My Thoughts on UChicago

My alma mater, the University of Chicago, is under fire for the controversial welcome letter it sent the Class of 2020. The most damning passage is: “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 the ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

My initial impression is that nobody knows what anybody is talking about. Phrases like “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” are too vague for pedagogy, and no one is attempting to formalize them. More importantly, the phrases are imbued with political meanings that transcend their literal meanings, and so when one speaks of “trigger warnings,” there is often an implied charge that may have little to do with actual trigger warnings.

Those that support trigger warnings make the simple argument that these warnings already exist in everyday life, and so it is natural to extend them to traumatizing events like rape and racism. The argument is intuitively appealing to me; I am willing to accept rape is as traumatizing as the war horrors that underpin PTSD. But the problem I face is one of social cost. I suppose there are three types of people we are dealing with:

  1. Those who knowingly exaggerate the effects of triggers
  2. Those who perceive triggers as more essentialist than they are, and are therefore “curable” with tough love
  3. Those who sincerely experience trauma with triggers to a level that may rival death

I believe all three categories exist, but I am unsure what proportion they make up of trigger warning claimants. Intuitively, I think (2) represents the majority of claimants, as I would expect more public breakdowns if (3) were the majority and I don’t think the world is wicked enough to have a significant number of (1). So the question is how large must (3) be to justify the use of trigger warnings. Does the benefit of helping (3) outweigh the costs? It’s not like we warn PTSD victims of potential triggers (if you are thinking of movie ratings, that’s meant for children not PTSD victims. It’s only by coincidence that it’s a trigger warning).Although in fairness, I imagine many forms of trauma, like rape, is significantly more common that PTSD.

Activists may argue two things: that the effort of putting a simple label is so negligible that the mere existence of (3) justifies trigger warnings and that the traumatized do not seek to inhibit the freedom of the privileged, but only to make their world a little bit more bearable. I think these arguments ignore the social cost of enabling (1) and (2). If we create trigger warnings for (3), then we are allowing (1) to free ride society and reneging on our moral duty to drag (2) out of the cave. Although such costs do not necessitate that we sacrifice (3), it does mean that the actions activists demand are not consequential only to the traumatized. But I’m not prepared to solve this value calculation.

Another problem is that there are different ways trigger warnings are understood. In my experience, they are generally taken in two ways:

  • A) Warnings that allow traumatized people to prepare for triggering materials
  • B) Warnings that allow traumatized people the opportunity to avoid triggering materials

If we suppose (A), I think the activists are correct; surely the cost of informing people about what lies ahead is negligible, and since everyone is still forced to confront the issue, we avoid enabling (1) and (2). But if we suppose (B), then I vehemently oppose the activists. The value of truth accepts psychological trauma.

A similar divergence is found in safe spaces. If by “safe space,” we mean

  • C) A place where the traumatized may retreat to after a day of stress,

Then it is reasonable to provide such spaces. But if we mean

  • D) A place where people can avoid the harshness of life,

Then I do not believe they should be created. The latter is an argument I hear in the form of, “it is not my duty to teach others. I am not a warrior. I just want to relax.” Although I accept it is tremendously unfair that minorities and the traumatized must contend with racism and bigotry on a daily basis, it is their moral duty to “teach others” and to be warriors. All of us have a moral duty to teach the ignorant, and as Kant would say, we cannot let our empathy cloud us of that duty.

A criticism I expect against me is that (B) and (D) are strawmen. For instance, the historian Kevin Gannon wrote on Twitter, “Safe spaces are NOT some sort of hermetically-sealed place where students can ask to go and hide forever from ‘scary stuff…’ Rather, safe spaces are an environment where students can go sometime, if needed, to be with others who share their experiences.” He thinks that portraying the activists’ demands as (B) and (D) are caricatures. Well, I can only speak to my experiences, but I have heard some crazy arguments from SJWs. My favorite of these is a Johns Hopkins Feminist member telling me that using reason and logic is a tool of the Patriarchy. Perhaps they only represent a vocal minority in a mostly rational movement, but I do not think they are as minor as Gannon thinks. There are so many instances of universities cancelling speakers for being too controversial. Is Gannon to have me believe that the protesters only meant this to be temporary, and that the speaker would be allowed back later? Let me know when that happens.

But the important question is, what did the University of Chicago mean when they used these vague terms? I believe they were referring to (B)-type trigger warnings and (D)-style safe spaces. It is clear in their language, prior actions, and advocacy for academic integrity. For instance, the university continues alerting people of nuts in their food, so clearly they do not literally oppose all trigger warnings. And the university has a program that is called “Safe Space,” with a mission to foster “an inclusive environment that challenges oppression and provides support for LGBTQ students.” So clearly, the administration doesn’t literally oppose safe spaces. Furthermore, the research is clear that those who are comfortable are better participants of the market of ideas, so why would the university advocate stressing them in the name of academic freedom? Is it because the University of Chicago, a major research institution, failed to notice the academic research that established this?

Rather, the letter is a political opposition to a certain style of activism. It opposes the (B)-style methods people use to avoid uncomfortable truths. Rhetorically, such is the function of using quotations around “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” – to signal that it is a specific approach that the university opposes. The quotations also sarcastically challenges the vagueness, and therefore corruptibility, of these tools. For instance, what exactly constitutes a “safe space?” Can a space truly be free from judgement and trauma as to be safe?

So safe spaces are political tools for certain groups, who frame it in a way to attain legitimacy. It is understandable why these groups need and deserve these spaces, but what the university won’t tolerate is for these spaces to be excuses. The danger is that these malleable spaces will be redefined whenever it serves an ideology, or that trigger warnings will be reshaped whenever the need arises. The history of the Red Scare and similar hysterias underpin the fear. One may argue that certain things are so self-evidently wrong that protection from it is warranted, that comparing it to historical mistakes like censuring communists or abolitionists is a false equivalency. But how do we know that? It is often useful to clearly state an extreme position to illustrate a point, and this is one of those times: we should never be so sure that the Holocaust is immoral as to not give it the opportunity to be advocated for in a public space. We must always allow the possibility – no matter how insignificant and infinitesimally quantum that may be – for slavery to return. We must never say “never again” when we have a market of ideas. Fiat veritas et pereat mundus.

The charge the University of Chicago makes is for truth. It is their view that truth is so sacred and important that the chance of trauma is an acceptable cost. Reading between the lines, I do not believe the university thinks allowing the traumatized to suffer is conducive to ideas. Reading between the lines, I think the university is clear in opposing permanent escapism. One may temporarily retreat from their demons, but one must eventually confront them. While a strictly-defined set of trigger warnings and safe spaces do not hinder the eventual goal to attain truth, the popular political use of these tools in a carefree way does. It is the latter, not the former, that the university opposes. Of course, it would have been nice if they rigorously explained this, but I guess it wasn’t rhetorically-appealing to include a philosophy thesis in a welcome letter.


TLDR: Trigger warnings that let one prepare for a traumatizing lesson and safe spaces that allow respite are good. Trigger warnings that allow one to avoid a traumatizing lesson and safe spaces that allow permanent shelter are not. It’s ambiguous which style most activists desire, but I believe they want the former. It’s ambiguous which style the university meant, but I believe they meant the latter.