Last month, the University of Chicago issued a letter to incoming freshmen, emphasizing its support of free speech and open debate on campus. In the age of “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces” and rampant disinvitations, the measure is a refreshing departure from the illiberal status quo at many colleges. Classes that never seriously challenge your ideas or provide you with differing perspectives are not education but propaganda. When professors offer opt-outs and warning labels for information arbitrarily deemed “offensive,” they cheapen the value of a college education and promote a culture of conformity.
A heads-up before graphic content is not a new idea, of course. In 6th grade, my teacher warned us about the grisly material that we would read in Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust novel “Night.”
But such warnings bear little resemblance to today’s ‘trigger warnings’ on college campuses. Students come to Yale to broaden their horizons and become educated, mature adults. They are not 12-year-olds being introduced to some of the darkest days in human history for the first time. Yale students are supposed to be the future leaders of tomorrow, the intellectual crème de la crème.
The problem is not so much with individual, ad hoc warnings — on occasion a graphic content notice is certainly appropriate. To insist that professors never put a warning label on extremely disturbing material is as poor and dogmatic an argument as any given in defense of institutionalized, widespread trigger warnings.
Rather, the problem is that profligate trigger warnings and safe spaces engender a culture of coddling, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Haidt ’85. Consider the anthropology of these concepts. “Trigger” warnings were originally conceived as a way to avert flashbacks to “traumatic” memories. When we apply trigger warnings to a text, we are implicitly saying that that text might induce PTSD-level distress. In a similar vein, when ideologically homogenous spaces are termed “safe,” the implication is that heterodox beliefs are dangerous. So when professors slap a trigger warning on just about anything, they send an unhealthy message to students: It’s reasonable for you to feel not just offended, but also harmed by these readings.
In other words, trigger-warning culture threatens to reduce college students to ticking emotional time bombs. The slightest offense is much more likely to set off violent, even catastrophic reactions when we tell students those reactions are to be expected. As a result, everyone ends up walking on eggshells: Students are afraid to raise topics that might be offensive, and professors find themselves in the untenable position of second-guessing every line they utter in class. Talking about food in early America? Make sure you warn students, lest you be accused of “fat-shaming.” Showing a documentary that contains threatening audio recordings of gunshots? Make sure that is clearly stated at the beginning of class — and that students never watch a movie, play a video game or walk the streets of New Haven on their own.
And it doesn’t stop with sounds or images. Trigger warnings can easily metastasize to ideas and ideologies. Already on many campuses free speech is under attack, with warnings of racism, sexism, ableism and every other ‘ism’ hurled at just about every book written before 1970. Even Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” now carries a trigger warning at some colleges. Designated “free-speech zones” have proliferated on many campuses — implying that everywhere else carries restrictions. To see how truly repressive these trends really are, one need only join one of the “safe-space groups” on Facebook. Echo chambers and conformity do not make for good debate or the free exchange of ideas.
Ironically, the University of Chicago letter to freshmen is a giant trigger warning, admonishing freshmen that they had better be prepared to listen to a variety of perspectives and have their ideas challenged and debated. It is not a warning that should have to be given at an institution of higher learning, yet here we are.
UChicago was particularly blunt in calling out the culture fostered by trigger warnings and safe spaces. But its central thesis was prefigured by Yale’s own Woodward Report over four decades earlier. The most iconic statement in the report is: “The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” This sentiment is fundamentally at odds with the coddling that has taken over higher education. There is no “safe space” in “unthinkable,” “unmentionable” or “unchallengeable.”
Yale should reclaim its history and reject trigger-warning culture, just as the University of Chicago has done. What starts as trigger warnings or safe spaces eventually foments a culture of oppression and conformity. Civility is important, but should never be used as an excuse to hinder the free exchange of ideas — as both Yale and UChicago have asserted. This need not be a partisan issue. Liberals and conservatives alike should oppose any measure that seeks to restrict what we can think, propose or debate in an intellectual setting like Yale.
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” John Milton, “Areopagitica,” 1644.
Kyle Tierney is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. He is the Vice President of the Buckley Program. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .