most fundamental ideals of the University of Chicago. The demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings amounts to demanding that power does not curb open discourse and that those that are invited to be part of our community be given the right to actively alter, improve, and develop the community so that everyone, not simply a select few, feel healthy, safe and, possibly, even happy.