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 kyle.tierney@yale.edu .

  • Mindnumbing

    I often talk trash about the Ivy League schools. But I like this guy. I’m glad there are still a few college students left with a brain.

  • Saybro2016

    Tierney, always define your terms when you write. You’re only doing yourself a disservice by being vague and sensationalizing the issue. Bringing up rare cases or cases where trigger warnings have been misused is a classic straw man. You do realize that movie and television ratings, “explicit” labels on music, video game ratings, and so on are all content warnings, right? Also, are you really arguing that war veterans suffering from PTSD shouldn’t be warned about sounds of gunfire? Trigger warnings do not restrict speech–they are simply warnings for those who have suffered trauma. Also, I don’t think you know what a safe space is… A safe space defines a network of relationships in which people respect each other and give each other basic human decency. A relationship, for example, in which I would not be called a “wetback” or a “spic.”

    • Robert Ajolotl

      By the same token you define ‘trigger warning’ by drawing a careful fence around a handful of reasonable examples. There are so many that don’t look like that. In the past week I’ve seen “cw: fat shaming”, “cw:job loss”, and “cw: imperialism” on facebook posts. It is naive to think this extended definition hasn’t and won’t make it to the classroom (I’m sure you’ve read all of the standard reports) and that it isn’t being politicized.

      • Saybro2016

        We both agree that content warnings are misused, but I sincerely do not think that misusing cws on the internet leads to misusing cws in academic settings. In my time at Yale I did not see a single cw, by the way. If they do exist, I highly doubt they are being misused. I don’t trust FIRE reports because I’ve seen how they have misrepresented students at Yale–I was there when they recorded full “incidents” but only posted 2 minute clips that paint misleading pictures.

        • Robert Ajolotl

          I saw the extended video coverage that was released last week (of students encircling Christaskis) and actually the other 25 minutes were as bad or worse than the two minutes that were filmed by the FIRE guy (assuming that is what you were referring to). Otherwise, you might be right, but I tend to trust less what one person has experienced and more reports that take a broader look. Ok you don’t trust FIRE (I tend to). What about the AAUP report?

    • Man with Axe

      If that’s all safe spaces meant you might have a point. But Yale students protested that they were not made safe from the thought that students should be free to choose their own Halloween costumes. And on campus after campus students want to be safe from conservative speakers. In other words, it is the students asking to be made safe from ordinary discourse who have sensationalized the issue.

      • Saybro2016

        I don’t think blackface is “ordinary discourse.” I also don’t think it’s too much to *SUGGEST* (not enforce anything, not throw people in prison, etc.) students to try not to contribute to harmful, racist stereotypes. If the Catholic student body asked people to not dress up as pervy priests or whatever, I’m skeptical that there’d be as much outrage. Also, protesting someone who makes a genocide joke is still free speech. Protest PERIOD is free speech.. Ironically, conservatives want to have special treatment because they’re so upset about being protested. “Can’t those progressives stop practicing their constitutional rights for just one week so that we can host controversial speakers?!”

        • Robert Ajolotl

          “If the Catholic student body asked people to not dress up as pervy priests or whatever, I’m skeptical that there’d be as much outrage.” That’s exactly the point — it wasn’t the student body who made this request but rather the administration. And I don’t think that it led to “outrage”.It’s a questionable move, in my opinion better to let the students police themselves morally rather than get direction from a central authority. But it is nuanced, which was the entire point of the Resident Master’s letter. I totally fail to see how those students could be SO angry about an email that explores this question. I am not in their shoes, though, so I leave open the possibility that my perspective isn’t the “right” one. But what I cannot condone is how unfairly they encircled and excoriated the Master for presenting a point of view. I considered the extended video coverage to be borderline threatening, but in any case in incredibly poor taste. Of course no one would fault people for strongly disagreeing with the Master’s letter, but there needs to be a bottom line of civility.

          • Saybro2016

            A group of Yale staff made a *recommendation* to not be a jerk by dressing in blackface or as a racial caricature. It did not threaten to punish anyone. I sincerely don’t understand why “opponents” of the letter are so upset.

          • Robert Ajolotl

            It’s because the email presents one point of view as though it is a moral imperative, implying that the issue isn’t open to debate (I agree no punishment was implied). Blackface is an extreme example, but suggesting that you ask specific questions: “are you wearing a funny costume”, “wearing a historical costume”, “wearing a cultural costume”, etc. — the other points made in the letter that you don’t mention — comes across extremely patronizing. Not everyone agrees that those things are bad (and I speak from personal experience on this matter). I can totally understand the point of view that the administration should stay out of the business of inculcating morals on issues that are still open for debate. Obviously there are extreme examples that are more uniformly perceived as out of bounds (e.g. black face) but the rest of it seems to be overreaching. And the questions naturally arises — where is this headed? Personally it didn’t make me really mad, but I thought it was too much and some pushback was in order.

