The University of Chicago is the first place that made me feel safe

Yangyang Cheng
Aug 29, 2016 · 17 min read

“The University of Chicago is the first place I’ve ever lived at that made me feel safe.”

I arrived at the Gothic campus seven years ago, as a fresh college graduate from China to pursue my PhD in physics. I graduated last December and now work as a postdoctoral researcher on an Ivy League campus. As conversation starters usually go, I get asked a lot “How do/did you like Chicago? How do/did you like the University?”

My answer always starts with the statement at the beginning.

Earlier this week, a letter to the incoming class of 2020 from the Dean of Students in the College of my alma mater surfaced online, and has since led to wide debate, from social media to blogosphere to the front page of the New York Times. The part that has sparked the most controversy, Paragraph Three of The Letter, I quote in verbatim here:

“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

I support this letter. I would like to take the next few pages to share some of my thoughts on it, and why I support it.

There have been statements in opposition to the letter, that it is a PR stunt to grab attention and pocket donations. It is a fair argument to make, but I do not want to speculate the intention of the letter, if Dean Ellison wrote it with only students in mind, certain students in mind, only press in mind, only donors in mind, multiple or all of the above; if Dean Ellison wrote it himself or with the full force of a press office or marketing team, though if the latter, it probably should have been written better. Even if the University ran a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune with the exact words in this letter, it does not automatically invalidate the message it’s trying to convey.

There have been statements in opposition to the letter, that the University, especially its administrators, do not always practice with the openness they preach. The criticism is fair and the incidences of closed-mindedness or bias deserve serious reflection and corrective action if mistakes are made. But imperfection in practice does not invalidate the principle one claims to uphold. Quite to the contrary, existing cases in violation of certain principles are further proof of the importance to stress such principles. After all, this is a nation that declared its independence with “all men are created equal”.

There have been statements in opposition to the letter, that with the broad strokes and blunt wording, the tone of the letter reflect both arrogance in a position of power, and ignorance of the subject matter. I don’t think this letter was the most eloquently or precisely stated. I think the language in the letter can be viewed as overly aggressive, and the message interpreted in different ways. There has since been official statements from the university and its representatives to reaffirm, elaborate, or clarify part of its message. The core message of the letter is also reflected in the University’s long-standing stance on matters of free expression, in written form notably in the Kalven report from 1967, and the more recent high-profile report from the Committee on Freedom of Expression, released in January of 2015. During my six years as a student there, I served for two years on the Student Advisory Board at the University’s Institute of Politics, during which the institution’s commitment to free expression had also been reaffirmed in instances of controversy.

The message of the letter is construed around the issue of “speech”, verbal expressions devoid of other physical acts: physical harm is not addressed in the letter, nor is it tolerated by the University. Whether or not the University is doing a good enough job in keeping the students physically safe is a valid question to ask and an important one, but it is not within the scope of this discussion.

The two statements that appear to have caused the most controversy are the ones involving “trigger warnings” and “safe space”. To the best of my understanding, trigger warnings are alerts at the beginning of a message informing the message recipient of potentially disturbing material; intellectual “safe spaces” are spaces where certain speech can be prohibited if deemed disagreeable, offensive, or hurtful, even if the speech itself does not violate the law or constitute direct threat or harassment.

From what I understand, the university does not mandate nor encourage the usage of trigger warnings. A course instructor has the freedom to choose to adopt trigger warnings voluntarily or upon request, but also has the freedom to reject the usage. A student has the freedom to request trigger warnings, but cannot expect that trigger warnings will definitely be used.

The campus as a whole is not an intellectual “safe space”: speech that does not violate the law or obstruct core University function cannot be prohibited from campus at large. Individuals or groups can and do construct “safe spaces” of their own, where the space is controlled and certain messaging filtered.

I support this letter.

To quote from the aforementioned Committee of the Freedom of Expression report, “In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is hard for anyone to make the argument that speech can be suppressed simply because it is in disagreement with their own, at least not anyone who is in favor of individual freedom as opposed to authoritarianism. The more poignant of the opposition to the letter, argue that speech may be suppressed not just because one does not agree with it, but that it could also cause discomfort or even psychological harm, especially to certain demographic groups that have suffered discrimination or trauma.

A lot of the opposition to the letter include statements of how the letter is well received from “the usual circles”: some of the writings spell it out more explicitly, “privileged white men”, with an occasional “conservative” thrown in.

“Privileged white men” have made many mistakes through the course of history and continue to make mistakes: but an idea being applauded by many “privileged white men” is not always wrong or even bigoted by default.

An idea being applauded by many “privileged white men” can also be applauded by underprivileged, women of color.

Like myself.

I am a woman.

