The issue of trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses has become the center of national attention in response to the University of Chicago welcome letter. The letter condemns both trigger warnings and safe spaces in the name of “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression” where “members of the community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.”
This debate has connected UChicago’s response to a broader discussion about whether or not universities should incorporate safe spaces and trigger warnings into campus culture – and has made media outlets the boxing ring for this discourse in a slew of op-ed pieces across various publications.
Kate Manne, assistant professor in Philosophy at Cornell University, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times:
“The practice [of trigger warnings] originated in Internet communities, primarily for the benefit of people with post-traumatic stress disorder. But trigger warnings have been adapted to serve a subtly different purpose within universities [to] give students notice in their syllabuses, or before certain reading assignments […] to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves […] and better manage their reactions.”
UChicago student Sophie Downes expressed similar sentiments in her own New York Times opinion piece. She said that safe spaces refer to “an area on campus where students — especially but not limited to those who have endured trauma or feel marginalized — can feel comfortable talking about their experiences. This might be the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs or it could be Hillel House, but in essence, it’s a place for support and community.”
BuzzFeed, a left-leaning outlet with a primarily millennial readership, interviewed many psychologists who advocated for trigger warnings for recovering PTSD patients. The purpose psychologically is “not to avoid all triggers,” but rather, for some patients “avoidance may be necessary based on where you are in from recovering from your trauma.”
Critics of trigger warnings and safe spaces largely agree that they are more against the culture these ideas create on college campuses rather than the ideas themselves.
Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote a piece for the Atlantic, and presented this culture as one they feel is toxic to the world of academia. “A movement is arising […] driven largely by students to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense” referring to the use of speech codes and trigger warnings on university campuses across country. The authors frame safe spaces as an entirely different phenomena than Downes, describing the communities as “refuges for like-minded people, where they don’t have to explain or defend their politics, beliefs or practices.”
While Lukianoff and Haidt approach their exposé of trigger warnings and safe spaces from a nonpartisan perspective, the issue of political correctness as well as campuses’ responses to trigger warnings and safe spaces has largely become politicized in national conversation on the topic.
Former Fox News contributor and host of podcast “Louder with Crowder,” Steven Crowder argues that safe spaces, trigger warnings, and campus speech codes undermine freedom of speech in his interview series with University of Michigan’s staff members and students. In response to one interview, Crowder says, “See, your right to free speech is rarely taken away by the sword, but under the guise of making a better country for all of us.”
Safe spaces have also made headlines on the opposite coast. In response to a list of grievances the Black Student Union brought to the California State University, Los Angeles administration, the school now offers “a segregated housing program, which will focus on ‘academic excellence and learning experiences that are inclusive and non-discriminatory.’”
German Lopez, staff writer for the progressive news site Vox, paints the conservative arguments against safe spaces as “a caricature,” explaining that the conservative position “portray[s] safe spaces as places that engulf entire universities or campuses and bar any controversial or challenging ideas. The big fear is a largely liberal student body will block any conservative speakers.” However, Lopez asserts safe spaces as not a culture on campus, but rather “a specific place where people of certain groups […] can go temporarily to talk to and hang out with peers in a similar place without having to do the kind of cultural translation that a more diverse crowd might require.”
Choire Sicha, cofounder of the Awl and director of partner platforms for Vox Media, formally mocked the trigger warning and safe space culture that he saw, describing the trivialization of the term “triggered” by saying the world “at large is not a safe space for different people like you and me […].”
The stances that the University of Chicago and California State University, Los Angeles have started a serious social discussion on inclusive language codes, trigger warnings, and safe spaces – with the media’s op-eds serving as soapboxes for every side of the issue. Whether or not offensive speech should be censored to protect an unprotected minority in America, the “for” and “against” platforms are sure to be outlined by pundits and commentators in column inches just the same.