SYNTHESIS: In support of trigger warnings

John Winstead mug

John Winstead

A few weeks ago, the University of Chicago sent students in its incoming freshman class a letter informing them that the university is not a “safe space” and that they shouldn’t expect any trigger warnings.

As reported by the Chicago Maroon, the university’s student newspaper, incoming first year students received the letter addressed from the university’s dean of students, Jay Ellison.

“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,” the letter reads.

The letter has sparked discussions of safe spaces and trigger warnings on America’s college campuses. Before jumping into the issue altogether there are some things that need to be addressed first.

So what are safe spaces and trigger warnings?

Respectively, safe spaces are intentional spaces where traditionally marginalized groups can convene free from having to encounter those parts of society that are oppressive and lousy to them. Usually, this takes the form of people of color only spaces or women only spaces.

Trigger warnings originated from the medical literature on post-traumatic stress disorder. A “trigger” is any phenomenological experience that can cause someone to have a panic attack or some moderate psychological distress.

Triggers can be inexplicable and at times unavoidable, but the trigger warning serves to well-warn anyone who may have a common trigger (sexual assault, violence, racism, etc.) that some jarring content is coming up. It’s a convenient and unintrusive preventative measure.

In short: trigger warnings aren’t bad. Safe spaces are a good thing.

I planned to devote this column entry to responding and debunking the arguments against safe spaces or trigger warnings, but these arguments largely don’t exist.

I mean they do exist, but lack a real logical basis. And by that I mean the counter arguments are just empty, melodramatic handwringing. The argument against trigger warnings is just sarcastically saying “triggered.”

Safe spaces apparently coddle the youth. They stunt intellectual discourse or whatever. How? They just do. Read “1984”! It’s all in there! Big Brother, groupthink and the likes of those novelesque claims.

There’s nothing to engage. There’s no criticism to respond to. Safe spaces and trigger warning just really hurt some people’s feelings and so now no one can have them, or at least not at the University of Chicago.

I am not one to psychologize my deeply insecure critics, but this fixation is rooted in an anxiety that there is a space or conversation in which your input is not welcome or needed.

It’s an understandable anxiety. It’s just not something you should be politically organizing around. The fact millennials are trying to build safe and comfortable spaces for them to exist is not the egregiously pressing issue of our time.

It’s not pressing. It’s not an issue. It’s just a thing you don’t like, and fixating on it is a reactionary behavior, so stop it.