I am a person of color.

I am an immigrant.

I am a liberal.

I support this letter.

There have been many posts in my facebook feed related to this letter and related response. One of the posts stood out to me, which I will use as an example here.

A white male American friend of mine posted a link to this letter, with the caption “Wow I love this SO HARD”.

A comment reads “Have you ever needed a ‘safe space’?”

I could be wrong but I assume that’s a rhetorical question.

It just so happened that I was tagged in that specific post, because my white male friend first read the letter from my earlier post. My initial post of the letter, which I captioned “The Chicago School of Free Speech”, got quite a few responses too, but not a question like that. I do not get asked explicitly or implicitly, to check my white male privileges, because without knowing me personally, a look at my profile picture voids that argument.

But I do still support the letter.

I engaged a bit with friends and acquaintances via facebook comments. A response I received posed to me this question, how we should respond to the fact that some students are surrounded by safe spaces due their privilege by construct, but some cannot even feel safe in their own bathrooms; the context being that horrific experience like sexual assault should justify restriction of certain speech in the presence of survivors. The term “in their bathrooms” was specifically used.

The colleague who made the comment, whom I know professionally but not personally, is a very kind and decent person. The question she asked is a reflection of her kindness and decency, the empathy towards survivors of trauma and the urge to listen to them and to take care of them. But just as I do not get asked to check my white male privileges the way my white male friend does when voicing the same support for the same letter, I also believe my kind and decent colleague would not knowingly ask someone who had traumatic experience inside a bathroom the question she asked me.

But I have traumatic experience inside a bathroom.

My kind and decent colleague does not know that and should not know that since she does not know me personally. You cannot read past trauma from a facebook profile picture.

What one can read from my facebook page is my support for this letter.

I was not raped inside a bathroom. I could never imagine the horrors of that.

I was beaten, with fists and small household items like the sole of a shoe or clothing hangers.

I was pressed against the wall of a bathroom and beaten so many times there is no count. There was once, when the person who beat me held a thick glass bottle filled with soap water over me, and threatened to crack open my skull with it so that I’d lose my most prized possession, my mind. The person who beat me did not crack the bottle on my head, or I probably would not be here writing this today. The soap water was poured into my eyes.

I was beaten inside the bathroom of my home, any room inside my home, on the street, on the bus, on the school playground; any place I might go and not be able to go alone as a child, I could get beaten, would get beaten, had gotten beaten.

I was beaten by my mother, the one who gave birth to me and raised me. I’m her only child.

I think it started the winter when I just turned five, at least that’s as far as I could remember. I was beaten because my mom felt my handwriting was bad, which was kind of oxymoronic because I just finished first semester of first grade and could only write a handful of Chinese characters. At the end of the storm my mom held a mirror in front of my face and told me to look, look at my swollen bruised face, lips cracked and bleeding, look at the ugly broken useless creature I was.

That’s the first instance I remember. It never really stopped, until I was finally able to leave. With the greatest ocean on earth as my shield and borders of nations as my barrier, the University of Chicago is the first place I’ve ever lived that made me feel safe.

A few years ago, at one of the many events I attended at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, the speaker brought her banjo and played a tune at the end. It was a lovely performance, at least it must have been from the audience reaction afterwards. I really do not know for myself, because from the very start, I heard from the lyrics depictions of domestic violence. I might have heard it completely wrong and I would not know, because the moment I thought I heard something like that I froze. I froze into that powerless helpless state: I could not move; I could not make a sound; I could not form a complete thought. I closed my eyes which I knew was so disrespectful to the speaker, especially as it was a relatively small venue and I sat in the front row. But I had to close my eyes, partly in an effort to filter out some of the information which was not very effective in a musical performance, partly in an effort to fight back tears which was not very successful in the end.

There have been a lot of criticism to the letter, with at least some level of assumption that anyone who supports the letter, either doesn’t know trauma firsthand, does not care about survivors, or at least not care enough to compromise their sacred creed of intellectual freedom. I read a lot of them, news articles, op-eds, blog posts, social media: I read more of the writings in opposition to the letter than the ones in support of it, because I support the letter and I always appreciate a good argument contrary to my own, whether reading them reaffirms or changes my views.

It was not easy to read a lot of them.

I am human.

I am broken too.

Can you hear me now?

I do not support the mandatory usage of trigger warnings in an academic setting because without its effectiveness being determined by psychiatric professionals, it is not practical, and places an undue burden on freedom of inquiry. There is no conclusion from the psychiatric community of how the usage of trigger warnings in general, let alone in an academic setting, is necessary or effective for recovery from psychological trauma. In individual cases concerning mental illness as diagnosed by medical professionals, if trigger warnings are required as a medical decision, I believe that should be adopted by the course instructor, similar to how physical conditions are also accommodated in classrooms. Outside of such medical cases, the students have the freedom to request trigger warnings, and the instructors have the freedom to decide whether and how to adopt them.

