AAC&U News, October 2016

Debating the Merits and Flaws of the "Trigger Warning"

This August, University of Chicago Dean of Students John “Jay” Ellison caused a commotion in the higher education sphere by issuing a letter to incoming University of Chicago students which said, in part, that “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.” Touching on many of the issues currently embroiling higher education, Ellison’s letter sparked a widespread conversation about the meaning of contemporary academic freedom.

Writing in the Washington Post, Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, argues that academic freedom includes the right of professors to do as they wish in their classrooms: “What if a faculty member wanted to give students a heads up that they would be reading a racist text or a book about rape so as to help them understand the reasons why it was part of the work of the class? Would giving this ‘trigger warning’ not be part of the professor’s academic freedom?” Furthermore, Roth writes, the concept of totally free speech is, in and of itself, something of an illusion—all of what we deem free speech “takes place for specific purposes and against a background of some expression that is limited or prohibited. Hate speech and harassment fall into these legal or procedural categories.” Moreover, higher education has historically favored certain groups of people over others, giving some an inherent power and comfort on campuses and others a feeling of fighting to be heard. “We must beware of the rubric of protecting speech being used as a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power,” writes Roth.

Some, however, are more critical of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”; Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religion at James Madison University, writes in the Atlantic that students, not professors, are most at risk of losing their freedom of speech on campus as a result of the culture created by these concepts. Levinovitz argues that, instead of making campuses a more comfortable place for dialogue, “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” mean that campuses are only safe for a certain brand of progressive opinions, stifling—in particular—both religious students and students critical of religious beliefs. “According to anonymous in-class surveys,” writes Levinovitz, “about one-third of my students believe in the exclusive salvific truth of Christianity. But rarely do these students defend their beliefs in class. In private, they have told me that they believe doing so could be construed as hateful, hostile, intolerant, and disrespectful; after all, they’re saying that if others don’t believe what they do, they’ll go to hell.” Likewise, Levinovitz continues, students who “think no religion is true”—about one-fourth, according to anonymous surveys—would “never say so in class. This kind of comment would likely seem even worse when directed at religious minorities, including those who practice Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism.”   

Meanwhile, others contend that “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” do not warrant such hubbub. Sophie Downes, a senior at the University of Chicago, writes in the New York Times that “a trigger warning is pretty simple: It consists of a professor’s saying in class, ‘The reading for this week includes a graphic description of sexual assault,’ or a note on a syllabus that reads, ‘This course deals with sensitive material that may be difficult for some students.’” Likewise, a “safe space” can refer simply to any place on campus that’s been designated as somewhere for like-minded students to gather: a Catholic student center, a black student union, or a support group for victims of sexual violence, for example. In fact, Downes points out, many organizations like these already exist on the University of Chicago’s campus, and a university spokesperson has said that no changes to policy or programs are planned. Still, Downes acknowledges that, though opinions may differ, “there are certainly legitimate debates to be had over speech in academic settings.”

 These debates continue to unfold at the University of Chicago itself, where faculty members responded to Ellison’s letter by signing a letter that said, in part, “The right to speak up and to make demands is at the very heart of academic freedom and freedom of expression generally.” They will also continue to unfold at colleges and universities across the nation, where students, faculty, staff, and administrators are engaging in the difficult work of creating educational environments that both affirmatively welcome and intellectually challenge all students.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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