UChicago is Wrong about “Free Speech” and Trigger Warnings

As an alumnus of the University of Chicago, I am saddened by the recent letter sent to incoming students that purports to exalt the university’s commitment to “free speech.” Instead, all it did was belie the ignorance, self righteousness, and privilege of the UChicago administration.

First, the reference to “trigger warnings” in the letter demonstrates a complete lack of understanding as to the purpose of trigger warnings, and a callous, privileged disregard for those who need them. Trigger warnings are not about allowing people to avoid uncomfortable topics. Trigger warnings serve two purposes: acknowledging the seriousness of topics at hand, and allowing those suffering from PTSD to avoid triggering their illness. I know this might be hard for overpaid, aloof university administrators to understand, but many people, students included, have suffered serious, life altering trauma. This can include soldiers returning for the horrors of war, along with individuals who’ve suffered through child abuse, sexual assault, hate crimes, religious persecution, and structural oppression. Trigger warnings exists so that these individuals can avoid or prepare for contexts where they’re forced to confront the horrors of their experience, and they exist so individuals like myself, who are lucky enough to have never experienced such trauma, are reminded that violence and trauma are not simply academic debates divorced from the lives of our classmates. Instead of respecting those who have suffered as such, the administration regurgitated right-wing propaganda that trigger warnings are about overly sensitive students who don’t want to confront ideas they don’t like. In doing so they’ve shown their lack of understanding towards those who’ve suffered trauma in their lives, and they insult them by belittling their simple request for empathy and consideration.

Second, the reference to “safe spaces” in the letter demonstrates a continual inability to understand the experience a large subset of the student body. The irony is that UChicago works very hard to provide “safe spaces.” They employ a hyper-militarized police force to brutalize the surrounding community. UChicago is itself a “safe space” where the privileged elite can go and discuss, in calm and sterilized settings and under the guise of “free speech,” the ideologies that reinforce structural oppression and violence in this country, all the while protected from the consequences of those ideologies by a coddling administration and mini-military that will make sure they never have to suffer the presence of the city’s poor, suffering residences. Meanwhile, classmates of color at UChicago tell stories of always having to make sure they are wearing UChicago clothing, less they be constantly stalked and harassed by the university police who mistake them for locals. As a white student I was handed a “safe space” on a silver platter, but to many of my friends who were not white, they had few safe spaces. If I wanted to I could sit in a classroom all day and safely and aloofly debate the merits of social welfare programs that affect millions of Americans, all the while a shotgun wielding UChicago police officer is stoping and frisking a black student outside my academic building. UChicago, like many universities, is a temple of white privilege and class privilege, and as such its decrying of “safe spaces” demonstrates only how disconnected the administration is from gross privilege it occupies and reinforces through its brutal, racist police force.

And finally, UChicago’s self-righteous exaltation of “free speech” rings utterly hollow in light of the administration’s recent attempt to expel the leader of a peaceful sit-in protest and deny him a diploma. It demonstrates that UChicago’s supposed commitment to free speech only extents to comfortable, quiet, and mannerly discussion that meets to administration’s preferred decorum. Feel free to talk about what ever you want in the classroom, but don’t you dare challenge the administration in any way that’s not polite. In the end this letter sent to the incoming class confirms what I’ve felt for a long time: that the UChicago administration is occupied by aloof, privileged elitists who wrap themselves in a veil of “freedom of ideas” to hide their intolerance towards dissent, indifference towards the racist policies of the university and its police, and their utter inability to empathize with people not as privileged as themselves.

Trigger warnings for the traumatized and safe spaces for ethnic minorities have nothing at all to do with freedom of speech and expression, they have everything to do with empathy and compassion.

Sincerely, an disgruntled alum