Trigger warnings and safe spaces, like many measures demonized as excessive political correctness, have nothing to do with limiting free speech, and are really just about not being an asshole. If either of these phrases sound familiar, it's probably because the University of Chicago sent a now-viral welcome letter to the class of 2020 last week, in which Dean John "Jay" Ellison told incoming students, "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."
Many people applauded the letter as a satisfying rebuke of liberal campus activism, but it would be a lot more convincing if Ellison had any idea what trigger warnings and safe spaces actually are. In reality, the former is a handful of words on a syllabus or a heads-up before a lesson that certain material might be upsetting to students who've dealt with trauma. For example, a teacher might note that an upcoming chapter contains a rape scene. Given that an estimated 1 in 4 women will have unwanted sexual contact in college, someone in the class could easily be a survivor and might appreciate the warning before being hit with a PTSD-induced panic attack in the middle of a supposedly abstract class discussion. Trigger warnings make sure people aren't completely caught off-guard when it comes to topics they may associate with personal harm, and acknowledge that a diverse student body is going to bring a lot different influential experiences to the table — a reasonable prerequisite for any meaningful academic discussion, surely.
Safe spaces are also much less sinister than Ellison makes them out to be — they're simply places where marginalized people can go and know they won't be harassed on the basis of their identity. They also already exist at the University of Chicago (and on most campuses) in the form of places like the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, or that of LGBTQ Student Life.
The thinking behind these measures is similar to that of anti–sexual assault activists who've turned to Title IX, a civil rights law that bans sex-based discrimination on campuses receiving federal funding. These activists argue that schools that don't adequately deal with gendered violence create hostile environments for women and LGBTQ people; it's harder to focus on class participation when you're worried about your physical safety on campus. Likewise, trigger warnings and safe spaces aim to make sure that schools are a welcoming place for everyone, regardless of background, by creating an atmosphere in which all students — especially those whom society has long silenced — are empowered to speak up.
"Student requests for trigger warnings and safe spaces are often a call to recognize that power is really unevenly distributed in higher education," Danielle Drees, a friend and graduate student instructor at Columbia, told me. "Intellectual community is only possible when its members feel respected, listened to, and able to advocate for themselves (not just when there's 'civility,' like Ellison's letter says)."
What's really a threat to "academic freedom," then, are mischaracterizations like Ellison's, because these strawmen distract from what safe spaces and trigger warnings are actually trying to do. Ellison's thinking isn't anything new, of course; New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait, who has written against creeping political correctness in the past, called the recent liberal reaction to Ellison's letter a "wild misreading" on the part of the "anti-anti-P.C. left." He continued, "The letter is obviously directed at the common practice of delineating common public spaces on campus, like classrooms or auditoriums, to be 'safe spaces' where political discourse must adhere to left-wing dogma."
Chait has a point that avoiding tough conversations should never be the goal of these measures, and to frame them as such would indeed be misguided. But let's remember that we're talking about young people here, many of whom are experimenting with shaping their own educations for the first time in their lives. "Sometimes undergrads are bad at figuring out how to phrase these requests because they’re only 18 to 22 years old!" Drees said. "A better response than banning trigger warnings and safe spaces would be to assign readings and have classes that work through questions like, 'What is intellectual safety and what is intellectual freedom?' Or, 'What is the value of depicting sexual violence in art?'"
The hardest part of student activism to defend is the insistence on banning campus speakers. To be fair, these demands can occasionally be clunky and extreme (again: these are teenagers). But even then, they're still stumbling toward truth. Mocking students trying to have a say in who gets to bestow their wisdom avoids tougher questions about who is given a platform, what ideas we choose to elevate, and why. And, as Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth wrote in response to Ellison's letter, "at a time when the legitimation of hatred in public discourse has become an accepted part of national presidential politics, it seems more than a little naive to tell incoming frosh that 'civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us.'"
To treat student requests as nothing more than petulance, as critics so often do, is itself a "wild misreading" of activists' intentions, one that gives administrators a means to dismiss legitimate concerns about campus inclusivity. It’s also a useful trick for schools looking to boost their reputations in order to solicit donors, apparently wistful for a time before students became such wimps. ("Perhaps the dean’s letter was aimed at a different audience [than students] — those concerned with the bogeyman of political correctness," Roth continued.)
Inherent in all these measures is the accusation that some of our most hallowed institutions don't stand on neutral ground. After all, to write a trigger warning or create a safe space is to affirm that racism, misogyny, and homophobia still exist, even on campuses assumed to be the height of rational thought. But it'd be kind of weird if they didn't exist, given that universities are places that didn't even allow women and minorities entry for hundreds of years. That means that for centuries, academic conversations about things like racism and misogyny were strictly theoretical, and educational environments reflected only the experiences of straight white men — to the point that these experiences became the baseline for everyone else's. The effects of that segregation aren't going to disappear the second someone in a skirt or with darker skin walks into a classroom. For one thing, this history has created the illusion that straight white male thought is the same thing as objective thought; it's easy to believe you're uniquely impartial when your identity has been made invisible by its omnipresence. Women and minorities, on the other hand, are assumed to be inherently biased; their experiences shape their logic, and they inevitably see triggers where none exist.
It's also easier to reject campus activism as the whining of overly sensitive babies than it is to accept that inequality remains deeply embedded in our educational system — and, as such, that our own experiences may be tainted. Part of the aversion to trigger warnings and the like undoubtedly stems from the fact that the next generation is daring to question works that a lot of dead men once deemed Very Important, or pointing out offenses that previous generations never touched.
Like any other attempt at social progress, "politically correct" campus activism is assumed by critics to come at the expense of something else. In this case, that "something else" is apparently the good old days of stoic academia, when emotion had no place in the classroom and rational discourse ruled the day. By this logic, these modern students are fragile sissies who demand coddling, and in order to become better, they must become strong, unfeeling, thick-skinned — that is, more stereotypically masculine.
It's no coincidence that the language dismissing trigger warnings and safe spaces echoes the fear among Donald Trump's America that this country is being feminized. The need for these course-corrections exposes, in a sense, that our country's esteemed academic institutions (like most institutions) haven't been all that great for anyone other than the only kind of person who was originally allowed in. The deepest irony in of all is that there is no more special snowflake than a figure whose identity is reflected and affirmed everywhere he looks — yet is apparently capable of being shaken by a couple words on top of a syllabus. And there is no safer space than the privileged upper rungs of the ivory tower, from which height everyone else looks like ants on the ground, left to carry the weight of their lives in silence.