The prestigious University of Chicago issued a letter to its incoming freshmen stating that they will no longer condone the use of “intellectual safe spaces” or “‘trigger warnings.’” This letter, penned by Dean John “Jay” Ellison, is UChicago’s effort to fully integrate its students into the contentious, sometimes controversial world of academic debate and expansion of knowledge.
While the letter’s thesis seems to be focused on the noble pursuit of expanding one’s perspective, UChicago seems to totally misunderstand the concept of what safe spaces and trigger warnings actually protect.
UChicago’s commitment to open discussion of controversial topics is partly in reaction to several schools around the country banning or canceling contentious speakers — or really one in particular: conservative blogger Milo Yiannopolous.
Dr. Charles Lipson, a professor of political science at UChicago, shares his bafflement with universities banning this and other similar speakers, telling NPR’S David Schafer, “”They’ve rolled over and they have not stood up for what ought to be a basic value of universities, which is to encourage free speech.”
That’s all well and good, and slightly insulting to the intelligence of these other universities, but this Milo Yiannopolous fellow is not a beacon of academic rigor and radical thought. His “unspeakable truths” could be found in the comments section of any Youtube video. This Internet Troll in the Flesh was literally banned from Twitter for attacking Ghostbusters and SNL star Leslie Jones with racist, misogynist, and overall violent rhetoric.
Yiannopolous has brought his tour, “Feminism is Cancer,” to several universities this year, including UCLA, and each tour has been no different from his online personality: racist, misogynist, demeaning, and encouraging violence toward those who oppose his views. As Leslie Jones herself put it when discussing her reaction to these aggressive tweets:
“Hate speech and freedom of speech? Two different things.”
In the welcome letter, Dr. Ellison informs the freshmen that “civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to threaten or harass others.”
These are exactly the interactions that safe spaces and trigger warnings promote: those of mutual respect, and an evasion of threats and harassment to one’s person for simply existing. Safe spaces are not exclusive of any idea except those that attack a person’s existence, and trigger warnings are used to respectfully inform a population of the possible traumas the tagged content could precipitate. So, where’s the disrespect in that?
The true disrespect may be appearing in the fact that the university is being put under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for its poor handling of sexual assault complaints and its lack of punitive action when a campus fraternity sent racist, homophobic, and Islamophobic emails earlier this year.
Higher education is about just that — education — but it is difficult to accept that UChicago does indeed want all its students to learn if they are so fundamentally, or intentionally, misunderstanding what safe spaces and trigger warnings provide. Encouraging the inclusion of speakers like Yiannopolous may carry the appearance of inclusion of ideas, but Yiannopolous’ hate-mongering is nothing new, and brings nothing intriguing or even coherent to UChicago’s supposed fostering of academic discourse.
Yiannopolous’ ideas of free speech are being able to harass someone purely on the basis of being black and a woman; a conception of free speech that UChicago surely does not agree with, if its decrying of “freedom to threaten and harass others” is any indication. So why subscribe to the rhetoric that safe spaces and trigger warnings are for oversensitive, close-minded wimps — an idea that Yiannopolous and his followers cling to with a fervor.
Acknowledging the obstacles which make learning difficult is the revolutionary idea — not the inclusion and implicit encouragement of hate-speech and harassment. If UChicago truly wants to allow its population to absorb the most it can in academia, the administration might want to take a look into why safe spaces and trigger warnings are utilized in the first place, and may need a refresher course on what safe spaces and trigger warnings actually are.