I hesitated a lot to put this down in writing. I kept asking myself why I could not change my mind on this: have I been through enough trauma, or been oppressed enough because of my race and my gender, to have a valid stance on usage of trigger warnings or necessity of safe space?

I was physically and emotionally abused on a daily basis for over a decade by my own mother, but I was never raped.

I was beaten on a daily basis for over a decade by my own mother, but there were no broken bones.

I was bullied in middle school to the point when a much older classmate threatened my life with a razor blade, but he did not actually cut me.

I am not White but I am Asian, “model minority”, right?

I grew up in the developing world in a society as the daughter and granddaughter of people who lived through some of the greatest horrors in Chinese or world history, war, famine, political persecution, but I am not the descendant of slaves.

I am still alive but so many have died. My mother told me to die so many times over so many years. I wanted to die so many times over so many years. Why am I still alive when so many have died?

Have I been traumatized enough to understand this?

Or have I been traumatized so much that I do not even know I deserve better, like safe space, and trigger warnings?

Was I really not traumatized at all? This was just all in my head, my imagination, my weakness, my flaws, my problem?

My training and my profession as a scientist tell me that this line of thinking is not rational. Because one cannot weigh trauma on a scale.

Because comparative victimhood does not help anybody.

But wouldn’t we be constantly asking these questions if trigger warnings are mandatory? Because triggers cannot be predicted, let alone individual responses to them. Anything can be a trigger and be required a warning. How much initial trauma deserves a trigger warning? How severe a physiological response deserves a trigger warning? What kind of trigger deserves a warning?

Would instructors decide to forgo course material that’s deemed to need too many trigger warnings? Would the existence of trigger warnings foreshadow the review and discussions of certain material, frame or tilt the conversation in certain directions, and hence compromise a truly free and open thought process? Even if answers to both questions are no, which I do not think they are, once again how would you implement trigger warnings in practice if they are required, without falling into the infinite trap of comparative victimhood?

If I see a warning ahead of material that’s deemed related to my own traumatic experience, but I do not experience discomfort that would have required a trigger warning, does that invalidate my own trauma?

When I was ten years old, my father passed away suddenly of heart failure in the middle of the night. We lived in a small apartment with only one bedroom at the time. My mother woke me up and we watched him draw his last breaths before the EMTs arrived, frantically trying to help but utterly helpless. It is hard to overstate the amount of pain and sense of loss it was for my mother. In the months and years that ensued, many things became triggers and hence forbidden in her presence. Dark-colored clothing could not be worn, not even a collar, or a trim. A lot of words could not be uttered, books not read, movies not watched, sections of the newspaper tossed out in the garbage before eyes could be laid on them, lines in my journal crossed out with so much ink and force it tore through the pages. Sections of the campus that could not be approached. Rules that did not make sense to me but they were not supposed to make sense because emotional distress is not triggered in rational ways, so rules and taboos upon rules and taboos and how could I not follow them? I was getting enough beatings and verbal barrages for other reasons or no reasons at all already.

I know it is awfully selfish for me to say this, but those were my mother’s rules and her taboos, not mine; those were her ways of coping, not mine. By removing her triggers from our shared life, she also squeezed out space for me to mourn, to process, to understand things, to hopefully recover.

I did not have that space for myself until nine and a half years later, when I came to the University of Chicago, the first place that made me feel safe.

I mourned my loss through other people’s reflections of theirs. I sought out texts of subjects from broken homes and tortured childhoods to know that I’m not alone, and if the subjects turned out okay I felt I might too. I consumed works depicting the greatest horrors and sorrows in human history, to put my own suffering, miniscule in comparison, into perspective. I found comfort and companionship from those words. I found healing from those words. The experience of reading, listening, searching, thinking, and recovering was mine and mine alone. My intellectual safe space was of my own construction. I did not have, and would never have wanted, trigger warnings put in by other people to disrupt my experience.

There were episodes of intense discomfort like hearing the banjo music. They did not come with trigger warnings.

It has been seven years since I left China. I still have nightmares.

My nightmares do not come with trigger warnings. But they happen less frequently now, so I must be getting better.

A traumatic experience is always an individual experience on a psychological level: different people survive different kinds of trauma; different people survive the same type of trauma differently; different people process trauma differently, deal with it differently, recover from it differently.

Not all trauma triggers exist within course materials. The majority of them most likely don’t.

Not all course materials containing information related to a traumatic experience will trigger negative physiological response.

