Last month there was a furor over a letter to first-year students at the University of Chicago. The letter, from Dean of Students John “Jay” Ellison, PhD, cautioned that the university did not condone “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and other limitations on the free expression of ideas:
“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.”
Now more than 150 UC faculty members have issued a letter of their own, published in the student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, essentially refuting the dean’s letter and saying students have every right to request such things. In closing, it says
The right to speak up and to make demands is at the very heart of academic freedom and freedom of expression generally. We deplore any atmosphere of harassment and threat. For just that reason, we encourage the Class of 2020 to speak up loudly and fearlessly.
Sounds like the students will have to use their own judgment about what constitutes acceptable behavior.
The ongoing controversy at UC and many of our universities is background to a lengthy but thought-provoking article published by Slate on September 5. “The Trapdoor of Trigger Words” by Katy Waldman delves deeply into the hows and whys of trigger warnings.
Yes, she says, some individuals, based on their personal experiences, can have very strong, painful, or frightening reactions to certain stimuli. In extreme cases it’s not unlike a soldier with PTSD who suddenly thinks he’s back on the battlefield when he hears a backfiring car.
Trigger warnings originated as simple notices that the content of an article or book might be disturbing to some people. Rape victims, for example, might not want to be confronted unexpectedly with detailed depictions of rape because of their own involuntary emotional and physiological responses. We’ve all seen warnings before particularly graphic images or language appear on television or the internet. And we all have sensitivities to certain things that, given the option, we’d prefer to avoid.
But at some point it becomes impossible to protect everyone from every personal trigger without completely shutting down the free expression of others. And if ever there were a place for the completely free and open expression of ideas, it’s at our colleges and universities.
Waldman goes on:
Given the myths and emotions enveloping the issue of trigger warnings and safe spaces, it’s worth asking what science can tell us about the actual effects of verbal triggers on the body, brain, and psyche. Certain people experience certain words as dangerous. Should they have to listen to those words anyway?
And after a lengthy discussion of how PTSD and similar conditions are treated by psychologists and psychiatrists, her answer is essentially “yes.” Yes, because the treatment for such trauma consists not of avoidance but of carefully titrated, increasing exposure to the harmful stimulus. If the possibility of encountering that stimulus is too much for the student to handle, then perhaps he or she isn’t emotionally ready for college.
The bottom line seems to be that students, rather than demanding safe spaces and trigger warnings to protect themselves from painful or frightening speech and ideas, should just steel themselves and learn to face down their personal demons. It will be time well spent.
After all, real life doesn’t have trigger warnings.