Dear UChicago

Trigger warnings and safe spaces. Let’s talk about the misconceptions.

Recently, the University of Chicago told its incoming students that they do not support trigger warning or safe spaces on their campus. UChicago claims that this will foster a healthy speaking climate on campus, that it will prompt intellectual debate, but also that it will make students feel uncomfortable.

As if this is a good thing.

In theory, students should be made to feel uncomfortable in college. We should sit in a classroom and have our ideas pushed, prodded, and further developed.

However, uncomfortable is quite different from painful, and freedom of expression is much different from being able to say whatever you want, whenever you want, regardless of whom it hurts.

There are obviously many misconceptions about safe spaces, and apparently about trigger warnings also. These misconceptions seem to surface when people are confronted with something they do not understand, or have never experienced. They refuse to see its necessity.

So why are trigger warnings necessary?

For those who have endured assault, hate speech, or hate crimes, trigger warnings are incredibly necessary. There must be spaces for those who have experienced hate or discrimination to seek solidarity without the threat of further oppression. But, since the majority of spaces are not protected from hate or discrimination, we must provide trigger warnings so that those who have traumatic experiences can prepare themselves in the event of a triggering discussion.

Let’s discuss trigger warnings for sexual assault, because they are, in my opinion, the least contested example of trigger warnings.

Imagine a survivor of sexual assault unexpectedly faced with graphic images, or even a discussion of assault that takes them back to the traumatic event.

To say that someone who has been sexually harassed, assaulted, or raped should be made to feel uncomfortable in order to toughen up is inhuman. Suggesting such a thing would be as if we, as human beings, can’t comprehend pain. As if we have never experienced, or seen anyone experience pain, and because of that we believe that grief and hurt can be healed as long as if it is repeatedly thrown in your face.

This is illogical.

We wouldn’t go to a funeral with a few books, some tactless college kids, and a speaker all talking about death and assume that the loved ones will get over the death more quickly. We wouldn’t ignore that people have feelings that should be respected in this situation, so why would we when it comes to survivors of sexual assault?

I think it ultimately comes down to a lack of understanding.

As someone who has never experienced sexual assault, it is difficult for me to explain why trigger warnings are necessary, why the choice not to relive a traumatic experience is so important. Yet, it is because I do not understand first hand that I realize in this instance I must defer to those who do. I must listen to the survivors of sexual assault.

If survivors want trigger warnings, then who am I - who are we - to deny them that?

Survivors of sexual assault spend their entire lives moving on from such a traumatic event, and that moving on is difficult enough without people, especially those who cannot relate or understand, telling them that they need to get over it.

We must force ourselves to understand, to listen to them, and if empathy is impossible, then sympathy is vital.

The same willingness to listen is vital to understanding the necessity of safe spaces.

I understand how it can be difficult to reason why someone might need a safe place to escape to if you, yourself don’t ever feel like you need that. I understand how it’s difficult to reason why someone might need a safe place to escape the verbal insults about their race, sexuality, or gender when you never have to deal with such insults. I even understand how it might be difficult to reason why this discrimination, this blatant bigotry, is impossible to just get over if this is not your reality.

However, just because it’s not your reality does not mean that it isn’t someone else’s.

In fact, I would say that if our own experiences don’t allow us to understand personally, then maybe we should trust those advocating for trigger warnings and safe spaces above our own unfounded notions.

Maybe we should trust them, the people who so adamantly desire a safe space. Maybe we should trust that there are things we will never understand if we are not in the minority. We should trust that it isn’t okay to say the n-word, the f-word, or to hurl demeaning insults against women and trans people.

If we continue to allow these slurs and insults to be used, we must accept what this means for our society. These words invoke certain beliefs and stereotypes that people in the minority cannot escape. These words turn into actions more quickly than we can combat them, so it isn’t so much a matter of what we can say, but what we should and should not.

But, and I cannot stress this enough, should not does not mean can not.

The ability to use racial slurs or homophobic insults or sexist comments is not lost by simply telling people that they should not. Rights are not stripped by telling people that their words have a negative impact on the progression of equality for our society. No one is “censored” just because people reacted poorly to their words.

In fact, all ability remains intact.

The choice then becomes whether or not to say the insulting/demeaning/prejudice thing, or to refrain because it’s never okay to say hateful things.

But, I think the most important thing to understand in regards to the issue of speech and expression that UChicago has vocalized is that no one has lost the ability to say what they want just because people are finally speaking out against hateful language.

It shouldn’t be acceptable to insult someone because of the color of their skin, the gender of their sexual partners, or their own gender. But, you still, no matter what, have the ability to do so.

Truthfully, it’s hypocritical to say insulting, hateful things and then feel attacked when people attack what you have said. It’s hypocritical to be offended when you are accused of being racist, homophobic, transphobic, or sexist, but then act as if you don’t understand why someone would be offended by your racist/homophobic, transphobic/sexist comments in the first place.

So I think it is quite obvious that I would prefer slurs weren’t used at all, but I also know the world we live in. So if people are going to use discriminatory language, safe spaces are incredibly important.

Safe spaces aren’t a place to hide, or even a place where conversations don’t happen. Safe spaces are places where people are conscious of what they’re saying, places where people know that hateful language takes a toll on one’s self-esteem and morale. Safe spaces are a place to go to talk not only to people who can relate, but also people who want to be aware.

A place for critical thinking where people are both caring and socially conscious doesn’t sound so bad to me.

Taking away safe spaces and trigger warnings does not create a more stimulated discourse; it creates an environment where minorities are once again afraid to speak up, where minorities are constantly subjected to vocal prejudice.

A world without safe spaces and trigger warnings does not create a new space for dialogue, it limits us to the same space we’ve had since the beginning of time, a space where the only people who are comfortable talking are the cis-gender white males, and of those, only the ones who have never experienced sexual assault.

This, for a variety of reasons, is not okay.

If the only people who are talking are the people with whom our history books are filled with, then we are doomed for many more years of the same racial, gender, and sexual orientation power imbalances.

So yes, I argue that safe spaces are necessary, that trigger warnings are vital. I argue that it is important to remind people what they shouldn’t say and the reasons that they shouldn’t say it. But, I also argue that you can’t stop anyone from saying anything, and that it’s  pointless to act as if freedom of speech and expression are being taken away just because people react negatively.

People are just finally realizing that discrimination does not have to be tolerated.

But most of all, I argue that if you don’t understand—if your life experiences have not given you insight into trigger warnings or safe spaces—then rather than be combative about the idea, take a moment to listen.

Listen to the survivors of assault, the victims of discrimination.

Choose not to discriminate against them not because you are afraid of the backlash, but because you realize that they don’t deserve it simply because they happen to be a different race, gender, or sexual orientation.

And remember that at the end of the day you can still say whatever you want as long as it isn’t intended to cause physical or emotional harm.

It’s now just a matter of: should you?

Unfortunately for the University of Chicago, we can’t just go back in time to when it was okay to use the n-word or the f-word, or all the other demeaning words that were acceptable years ago. People are finally speaking up, and that isn’t just going to stop.

So, dear University of Chicago,

Society is evolving, and with that so is our awareness of people and their experiences.

I think this is a great thing.

So give me all the trigger warnings, all the safe spaces and I’ll give you all the “rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement,” because I can be socially conscious and have intellectual discourse.

Can you?


Kristina Smith