Not all trauma survivors want warnings ahead of material others decided for them that could contain triggers.

I am human.

I am broken too.

What I lived through is the burden I have to bear, but it cannot be used as justification to restrict other people’s rights to free expression and free inquiry. The restrictions placed to protect my feelings restrict my rights too.

Reading much of the criticism to the letter, I felt very alone. A HuffingtonPost article tells me trigger warnings are “required for people who have faced discrimination or trauma”. In a moment of distress I asked a friend.

“Does my opposition to the usage of trigger warnings delegitimize my experience?”

My friend answered:

“My grandparents survived the Holocaust. They’d oppose the usage of trigger warnings too. So the answer to your question is no.”

Much as it is an unfair caricature to paint everyone who asks for safe space and trigger warnings as coddled cry babies, so it is to regard everyone who opposes mandatory usage of them as sheltered cold-blooded monsters. Making an assumption based on limited information and associated stereotypes is not helpful: I am both Asian and a woman; am I supposed to be good at math?

The loudest voices are not always the majority voice. The most polarizing voices are usually not the majority voice. The solution is not to suppress any voice: it is to create a free, open space for more people to speak up.

I decided to write this, not because my voice is more valid than any of the existing ones, but because my voice is just as valid, whether it screams alone into the dark, or gets echoed by the many.

In response to the aforementioned facebook comment, how do we respond to our students who could not even feel safe in their bathrooms after traumatic events, when their classmates are surrounded by safe spaces, I told my colleague that I have asked myself that question many times, and at the end of the day, the answer I give myself to be at peace with my own mind, is that life is not fair, and the world is not fair.

It is not a good answer.

But it is the truth.

There are bad people in this world. There are bad ideas in this world. There are bad experiences in this world. The world is not a safe space, and real life trauma does not come with trigger warnings. Banning them from being spoken does not make them disappear; if anything it might give the temporary illusion that such bad ideas do not exist. Things cannot be corrected if they are not exposed and acknowledged. A university is not there to shield students from bad ideas in this world. A university cannot shield students from all bad ideas in this world, and cannot shield them forever from any bad ideas in this world. What a university can do is to teach its students how to identify bad ideas in this world by confronting as many ideas as possible, both good and bad, reject the bad ones, and hopefully in the best of circumstances, form more good ideas, till the good overwhelm the bad.

One question that has been asked a lot in this debate, is why the issue of free expression on college campuses is suddenly so front and center? There are many factors that contribute to this phenomenon, but in my opinion, one important reason relates back to the earlier stereotypical notion of “privileged white males”. Stereotypes exist for a reason: they are incomplete, but they are not completely invalid. As our society progresses and more non-”privileged white males” gain access to higher education, our campuses are becoming more diverse with diverse people coming from diverse backgrounds bearing diverse experiences holding diverse voices. That diversity helps bring different understandings of classical texts, and exposes deep dark veins of prejudice, bigotry, or plain ignorance held within traditionally more closed, homogenous groups. That diverse voice is further amplified by modern technology and the usage of social media.

Because of the increasingly louder, more diverse voices, we are having debates we have not had before, confronting issues we have not thought of before, hearing arguments we have not heard before, realizing pains we have not noticed before: isn’t that a triumph in itself of free expression?

Because of the increasingly louder, more diverse voices, a university should not and must not start filtering and suppressing certain voices, however disagreeable or offensive.

Because the freedom of expression that protects the most fringe of voices, also protects mine.

Especially when I’m one of the under-represented.

I am a woman.

I am a person of color.

I am an immigrant.

I am a survivor.

I have survived with my sanity and my faith in humanity still intact. I believe the majority of the people are good. The fact that so many voices in opposition to the letter from my alma mater cites empathy and consideration for people who have been through difficulties or trauma is a testament to the goodness of the people.

But the majority of the people are also ignorant of a majority of issues. The scope of an individual’s life is so limited compared with the vastness of our world. The loudest voices are not always the voices to follow. Good intentions do not always lead to helpful actions, especially if the information is incomplete or biased. That is why we need more information. We need diverse voices. We need more speech. We need free speech.

And we place our faith in the collective wisdom and decency of the masses, instead of the judgement and arbitration of the few.

That is not just about campus speech; that is also the cornerstone of our democracy.

I was born in mainland China. In the Year 1989.

I was not yet born that spring, when the power of speech and ideas from the people, many of them college students, was suppressed by the power of tanks and machine guns from the government, at the heart of my nation’s capital.

I was born later that year in autumn, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I crossed the greatest ocean on earth to come to the land of the free.

The University of Chicago is the first place that made me feel safe.

Can you hear me now?

Yangyang Cheng
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