Check Your Outrage

Safe Space Trigger at U of C

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’m in the throws of writing my paper/thesis, though I don’t know if that makes me inherently less likely to post out of time constraints or more likely due to procrastination.

The University of Chicago, where I work/study/serve-“the man”, published the following letter to its incoming Freshman class:


The letter has drawn national attention, smug satisfaction from many of its alumni, and trepidation from the incoming students. There’s undoubtably a generational divide here, one that I find myself in the middle of. Adam Davidson put it well in the latest Slate Political Gabfest:

“I don’t know if college-age kids understand that people in their mid-40’s think of themselves as like, ‘oh, I just graduated from college’, but that is my continual experience, to remember that, ‘oh, I’ve been alive longer after college than before college’. And, so this whole world of trigger warnings and not allowing people on campus to disagree with you… […] This is when I feel like an old man and very confused and upset, and I was just proud of my alma mater, the University of Chicago, which sent a letter to the incoming class of 2020 saying ‘we’re not into that; we don’t do trigger warnings; we don’t shield you from complicated ideas. This is a place where we wrestle with complicated ideas, upsetting ideas, the world as it is.’, and I felt very proud of the University of Chicago. I also felt like, maybe this letter was written by a bunch of people just like me and were completely missing something really important we don’t understand.”

Perhaps as a 29-year-old, I can walk that generational divide. This letter and Adam’s response reminded me of this old Simpson’s clip:

Adam and the University of Chicago have taken a righteous stand, but nuance is important in preventing an adversarial or authoritarian environment and backlash from the students…

Take trigger warnings: If you are teaching a class, leading a discussion, or showing a video of an event that is likely to be a psychological trigger to traumatized students, it is compassionate to warn students of this beforehand. This is especially true in the case of sexual assault, since college students live under such threat and are far more likely to have been recently been survivors of rape.


On the other hand, no one should be forced to give trigger warnings or even be censured for eschewing them. They can detract from many presentations and discussions, so should be used sparingly.


Safe spaces provide a necessary escape from stressful environments. Whether it’s your dorm room or an exclusive club, they have value. I started a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance primarily to serve as a safe space for atheists to express themselves and form a community. The ability to temporarily retreat from the chaos and rigmarole is critical to student development.


College itself is not inherently a safe space. On the contrary, it’s supposed to be ideologically challenging. Whatever ideological safety you impose infringes on the expression of others.


The University of Chicago’s letter does not, as some have reported, limit or discourage protest. Protest is a form of expression that the letter specifically endorses.


It should be news to no one that protest often takes the form of silencing others. Shouting down invited speakers, blocking entrances, and destroying property are anti-expression


The best solution for bad speech is more speech, and neither I, nor this letter (for the most part…), says otherwise.

[Edit 8/30/2016]: A friend of a friend from U of C did a nice survey of reactions to the letter.