Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

triggersThe recent statement from The University of Chicago is long overdue:

“In a welcome letter to the incoming Class of 2020, Dean of Students John Ellison gives students the truth: there will be no quarter from controversial ideas on campus. U of C has made an ironclad commitment to the First Amendment, and will not abide safe spaces, trigger warnings, and other kinds of limitations on what is considered acceptable discourse:

‘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.’

Ellison pulls no punches. ‘Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship,’ he writes. ‘At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.’ “

Plain common sense, and this isn’t just a reaction to extreme cases like the Yale and Mizzou protests last year (over “insensitive” Halloween costumes and other ridiculous furies). It’s embarrassing that we live in a time when courageous thinkers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Bill Maher are petitioned to have their speaking invitations cancelled because they are deemed bigots by students who have a poor understanding of the term. Or when genuinely funny comedians won’t bother performing at college campuses because humor can’t offend as it should. Even in my undergrad days at Lewis & Clark (’89-’91), I was cognizant of the growing narratives on liberal arts campuses which made “everything” offensive. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are very real problems, and those issues are trivialized by the hyper-sensitive who protest infringements on their “safe spaces” and misguided narratives. Grow up.

Whether material might offend or trigger trauma isn’t for college instructors to worry about in any case, beyond the common sense used in prefacing their courses. For examples:

  • In both my Hebrew Bible and New Testament classes in ’90-’91, my professor (Richard Rohrbaugh) outlined historical criticism and the kind of thinking we would be expected to engage in, and warned us that as long as he had been teaching intro bible classes, there are always some students who become very upset throughout the coursework (confronted by sudden chasms separating what the bible meant and what it means to believers today). He said, “My answer to that is tough rocks; let the chips fall where they may; I’m not here to offend anyone, but some of you will naturally be offended.” Again, common sense, and this is a perfect heads-up warning to quit the class on day one if you don’t think you can handle it.
  • Over a decade ago a friend of mine took a film class and one of the required films to watch was Irreversible, which depicts an extremely long and upsetting rape scene. Again, on the first day of class, the professor warned about transgressive content like this in some of the films. Now, at the other end of the spectrum, a rape scene like that in Pulp Fiction is universally seen as hilarious, though it could potentially upset a rape victim. But we can’t police the species and worry about every possible trigger. That’s up to the student. As someone on Facebook put it the other day, college professors aren’t counselors and it’s not their responsibility to pander to recovery needs.

So whether we’re dealing with material that may be offensive to some or triggering trauma in others, that is adequately covered in a first-day preface, which has been the professorial norm for ages. Students shouldn’t be mollycoddled beyond this. It’s not serving them at all, and it’s certainly not preparing them for the real world, which is the goal of an institution of higher learning.

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