Subberwal: Re-examinging safe spaces and trigger warnings (column)
August 31, 2016
This time last year, I was about to head off to college, and I could barely contain my excitement. A stressful senior year of applications and goodbyes was behind me; a long, dull summer was nearly over. I got my welcome letter and was ready to hit the road.
This year, though, the incoming first-years of the University of Chicago class of 2020 are walking into a storm of anger and outrage, sparked by what would normally have been an innocent document: the first-year welcome letter .
The welcome letter, like most, starts fluffily enough: Congratulations on your acceptance, we're glad you chose UChicago, etc. Then the letter solidifies into an unshakeable stance.
The University of Chicago, the letter says, is committed to freedom of inquiry and expression. We are devoted to rigorous debate and disagreement. Your ideas will be challenged, and you will be expected to fight for them. This was surprising, for a welcome letter, but not too worrying: this is what we signed up for.
Then things get sticky. "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" the letter reads.
My first reaction on reading this was pride. This is my school! This is a place where no ideas are off-limits, where it is our job as students to consider and to challenge any argument we come across. UChicago, it appears, is the first university to take a stance against trigger warnings. Then I checked the Facebook page "Overheard at UChicago" — the home of all the campus gossip and debate — and realized that not everyone shared my enthusiasm.
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It is true that intellectual freedom is one of our most valuable rights and one of our greatest tools against oppression and injustice. By discussing and evaluating every idea we encounter, we can test the validity of different viewpoints. Emotions should not be the basis for an academic analysis of an idea, and everything should be fair game. If you encounter an idea you disagree with, it is your responsibility not to silence the person expressing it but rather to debate it and put your position to the test.
However, there are many students for whom the welcome letter was anything but welcome; they feel that silencing contradictory opinions is not truly what trigger warnings are about. They're not used to limit the ideas that can be discussed; instead, they are intended to give people the chance to opt out of, or at least to be warned about, content that may be psychologically triggering (and sometimes physically harmful due to issues such as anxiety attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder). We put warnings on our newsreels and movies and even ski slopes, so that people know what they're getting themselves into; many feel we should extend this practice to our academics.
A black UChicago graduate recently wrote a piece for Vox defending the role trigger warnings and safe spaces played in his college experience. He writes that in these safe spaces, specifically in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, "my ideas were always challenged, but never my humanity. I mattered." Safe spaces were the only way this student could find refuge from prejudice and an academic environment dominated, he claims, by an administration unaware of the special concerns of students of color. For many students whose race, gender identity or sexual orientation make them stand out, a safe space was somewhere he could be free of others' expectations of them based on their identities.
As someone from a mixed-racial background, I am technically a person of color, but I am lucky enough to never have faced significant discrimination based on my race. Many of my classmates have, and my friends of color seem to be overwhelmingly in support of trigger warnings and safe spaces. I do not come from the background that they do, and as a heterosexual, white-looking person, I do not feel that I should blindly devalue safe spaces and trigger warnings when I cannot understand the experiences of those who need them.
The second issue at play in this debate is mental health, a topic that hits close to home for me as a Summit County resident. Instances of mental illness are on the rise for people in the High Country, and the effects of this upswing are visible in more than just numbers. A week before my high school graduation last year, we lost one of our classmates to suicide. The next few weeks were incredibly painful even though I didn't know him very well; I can only imagine the heartbreak his family and closest friends must have experienced. Since then, every time the topic of suicide comes up, I think about him and feel pained and viscerally nauseous.
If discussions of suicide can make me feel anxious and scared, how do they affect people who are closer to these hard issues, people who have themselves struggled with mental-health problems, or racism, or oppression?
The discussion of trigger warnings and safe spaces may seem like it's lending credence to the demands of coddled millennials in an ivory tower, but it is an important conversation to have as people who have suffered trauma, including many students at Summit High School (where it seems like there is always a loss to be mourned), head out into an unforgiving world.
Should we integrate trigger warnings and safe spaces into our society the same way we integrate wheelchair ramps and gluten-free food options? Or is treating mental health and racial tension in the same way we treat physical disability or food allergies creating a generation of people who are afraid to have their ideas challenged?
I don't know the answers to these questions. I don't know what an official policy on safe spaces and trigger warnings would look like (UChicago still doesn't have one; professors are free to offer trigger warnings if they choose, though the institution as a whole is not in favor of them) or if it would be effective. What I do know is that I haven't had the traumatic experiences that some of my classmates have had, and so it is my responsibility to listen to their needs and to have a conversation with them about how to balance students' mental well-being with the demands of a rigorous education. This is a discussion that society should engage in and not devalue or dismiss. After all, all ideas are fair game.
Kaeli Subberwal graduated from Summit High School in 2015 and just finished her first year at the University of Chicago. She is a summer intern at the Summit Daily.
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