A letter from the University of Chicago’s dean of students to the incoming freshmen recently went viral, sparking numerous debates among the students, faculty, parents and educational institutions on the need for safe spaces and trigger warnings. In his letter, the dean focused on the university’s commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression and asserted that the college will not support “trigger warnings,” and “safe spaces” for individuals to “retreat from the ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” The purpose of the letter was to let the incoming freshmen know that they are in for a real-world experience: where one is expected to “engage in rigorous debates, discussions, and even disagreements,” even if it causes discomfort, as well as not to avoid controversial topics and controversial people.
While the letter is outrageously blatant and completely disregards and dismisses the needs of a lot of students, I cannot disagree that some of the argument it espouses seem very valid. Will safe spaces and trigger warnings actually protect me from the ghosts I am not ready to face? Or will they just create a shallow bubble that will burst open the minute I step outside of the school premises? Because I have always felt safe and at home at Goshen College, when I go out and hear complete strangers yell, “Go back to your real home,” or, “Speak in English, you stupid foreigner,” to me, I am abruptly reminded that the outside world is different. It is neither as safe as Goshen nor as nice, and I do need to be prepared for outright dismissal and hate, regardless of whether or not I deserve it.
In any situation, I have always managed to weigh pros and cons and come to a conclusion. But this is one of the most debatable issues, where I am not able to draw a conclusion, just an argument that gets lost in translation. While there are cases where trigger warnings and safe spaces are extremely important, the question of how much they will help you outside your college still stands. But to give verdict on their requirement from a privileged standpoint and ask all the students to submit to it is another level of irresponsible, dangerous, institutional disregard.
Trigger warnings are usually given by professors before beginning conversation on sensitive topics. Discussing issues such as sexual assault, suicide, murder, genocide, war and more, in most cases, triggers flashbacks to some people and refreshes the horrors of their past. This could result in anxiety and even mental or emotional breakdown in those individuals. If I am suicidal, I would prefer a trigger warning before suicide is discussed in class. It will prepare me for what is to come and give me a choice of whether to stay or leave depending on how ready I am to discuss that topic.
Similarly, safe spaces provide platform for people, usually minorities, to fully express themselves without the fear of being unwelcomed, unsafe and judged. They give them opportunity to express and accept themselves away from all the criticism that continues to target them based on biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age or physical or mental ability.
So, the University of Chicago’s dean’s outright denial to provide trigger warnings and safe spaces is not only problematic for the minority students who actually need them but also dangerous to its students suffering from anxiety and other issues.
But where do we draw the line? When the same provided protection builds up to form the idea of censorship and rejection of all the other ideas but your own, then what do we? What if the “micro-aggression” over differing beliefs starts looking like another form of oppression?
Just a few months ago, students at Rutgers University protested and made the college cancel their invitation to the former Secretary of the State Condoleezza Rice to speak at their commencement for her involvement in the Iraq war. Similarly, Depaul University has cancelled its invitation to a lot of conservative speakers over similar protests. If we attempt to censor U.S. officials based on their involvement in a war, we have to censor many more than just the conservative ones because people are still dying in U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria and the U.S.-backed war in Yemen and millions still live under the U.S-funded military occupation of Palestine. We probably have to censor the majority of U.S. government officials, diplomats and policy makers.
While people should never stay silent in the face of injustices and oppression, the correct way to combat them is to challenge the ideas, not avoid them. To make people see the flaws in their ideas and change themselves is a real victory; censoring is just temporary solace. We can make a college freshman hide his Trump poster in his dorm out of fear, but how do we avoid millions of Trump voters who share his ideologies everywhere else? So, in this case, University of Chicago makes a very valid point: do we want to challenge the ideas or do we simply want to avoid them?
Goshen College has always encouraged freedom of expression and accepted diversity of opinions. There’s always an enthusiastic audience for my unusual opinions, and I have never felt pressured to censor myself. While I certainly do feel a surge of disappointment, and sometimes anger, when someone advocates for the need of more guns, talks about taking abortion rights away from women, perpetuates islamophobic or homophobic rhetorics and denies the oppression of minorities, I prefer an open debate about the issues rather than a complete shutdown of my conflicting opinions. I will feel better if I prove someone wrong through friendly conversations or rigorous debates, than scare someone into submission.
Goshen has managed to distance itself from all these controversies, but I feel it would be nice to make sure everybody’s free speech (which is not to be mistaken with hate speech that targets an individual or marginalized groups) is protected. We need to have a conversation about this, and make sure we are all on the same page so that nobody feels threatened or silenced.