          • Man with Axe

            If you recall the sequence of events, the administration sent their letter asking for people to avoid costumes that might offend. Christakis sent her response suggesting that the students were adults and didn’t need advice. It was the students who got so upset and confronted her and her husband, yelling and cursing, ultimately forcing them out of their jobs.

        • Man with Axe

          People who find such things as blackface objectionable are free to protest. I applaud your protest.

          But I condemn protest that results in others having their speech shut down. It’s criminal much of the time, and it certainly violates the golden rule.

          If you are forcibly blockading a speaker because you don’t agree with him, why shouldn’t I and my thugs be allowed to shut down your protest with force? Do you want to live in a society in which whoever has the most thugs gets to decide what speech can be heard?

          • Saybro2016

            So protest is okay…unless it “shuts down” speech? Can you explain what you mean by that? Nonviolent protest is literally *not* criminal unless it’s hate speech… Protest =/= force either. I don’t know how you made that jump. Want to counter-protest? Sure, have fun. That’s also free and protected.

          • Man with Axe

            I’m happy to explain. Non-violent protest that literally blocks or shuts down other’s speech is criminal. It is a breach of the peace. People who do it should be arrested. The only reason it doesn’t feel like a criminal act to college students is that they usually get away with it because administrators are too cowardly to have them arrested. They should be arrested.

            Otherwise everyone can shut down everyone else’s speech, and before you know it there will be serious violence. What do you think would happen if a bunch of white protesters tried to shut down a speech by the New Black Panther Party? What do you think would happen if protesters tried to shut down a speech by Obama? Would the protesters be taken out and arrested? You know they would.

          • Saybro2016

            I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

            “Non-violent protest that literally blocks or shuts down other’s speech is criminal. It is a breach of the peace. People who do it should be arrested.” Now THAT sounds like a violation of the First Amendment to me. Anyone can say what they’d like, but they’re not immune to criticism or non-violent protest PERIOD. The irony here is rich. Let’s coddle those poor controversial students! Don’t disagree too loudly or else they might be sad and leave.

            Protesters too loud? So sad, there are noise laws to take care of that, but they also apply to you! Let’s stop selectively applying rights and adding words to the Constitution.

          • Man with Axe

            If you are giving a speech in a hall that you have rented for the occasion, and my group’s protest prohibits people from entering the hall, I am violating the law, and my protest is not mere speech, it is conduct and unprotected by the 1st amendment. If my group infiltrates the lecture hall and disrupts the speech that is conduct, not mere speech. This distinction between protected speech and unprotected conduct is well-established and is usually easy to determine. It is not a question merely of violent or non-violent. Non-violent protest that interferes with another’s freedom is usually going to be a crime.

          • Man with Axe

            No, I won’t agree. You should address my point of whether you are willing to accept my thugs blocking people from accessing your speaker’s lecture hall. You should try to argue against my point that there is a difference between speech and conduct, and physically blocking an entrance is conduct, and not speech, even if you are doing it for expressive reasons.

    • ShadrachSmith

      Hey, tough guy, I’m your huckleberry. You are already protected from those words, how many others are on your list 🙂

    • marcedward

      “”explicit” labels on music, video game ratings”

      These come from political conservatives who’s only reason for using the labels was to censor creativity. They are “content warnings” designed to hurt sales.
      You have no idea what you’re talking about.

  • vincent

    “Civility is important, but should never be used as an excuse to hinder the free exchange of ideas…” Perfectly stated. I would also add that charges of incivility are only legitimate when levied against the manner in which an idea is expressed. The problem these days is that for many progressives the mere expression of a controversial idea is uncivil and hateful regardless of the manner in which it is expressed.

  • Man with Axe

    A truly inspiring piece. Way to go. Maybe there is still hope for western civilization.

  • Terry

    Someone needs to pick up the cause for a new trigger warning

    WARNING: if you disagree with me politically it is very likely that you will be accused of being one of the following; racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic or Islamaphobic.

    Seems more like a macro-aggression than a “micro-aggression everyone seems focused on.

  • marcedward

    It doesn’t help people overcome their problems by using trigger warnings.
    People need to overcome obstacles in life, not be protected from them. If you need a safe space, go home to your parents.