Trigger Warnings: What We Fear

By Bailey Pickens

At the end of August, John Ellison, dean of the University of Chicago, joined the ranks of many an essayist penning searing critiques of something that does not exist.

Trigger warnings and their ostensible sidekick, the safe space, have featured regularly in the news and essays of cultural criticism in the last year, since protests at schools like Yale and the University of Missouri sent them rocketing to the forefront of the national consciousness. Piece after piece, by writers ranging from the quite conservative to the avowedly liberal and even the leftist, declares trigger warnings and safe spaces indicative of weakness of intellect, character, or courage on the part of students: these millennials are coddled, unwilling to engage with ideas in conflict with their own opinions, demanding that the university bend itself to their every emotional whim. In short, they are antithetical to everything the Western academy stands for.

If it were the case that trigger warnings were, in fact, “get out of discussion free” passes, or that safe spaces were meant to keep students from ever touching an unfriendly idea, then much of the frustration and passionate opposition coming from the academy and the unaffiliated intelligentsia would be warranted. But it is not.

The discrepancy between what trigger warnings and safe spaces are and what they are taken to be has already been pointed out. Kate Manne, a professor at Cornell, wrote in support of trigger warnings last year, observing of that “the point is not to enable — let alone encourage — students to skip these readings or our subsequent class discussion (both of which are mandatory in my courses, absent a formal exemption). Rather, it is to allow those who are sensitive to these subjects to prepare themselves for reading about them, and better manage their reactions.” (It is telling that essays a year or more old remain as fresh and relevant as they were when they were penned: this debate has gone nowhere since it began.) As L.V. Anderson writes for Slate, Ellison’s apparent misunderstanding of the purpose and effect of trigger warnings and safe spaces is a common one.

Conor Friedersdorf argues that this is not a misunderstanding, but rather that their defenders employ the original usages of the terms and their critics the “post-concept creep meanings” at play in “ways that undermine free inquiry,” wagging his finger at defenders who avoid “acknowledg[ing] the excesses that obviously motivated [the critique], rather than treating them as straw men or bizarre, unrepresentative anomalies.” This, however, comes down to battling anecdotes and epistemologies (where is the line between reasonable and bizarre?) — and conveniently brushes away the question of the usefulness of the pre-creep concept.

This brushing away is not coincidental. In a wide-ranging essay called “Against Students,” again written last year when this debate was bubbling up, Sara Ahmed describes how good or useful things — concepts, protests, initiatives — can be cast as something undesirable or unreasonable and “swept up” in critiques of the undesirable or unreasonable, and how particular images of “problem students” are employed to do that sweeping work. “The ‘problem student’” as Ahmed observes, is “a constellation of related figures: the consuming student, the censoring student, the over-sensitive student, and the complaining student.” Ahmed goes on to describe how issues in the academy are made to reside in the bodies and persons of students: “Even if that failure [of students to act and think as they ought] is explained as a result of ideological shifts that students are not held responsible for — whether it be neoliberalism, managerialism or a new sexual puritanism — it is in the bodies of students that the failure is located”: with students who are “consumers” of a commodified education, “censors” of free speech and open discussion, “over-sensitive” to issues of little import, and in all cases “complaining” in a way that throws a wrench in the operations of the university:

I was interested in how various points of view can be dismissed by being swept away or swept up by the charge of willfulness. So: What protesters are protesting about can be ignored when protesters are assumed to be suffering from too much will; they are assumed to be opposing something because they are being oppositional. The figures of the consuming student, censoring student, over-sensitive student, and complaining student are also doing something, they are up to something. These figures circulate in order to sweep something up. Different student protests can be dismissed as products of weaknesses of moral character (generated by “student culture” or “campus politics”) and as the cause of a more general decline in values and standards.

What Ahmed suggests is that the students being depicted in these pieces are not neutral objects: they are doing work. If Friedersdorf is correct that the rising horrified tide of antis is using post-creep terminology, it is nonetheless true that their critiques crowd out the issues of triggers and unsafeness, leaving much more cleanly drawn battle lines. On the one side is the liberal tradition, a Western academy enshrining “free inquiry” and vigorous debate; on the other, excesses and sulky fragility. When this is the proposed configuration, the faintly dismissive tone in which Jonathan Chait, again last year, inveighed against trigger warnings as part of a resurgence of “p.c. culture” is not only understandable but sympathetic.

Trigger warnings at their most basic are, in the words of a much-reviled Oberlin student, “trivially simple.” A sentence or two on a syllabus is one option, a verbal heads-up (“The readings for next class contain graphic descriptions of rape/transcription of violently homophobic rhetoric/other; see you Wednesday”) is another. Trigger warnings are not the same thing as safe spaces, despite them being invoked in the same breath more often than not. Safe spaces have been explained at length, but differ from every other affinity grouping (imagine: your church, your golf buddies, the people you pay the most attention to on Facebook) in their location (campuses) far more than in their purpose or function (emotional-social support and brief respite from the everyday grind of dealing with humanity at large, which may or may not “get” you). It is absurd to suggest that brief disclaimers and deliberate affinity groupings might bring down the entire edifice of Western academe.

The decibel level of attacks on “p.c. culture,” trigger warnings in the university, and the very concept of a safe space on campus is bewildering within the confines of the debate as it is carried out — that is, according to the configuration posited by the academy’s defenders. The requests described on the one (pro-warning) hand are so modest and the demands being bemoaned on the other (anti) are so unreasonable as to render the whole discussion too silly to merit tens of thousands of words. Yet the volume is less bewildering if we resist the casual “sweeping up” of the demands with the antis’ depiction of the unreasonable student, if we lift it like a rug to look underneath.

