Practices meant to protect marginalized communities can also ostracize those who disagree with them.
Last week, the University of Chicago’s dean of students sent a welcome letter to freshmen decrying trigger warnings and safe spaces—ways for students to be warned about and opt out of exposure to potentially challenging material. While some supported the school’s actions, arguing that these practices threaten free speech and the purpose of higher education, the note also led to widespread outrage, and understandably so. Considered in isolation, trigger warnings may seem straightforwardly good. Basic human decency means professors like myself should be aware of students’ traumatic experiences, and give them a heads up about course content—photographs of dead bodies, extended accounts of abuse, disordered eating, self-harm—that might trigger an anxiety attack and foreclose intellectual engagement. Similarly, it may seem silly to object to the creation of safe spaces on campus, where members of marginalized groups can count on meeting supportive conversation partners who empathize with their life experiences, and where they feel free to be themselves without the threat of judgment or censure.
Perhaps. But as a professor of religious studies, I know firsthand how debates about trigger warnings and safe spaces can have a chilling effect on classroom discussions. It’s not my free speech I’m worried about; professors generally feel confident presenting difficult or controversial material, although some may fear for their jobs after seeing other faculty members subjected to intense and public criticism. Students, on the other hand, do not have that assurance. Their ability to speak freely in the classroom is currently endangered—but not in the way some of their peers might think. Although trigger warnings and safe spaces claim to create an environment where everyone is free to speak their minds, the spirit of tolerance and respect that inspires these policies can also stifle dialogue about controversial topics, particularly race, gender, and, in my experience, religious beliefs.
Students should be free to argue their beliefs without fear of being labeled intolerant or disrespectful, whether they think certain sexual orientations are forbidden by God, life occurs at the moment of conception, or Islam is the exclusive path to salvation; and conversely, the same freedom should apply to those who believe God doesn’t care about who we have sex with, abortion is a fundamental right, or Islam is based on nothing more than superstitious nonsense. As it stands, that freedom does not exist in most academic settings, except when students’ opinions line up with what can be broadly understood as progressive political values.
Trigger warnings and safe spaces are terms that reflect the values of the communities in which they’re used. The loudest, most prominent advocates of these practices are often the people most likely to condemn Western yoga as “cultural appropriation,” to view arguments about the inherent danger of Islam as hate speech, or to label arguments against affirmative action as impermissible microaggressions. These advocates routinely use the word “ally” to describe those who support their positions on race, gender, and religion, implying that anyone who disagrees is an “enemy.”
Understood in this broader context, trigger warnings and safe spaces are not merely about allowing traumatized students access to education. Whatever their original purpose may have been, trigger warnings are now used to mark discussions of racism, sexism, and U.S. imperialism. The logic of this more expansive use is straightforward: Any threat to one’s core identity, especially if that identity is marginalized, is a potential trigger that creates an unsafe space.
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