A Safer Space Than the Campus Starbucks? C’mon!
TRIGGER WARNING: I do not use the word ‘fuck’ anywhere in this post. Except for that one.
The University of Chicago has thrown down the gauntlet in a “Welcome to Our Regime” letter to incoming students by announcing
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.
There are those who argue that this is a clamp down on the demands of the “consumer student” who sees education as a service they have paid for and thus deserve to dictate the terms of that education in a “Customer Is Always Right” scenario. Others argue that collegiate education is not malleable to the whims of students and should be rooted in the foundations and traditions of rigorous debate and intellectual challenge as set by the hierarchy of the university.
There are two issues at play. The request (note the term in contrast to ‘demand’) for trigger warnings and safe spaces is not a frivolous thing. It is a request (again the contrast) for accommodation for people who have suffered trauma and could use a little ‘heads up’ when the class enters into sensitive territory.
Is it reasonable for a student studying criminal law to require alternatives to courses in rape law? No. If you are so traumatized in your life, studying the very source of your trauma and then asking to be excused from the material is silly. Is it reasonable for a student offended by the material presented to beg out of class? Nope. Get over your sense of precious rage.
But those are facetious examples designed to throw the argument off balance. Trigger Warnings, when used reasonably, are simply disclaimers that the class may be entering into dicey territory. It doesn’t indicate that a class on race relations not discuss the harmful effects of Jim Crow laws and the lynchings that proceeded them. However traumatic those subjects may be, that’s the class. It is, like a syllabus, simply a request to let students know what to expect.
Lots of college professors do this for their students without the university weighing in on it.
The request (for Crissakes, comprehend the difference) for areas within the collegiate grounds designated as spaces that segregate the population from one another. On its surface, this seems pretty separatist and I am against the context of exclusion by race, gender, sexual identity, etc. Dig deeper and you see that if you are of a marginalized and traditionally shat upon segment of the room, having a place to just have a peace circle or a cup of coffee without a non-stop litany of humanity getting up in your face isn’t really too much to ask.
That second issue? The abuse of these reasonable requests (!) for trigger warnings and safe spaces by students looking to avoid ideas they found violated their ideology. This very loud, angry series of groups organize around the idea that silencing campus speakers who they disagreed with and carving out esoteric spaces they could control was a key to their political power.
Being subjected to bullying, domestic violence, rape, diagnosed PTSD is really not the same as being offended or disagreed with. While it may seem that ideology is a mental disease for those who see social media as a communication weapon, it is not. The ability and willingness to scream down opposition to your ideas is not in keeping with ANYONE’S legitimate idea of education.
Is the University of Chicago supporting a patriarchal, white supremacist urge to keep marginalized communities down? Unlikely but possible and, in some extreme cases of Milton Friedman Is My Hero Syndrome, definitely. Is the University of Chicago responding to the claims that students who go hysterical at the suggestion that they should monitor their own Halloween costumes or demand the firing of teachers because they crossed their ideological line in the sand? Probably.
Both sides of the issue need to dial down the rhetoric, stop the screaming, and focus on simple common sense. Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces are NOT the issue. The fight for ideological purity and the power to decide who gets to say and do what on college campuses is the issue.
And in the best notions of that Capitalist Monster Friedman, if the university you want to attend does not offer you the voice you require to learn, there are other universities to attend that do. Let the collegiate corporatism feel the Invisible Hand of the Free Market.
Originally published at www.literateape.com.