What the University of Chicago Doesn’t Understand About Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

By now I’m sure you’ve heard that the University of Chicago is taking a stand against those coddled students who don’t want to confront the real world by officially taking a stand against “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” Millennials, am I right?

As the New York Times reports, John Ellison, the dean of students at University of Chicago, wrote the following in a letter to incoming freshman:

“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.”

You heard the man! College is about the exchange of ideas, not your special snowflake sensibilities! It’s time to put on your big kid clothes and learn something!

But here’s the problem: I’m not convinced that John Ellison, who the letter is from, actually knows what a “safe space” or a “trigger warning” actually is.

If you’ve lived on the social justice side of the internet for the past several years, you’ve no doubt seen the proliferation of the terms “trigger warning” and “safe space.”

Trigger warnings or content notices are, when you think about it for a second, just ways of being polite. Trigger warnings don’t mean that certain information is going to be excised from a curriculum, book, blog post, what have you. Trigger warnings let students prepare for what’s coming.

Biology professor PZ Myers at the University of Minnesota, Morris shares an example of how trigger warnings can be useful in areas we don’t typically think about.

“I once innocently listed human birth defects as a topic on a syllabus, and a distressed woman met with me to say she was worried she’d lose it in class — she’d given birth to an anencephalic baby a few years before, and she was terrified about that subject. She wanted to talk with me not because she didn’t want to hear about birth defects — on the contrary, she really wanted to learn about it, but she was conscious of her own emotional reaction — and wanted some clearer idea of what I was going to say and show. I told her that in fact I was going to focus primarily on neural tube defects, and that yes, I had some photos of the phenomenon, but the focus was primarily on mechanisms. It was enough that she knew what to expect so she could prepare for it, and she just asked that I let her know before I showed the photos.”

This is a trigger warning. They aren’t used to coddle. In fact, if someone can prepare themselves emotionally it probably means they are going to be in a better place to, you know, actually learn about the subject in question. It’s not rocket science. It’s basic empathy.

Trigger warnings are just that. Warnings. Not a get out of class free card. Have they maybe been abused in the past? I have no doubt, because there are a lot of people in the world and things like that are bound to happen. Is it common? I don’t really see evidence of it.

The same goes for safe spaces. To be fair, Ellison does say that the University of Chicago doesn’t support “intellectual safe spaces,” which has at least a surface veneer of reasonableness. You want ideas to proliferate and for the best ones to rise to the top. Very noble.

But “safe space” doesn’t mean safe from ideas that make us uncomfortable. Being in a safe space means that some aspect of you – your race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. – won’t randomly and without warning be interrogated. Back in January the president of Northwestern University, another elite Chicago-area university, wrote about why safe spaces on college campuses are so important:

“I’m an economist, not a sociologist or psychologist, but those experts tell me that students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that comfort. The irony, it seems, is that the best hope we have of creating an inclusive community is to first create spaces where members of each group feel safe.”

Again, I have no doubt that this concept has been abused or watered down in places. But at its core, safe spaces encompass a simple truth. Feeling safe is necessary to learn.

The University of Chicago says it wants to protect free speech and expression. But by coming out against trigger warnings and safe spaces, the university is effectively promoting one form of speech over others. It hasn’t been all that long since women and people of color started attending universities in large numbers. It hasn’t been that long since LGBT people could be out of the closet (and some still can’t). Safe spaces and trigger warnings are a way to force the elite – overwhelmingly white, cis, straight, and male – to take their stories seriously. The world is more or less implicitly safe for white guys in the Ivory Tower. We peasants are just asking for a little bit of that.

Photo Credit: ThinkStock


Chun Lai T
Chun Lai T1 years ago


George L
George L2 years ago


Marie W.
Marie W2 years ago

Face reality.

Wendi M.
Wendi M2 years ago


Jay G.
Jay G2 years ago

First of all, if you want anyone to take you seriously, don't use the term "cis." The majority of people don't know what it refers to, and the majority of the rest that do don't care. We have bills to pay. I don't know if you come from such a privileged class that you can afford to expend mental energy on such topics, but the rest of us are concerned with things like putting food on the table and keeping roofs over our heads.

And as I sense you judging me, understand this: it is you, not me, who is wildly out of touch with the majority of America on this issue. Perhaps you should spend a little less time on the "social justice side of the Internet."

I have no issue with trigger warnings, although I will say that your case for saying they are not widely abused because you "don't really see it happening" holds less than zero weight because something tells me you haven't spent a lot of time researching examples that run counter to your preferred narrative.

You say that by coming out against safe spaces "the university is effectively promoting one form of speech over others." What you fail to realize is that the reverse is true. By establishing classrooms as safe spaces, it can easily become unsafe for students who would articulate viewpoints that don't align with imposed notions of "social justice." Tell me, in such a classroom would it be acceptable for students to voice opposition to affirmative action? Or Black Lives Matter? What about religiously-based opposition t

Donn M.
.2 years ago

Glad to see the U. of Chicago's statement. Good for them for standing up for common sense.

Lisa M.
Lisa M2 years ago


Deborah W.
Deborah W2 years ago

University of Chicago ... say no more. Been a breeding ground for trouble as far back as I can remember.

Fi T.
Past Member 2 years ago

Equal opportunity