Recently, the University of Chicago released a high-profile letter welcoming its incoming class of 2020. Authored by Dean of Students John Ellison, the bold statement claimed that due to the university’s commitment to “freedom of inquiry and expression,” it would not tolerate “so-called ‘trigger warnings’” or “intellectual ‘safe spaces.’” It’s an ostensibly frank stance, resonating across a backdrop of campuses both worrying about whether they’ve become home to supposedly “coddled elites” and debating how freedom of expression and respect should play out together in university policies. But it doesn’t take long to realize that Ellison’s statements are anything but clear, and the reasoning behind his professed pledge to academic freedom is ignorant at best.
First, the letter never directly defines what safe spaces or trigger warnings are, glossing over the ambiguous nature of both phrases. That is a crucial oversight. “Safe spaces” in particular have been defined in various ways throughout history, so such a lack of precision makes it rather hard to have productive discussion about them. Nevertheless, one can easily assume that by claiming the university does “not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial” and does “not condone … ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” Ellison is invoking the definition often adopted by popular media — one where safe spaces and trigger warnings serve as excuses to shield delicate students from the discomfort of controversial topics. In this narrow sense, intellectual freedom is irreconcilably pitted against trigger warnings and safe spaces.
This isn’t necessarily the case. The reality is that a large part of the debate on these issues has boiled down to the varied definitions of trigger warnings and safe spaces that people hold. And that’s to be expected — as with any other abstract concept, such as justice or equality, interpretations of what trigger warnings and safe spaces are and how they should be implemented will vary from person to person. What is much more important is the motivation behind calls for safe spaces and trigger warnings. And under many definitions, these concepts do not necessarily oppose intellectual freedom and can even facilitate it in an efficient and responsible manner.
Because even if we can’t completely agree on an exact definition of trigger warnings and safe spaces, we can agree upon the need to discuss their role and the legitimate reasoning behind their existence. As students who support safe spaces and trigger warnings, we are not shying away from difficult discourse, nor are we asking to be shielded. We are simply finding a way to support one another. Each one of us comes from a different background and has undergone different experiences, but what is always present and mutual is respect. And it is only through such respect — for each other’s traumas and difficulties, for differing opinions, for wanting a place to be ourselves without constantly having to explain and over-analyze — that our differences can ultimately be reconciled.
This is the thought behind safe spaces and trigger warnings: Only open conversation and recognition of each other’s diversity can create a foundation of respect for critical and difficult conversation. And almost all universities have resources that invoke such ideals: specialized ethnic, religious and ideological organizations are staples of any college campus, as are groups for those who have experienced physical, mental or sexual trauma. Yet for some reason, when people hear “safe space,” they immediately think of the extreme and eradicate any potential for productive conversation to progress further. It’s important to realize how these concepts — which emphasize recognizing each other’s differences rather than problematically denying their existence altogether — manifest in institutionalized respect. I’m more than proud to go to a school that recognizes the weight and complexity of this moral responsibility.
Yes, there have been cases where the concept of safe spaces has been used to cancel speakers or prevent certain expressions. But rejecting safe spaces and trigger warnings altogether falls prey to the same faulty reasoning by seeking to preempt discussion of entire concepts. And this is the ultimate irony of Ellison’s letter — he professes to support academic freedom by quashing the very intellectual discourse necessary for it. It demonstrates an incomplete understanding of the concept of safe spaces and an ignorance of the complexities involved in supporting academic freedom for students of all backgrounds.
Margaret Hu ’18 hates the word “coddled” and can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.