It seems as if University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison doesn’t understand what the purpose of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” are. In his letter to incoming students, he lumped these two concepts together with not shying away from “speakers whose topics may prove controversial.”
I hold the seemingly radical notion that people whose beliefs do not contribute to the progress of society, but rather berate the identities of others, should not be honored with a platform at a university (i.e. individuals like former KKK leader David Duke, Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos and John C. Calhoun). Nevertheless, I can understand how these types of restrictions may be seen as oppositional to free speech. Sure, the rhetoric of such individuals may marginalize an entire swath of the student body or reinforce dangerous prejudices, but — freedom of speech.
Still, what I fail to see is how trigger warnings and safe spaces oppose free speech. In fact, trigger warnings and safe spaces encourage it. On trigger warnings, the UChicago alumnus Audrey Truschke put it quite well when she wrote in a statement to The Atlantic that the point of giving due warning is to allow people to emotionally prepare so that they may “move beyond their understandable initial reactions” and better engage the intellectual discussion or hard questions being asked.
Trigger warnings do not “coddle” or shield students from the real world. They respect the fact that some students have been through real-world trauma, and when triggered, such circumstances may affect their ability to engage or even properly function. Physical and emotional abuse come in a variety of forms and are common to the experiences of many. Who are you or I or John Ellison to decide what students should be affected or unaffected by?
When Donald Trump graciously took a week out of his campaign to address black people (to nearly all-white audiences) by essentially reminding us “what the hell do we have to lose” with him, the sheer disrespect was a bit overwhelming for me. The tipping point was when he used the tragic death of Nykea Aldridge, NBA star Dwyane Wade’s cousin, to prove that he was right about black people. I needed a retreat. I needed to not hear his name or anything about politics for a day or two. I enjoyed the company of beautiful black friends and beautiful black food. That was my safe space. Then I was able to once again discuss his farcical campaign.
I do not see safe spaces as a place where students “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” I see them as places where students can retreat from ideas at odds with their existence. Most people agree that minority students need places to call their own. Our cultures and ways of life are at the fringe of the general body at Yale, and so we have cultural centers. These are safe spaces. We also have the Chaplain’s Office, sacred spaces like Battell Chapel and many other sanctuaries that are safe from the draining reality that is life at Yale.
One may think, “These spoiled brats. They won’t have the safe spaces in the real world!” There are places of worship, counseling centers and even the homes of our friends, and yes, these places exist in the real world. Having intentionally created safe spaces in these formative years of adulthood teaches us the importance of self-care for both emotional and physical matters. Contrary to what our campus culture often suggests, it is okay to feel overwhelmed. It is better to be able to step back for a while, regain a sense of peace and then go engage with issues that are uncomfortable.
Why are some factions of society so opposed to self-care? Why is it so abhorrent for people to want to preserve their peace of mind by choosing to disengage with those issues that may eat at their soul? There is more to a person than their intellect and a constant need to argue.
Treston Codrington is a junior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .