TW: Intellectual Content – The Misconception of the Trigger Warning

Ana Koerner | Staff Writer

In a few short weeks, thousands of excited first-years will funnel into University of Chicago classrooms to begin their college experiences. Representing various races, ethnicities, genders, religions, and socio-economic statuses, students will engage in stimulating discussion with peers and professors, tapping into a lifetime’s worth of experiences to develop arguments and formulate thoughts. Like many other universities across the country, it remains at the professor’s discretion which experiences, whether positive or negative, students will have to relive for the sake of classroom discussion and intellectual growth. Last week, Dean of Students Jay Ellison set the tone for the year by denouncing trigger warnings and safe spaces in a letter addressed to the incoming class of 2020. Ellison argues that they create an environment in which “individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” rather than welcome a “diversity of opinion.”

Dean Ellison’s disapproving stance on trigger warnings and safe spaces reflect a general misunderstanding of the purposes they serve. Perhaps we should go back to basics: what are trigger warnings and safe spaces? For whom were they created? Some opposing rhetoric suggests that trigger warnings and safe spaces were developed for the shielded, self-infantilizing college student who would rather live in an ignorant bubble of bliss than confront the devastating realities of the world during class discussion. Apparently, these students don’t want to “get their feelings hurt” or feel “uncomfortable.” Rest assured, trigger warnings were not intended for audiences who simply felt offended or awkward addressing something – trigger warnings and safe spaces were designed for victims of trauma, originating specifically for victims of sexual violence and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

However, according to Judith Shulevitz, author of “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” trigger warnings and safe spaces serve to “shield students from unfamiliar ideas.” Yet here arises a colossal flaw in that argument: a student who could honestly benefit from a trigger warning is probably all too familiar with the “idea” in question. This is precisely because to them, it’s not merely an idea ––  it’s their reality, something in their past that haunts their present. To be a victim of trauma means that such an individual has already survived sexual assault, violation, extreme violence, abuse, discrimination, or have stood witness to any such atrocity. To argue that a trauma victim is somehow sheltered from harsh realities is to deny the very nature of what it means to be one.

Participants in the debate surrounding trigger warnings have moved on from attacking them for merely inhibiting free expression and intellectual discourse, and have begun citing concern for trauma victims and their recovery process. Citing Ivan Pavlov’s theory on classical conditioning, Lukianoff and Haidt, authors of “The Coddling of the American Mind” decide that trauma victims must be exposed to their fears in order to surpass them, and also claim that the classroom is an appropriate place for this process to occur. But this insistence prompts the question, whose decision is it to decide when, where, and how each individual overcomes trauma? Is it possible that the classroom may not be the ideal venue to revisit psychologically tolling memories? Trigger warnings give each trauma victim the opportunity to make this decision for themself, therefore giving them control over their own healing process. To assume that the college classroom is a suitable setting for every trauma victim to “change the associations that are causing them discomfort” is to revoke that control from trauma victims themselves, leaving it in the hands of the professor or the institution to decide what is best for everyone.

The essential function of the trigger warning or safe space is that it allows each individual the right to choose. Do they want to revisit a traumatic time in their life in a classroom of students and professors with whom they are expected to have a professional relationship? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Either way, the decision is theirs and frankly, it’s nobody’s business. Where critics like Jay Ellison go wrong is in their fundamental misunderstanding of the movement: students who wish to have control over their personal recovery process (a reasonable request) are not necessarily plotting a mass conspiracy to somehow avoid confronting the injustices of the world surrounding them. The fact that such backlash has arisen as a result of something that should be as ordinary as an “R” rating before a movie is more reflective of institutional efforts to silence marginalized voices than of the true intentions of the movement’s supporters. Standing in support of trigger warnings is not synonymous with avoiding necessary conversations about our culture’s harsh realities. The various forms of structural violence must be addressed, and trigger warnings do not exist to censor those discussions. Logically, these forces are part of the reason why trauma victims have experienced trauma. So why wouldn’t they want to fight against them? We can stand in support of trigger warnings and also foster intellectual and political discourse. Just read The Fourth Wave.

Ana is a senior Urban Studies and Spanish double major.