John Ellison’s letter to incoming first years declares that it is the University’s “commitment” to “freedom of inquiry and expression,” “engagement in vigorous discussion, debate, and even disagreement,” and “academic freedom” that is behind its principled rejection of “so-called ‘trigger warnings’” and “the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.’” The free exchange of ideas is what makes the campus welcoming for everyone, says the letter. But the letter has just told incoming first years what kinds of ideas are not permitted on campus in order to create a campus environment in which the free exchange of ideas may flourish.

The University of Chicago’s dedication to freedom of inquiry and vigorous debate is not an illusion or a lie. It encourages its students to engage critically with texts and with each other. Its unsentimental expectation that I would do more than regurgitate what I had read was the beginning of a sea change in me that, at eighteen, I could not fathom and for which I remain grateful. But there are nonnegotiable limits to what may be inquired about, debated, and criticized, and the university itself is outside of them. Ellison’s letter is an attempt to re-cover the exposed borders of an ideal that is understood to be borderless. Any text, yes. Any other student, yes. Any theory, any idea in the abstract. But the foundation of the western university itself, by virtue of its place as the source and guardian of free speech and inquiry, should be exempt from inquiry. When the critical eye the University of Chicago and other traditional liberal arts labor to cultivate in their students is turned back on them, things get heated.

As the President of Brown University pointed out recently in her open letter, it is not the case that the college students calling for trigger warnings and safe spaces shy away from discomfort: the very issues they want to talk about publicly (rape, racism) make people “very uncomfortable indeed.” And yet it is from these concrete discussions — about the liberal university’s complicity in or indifference to rape and the perpetuation of institutional racism on their campuses and in the communities that surround them — that universities and their administrations most want to shy the moment they get too rowdy or too close to home. When students protest, administrators refuse to meet, hand-wring over civility, hide in their offices, and threaten to expel the student body president. The cancellation of speakers is a case in point: students did not invite the speakers and are in no position to cancel them, but when their vocal objection to a speaker’s ideals — that is, critical engagement — becomes uncomfortable for the administration, the administration may cancel the speaker rather than confront a substantive disagreement. And then sweep their capitulation up with criticism of students’ stubborn over-sensitivity. In the same way, this debate focuses tightly on trigger warnings and safe spaces on campus, without observing the ties between demands for more accessibility to the education offered on campus and demands for — to offer examples from Chicago — living wages for campus workers, transparency within the University’s private police force, a trauma center at its famous hospital, and improved responses to sexual assault, lest the “problem students” seem to have larger, less self-involved agendas on their minds.

The western university is dedicated to freedom of inquiry and exchange of ideas, but these ideals are predicated on a host of assumptions that ruffle feathers when examined. Personal investment in questions, for instance, is widely held to preclude objectivity: if you care about something too much, if it is close to you in some way, then you cannot properly think or argue about it; “objectivity” (which, as any good postmodernist knows, is fake) is the thing. It is to the advantage of the University of Chicago, as synecdoche for the Academy, to imagine that the “vigorous discussion, debate, and even disagreement” that it treasures are without meaningful stakes. If these debates are just debates, then everyone can go home invigorated by the mental jousting and think no more of it. If these debates are not just debates, if they in fact are one end of a long strand woven into systems of abuse and oppression, then the university finds itself on rather more dubious moral ground. For the university to deny the usefulness of trigger warnings and safe spaces on campus is to insist that the university is somehow kept apart from the sordidness of the world around it, is not subject to the same forces, the same blindnesses, the same selfish interests, the same prejudices; that all ideas get equal airtime and implicit professorial support; that all of its students and faculty are somehow cleansed of prejudice when they arrive. It is to deny that students from different backgrounds have had different experiences, and those experiences may make the UChicago, or Yale, or Mizzou, or any other college experience substantively easier or more difficult. It is to deny that the particularity of the human can, or should, affect one’s education beyond providing “diverse” aesthetics and perhaps “interesting” perspectives to “contribute” to the “discussion.” It is to deny the possibility that the university is not an unmitigated force for good in the world — that it may in fact both do good and be part of the problem. It is to refuse to consider that the university may need to change in many of the same ways as the society around it, that it may in fact be subject to real criticism by people who, until relatively recently, could not attend at all.

Universities and defenders of capital-L Liberalism — those who worship at the feet of Free Speech and Not Getting Unreasonably Offended — oppose trigger warnings and safe spaces like some people vote for Trump: instinctive defensiveness of a treasured good and deep anxiety over the continued viability of that good — the university itself; over their own power to create and maintain a cultural environment; over the goodness of what they have given their lives to; over instability of what has seemed bedrock. It is not trigger warnings or safe spaces or protests over speakers that are the problem, it is the implication that the university as it is simply isn’t enough, that the values at its core are relative and not absolute, that it might not be able to withstand truly critical inquiry into its mechanism and its priorities. And yet the education that the University of Chicago, and Yale, and their peer institutions are selling, one that broadens the mind, sharpens the thought, and deepens humanity, is precisely the kind of education that ought to benefit from vigorous debate over how it should be carried out. If the inviolability of the present model — one that was perfected when there was almost no one in the desks but white boys from families of means — is an ironclad presupposition, then no debate can be had, and craven letters to hopeful teenagers will continue to be the preferred mode of its defense.


Bailey Pickens graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s in East Asian Languages and Civilizations (Japanese) and Yale Divinity School with a Master of Divinity. She is a Southern transplant living in Connecticut, where she works as a hospital chaplain.


Image by BKP