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In defense of trigger warnings and safe spaces

In a not-so-welcoming letter to incoming students, the dean of the University of Chicago wrote that the institution did not condone trigger warnings or safe spaces.

Safe spaces and trigger warnings have different places in activist movements, and they do not necessarily have the goal of “political correctness” that conservative movements claim are ruining our society, as they simultaneously pander to their predominantly white and privileged audience. Trigger warnings and safe spaces are valuable tools of social justice to open up conversations among marginalized groups and mitigate the harmful effects of violent academic content.

The New York Times recently reported an alternate perspective of social justice issues on college campuses regarding the push for many schools – Clark University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, to name a few –to include race-sensitivity training and facilitation of open dialogue. These are a part of orientation events in order to combat microaggressions and raise awareness of important injustices.

UChicago, along with many other conservative-leaning institutions in the country, took the opposite approach to many of these forward-thinking colleges, and went on to attack all the useful tools that help start dialogue about the power systems in this country, in the name of “not censoring academic speech,” and allowing for the free expression of ideas.

Historically,  academic freedom has been only for rich, white men. Those who are asking for safe spaces on campus, which generally include activist groups, are the ones who have been excluded from these academic institutions for centuries and only in recent generations have they been allowed to have a place in crafting academic thought for future generations. Safe spaces and trigger warnings are just some of the things that can be used to help these students acclimate to the institutions that were founded on their exclusion.

Contrary to the claims of censorship, most trigger warnings are not meant to suppress intellectual thoughts, but to provide a two-word warning of the forthcoming content. Trigger warnings protect students who may have PTSD, or may experience anxiety and depression as a result of the topic. A professor may give out trigger warnings for very sensitive issues, such as rape, and such content can be damaging to someone who has experienced that in their lifetime.

If there is anything UChicago could learn from that letter, it is to listen to their students. They are the reason the university exists. The curriculum should not be listening to the alumni and the distinguished faculty with their anti-progressive ideals.

By berating safe spaces, UChicago is amplifying the voices of those in power, and silencing those who are not. The commitment to academic freedom is worthless if they are not committing to students of color, LGBTQ students, disabled students, and any marginalized group experiencing oppression at academic institutions.