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Trigger warning: trigger warnings don’t actually stifle free speech

A few weeks ago an older relative mailed me a newspaper clipping. “Free Speech Is the Basis of a True Education” is emblazoned in staunch serif font at the top of the page. Maybe you’ve read the article, which was written by the dean of the University of Chicago as an open letter to the 2016 freshman class. You’ve encountered, probably, memes making fun of the concept of trigger warnings (often featuring a photo of a woman who has become the caricature of modern feminism).

After posting about the subject on Twitter, I got into an awesome conversation with a former classmate. She mentioned that she didn’t agree with the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces, but after discussing it a little further, she realized that her opposition “boiled down to semantics,” and we found ourselves agreeing on their use in practice.

Here’s an example of a real, honest-to-gosh, from-the-wild trigger warning, in case you don’t believe me:


Inside Higher Ed posted something of a roundup of various professors responding to the dean’s anti-TW/safe space letter, and received a number of excellent, nuanced responses (as always, I’d suggest avoiding the comments, where nuance breaks down pretty much immediately). I was particularly struck by Gwendolyn Beetham’s comment on where these tools were created versus how they’ve been adapted for use in the classroom.

Because (most) classroom interactions take place face-to-face rather than online, the original intent of the trigger warning becomes complicated, since the individualized way that we consume the internet does not translate into the classroom setting.

So much of the dialogue surrounding trigger warnings/safe spaces gets lost in how politicized those terms have become, when in reality their use is far more benign than the dean of UChicago would have us believe. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that revulsion is somehow bound up in the fact that these tools were popularized in online communities created to serve queers, women, victims of rape/sexual assault, and people of color. As with most things generated by and for oppressed groups, they cannot be tolerated beyond the bounds of their communities of origin. Anything more is a dangerous encroachment on existing structures of power: deeply suspect at best and worthy of violent opposition at worst.

At the end of the day, Bryanne and I agreed (as would, I think, most rational humans) that alerting students to possibly traumatizing topics and giving them support in wrestling with them is a laudable goal. No teaching technique or educational tool is perfect, and I can see how trigger warnings and safe spaces could be misused to quash discussions rather than empowering them. I’m also sympathetic to the argument, espoused by some of my favorite teachers and writers, that the world is not a safe space and trauma doesn’t warn you before kicking you in the head, so trying to make the classroom “safer” seems like a misguided endeavor.

Used appropriately, though, I’d argue that trigger warnings and safe spaces do exactly the opposite of what UChicago’s dean seems so agonized about: instead of stifling free speech, respectful debate, and engagement with difficult topics, trigger warnings can empower students to speak. That footnote on the syllabus or “Safe Space” sticker on a teacher’s office door can alert students that if they need extra help grappling with subject matter they find difficult, their teacher is an ally and a resource for them. It’s the difference between letting students duke it out over sensitive topics with zero filters and gently guiding them toward ways to approach those topics with respect. Many college students are, after all, still actual kids. They’re actively learning how to talk about things like race, gender, sexuality, and trauma in ways that don’t leave other people bruised and pissed off. A professor who sets up parameters for respectful discourse in their class isn’t eroding the integrity of the college experience, they’re making sure the classroom doesn’t become so toxic that students decide not to speak at all.

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