The University of Chicago, Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

Last week the University of Chicago caused a bit of an uproar by sending out a letter to incoming students telling them not to expect intellectual safe spaces or trigger warnings when it came to critical inquiry. This caused celebration in some quarters and consternation in others, in both cases in no small part to the use of the phrases “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” which are apprehended in different ways by different general audiences, cutting roughly but not exclusively along US liberal/conservative lines.

I am a University of Chicago graduate, and having come out of its classically liberal educational ethos, I have some thoughts on the letter, and on the general matter of intellectual inquiry, and on safe spaces and trigger warnings and so on and so forth. Note that a lot of this follows on (and may repeat) what I’ve written about free speech and other related topics before, so some of this may seem familiar to you.

1. In a very general sense, as a graduate, what I understood the University of Chicago letter to mean is this: “When you get here, your previous notions are going to be confronted and challenged and sometimes this process might be deeply uncomfortable for you. We find this to be a feature, not a bug.” Which I find to be a largely unobjectionable sentiment, when it comes to education and the development of the individual. You have to be confronted, you have to be challenged, and you have to learn the skills that allow you to robustly defend your point of view and to abandon that point of view when it is not tenable, and come to a new understanding through the process. This is all very Hegelian — thesis, antithesis, synthesis — which means it’s very Chicago, where Hegel might as well be the school mascot.

2. I thought the Dean of Students did a less than 100% excellent job in conveying this particular point, choosing to spice up his letter to the kids with lingo to show how he’s hip and with it, or something, in the process letting shouty people drag the letter out and wave it about for their own purposes. So, yeah, well done, there, dean. Additionally, I’m not entirely sure that that message in that particular letter was necessary. This is the University of Chicago, guys. Is anyone who actually intends to attend unaware that the university prides itself on rigorous examination, discussion and debate? Basically, I found the letter a bit silly. If I were an instructor (or an editor), I would have sent it back with the instruction to tone down the posturing and just get to the meat of the letter sooner.

3. I think it’s good and fine and necessary that an education requires confronting one’s own thoughts and beliefs, subjecting them to the crucible of inquiry and discussion, and thus tempering the quality of one’s own beliefs as a result. What is equally important — and what in my experience Chicago was good at, and a thing not conveyed very well by the letter — is that those leading these excursions, the professors and other instructors, work the room. Which means not only leading discussion but also focusing and shaping it and creating an environment in which every student can be a component of the discussion. Which can mean anything from making sure a couple of egotistical loudmouths don’t just drone on every goddamn class session, to drawing out those students who might otherwise feel like there’s no percentage in making their own points. You can only robustly interrogate beliefs and assumptions when everyone who is there to learn knows they can speak. That’s on the instructors, and professors, and on the University as a whole. I believe Chicago does that — or did, when I was there — and that’s something I wish was better articulated.

4. Likewise, the educational process is more (and better) than some sort of Intellectual Thunderdome where the validity of a point of view is decided solely through trial by combat. Robust interrogation of one’s point of view by others is a thing, and a necessary thing, but is not the only thing. There are all sorts of ways to learn, to acquire knowledge, assess and reassess one’s ground assumptions, and come to a better understanding of the world therein. My Chicago experience had a lot of me squaring off against some other student — or a professor! Screw you, Dr. Whoever! I have points I’m gonna make and I will fight you on them — but just as much if not more of my education was spent doing other things, from quiet reading to co-operative participation to just shutting up and letting someone more knowledgeable and experienced than I was show me something I didn’t already know.

5. Over on Twitter the other day I noted the following:

Which made a lot of conservatives on Twitter really rather foamy, bloviating about how they never ask for safe spaces, harupmh harumph, gwaaaaaaaar. Which I found pretty funny. First because I found it non-responsive to the point that Chicago’s policy means that all points of view will be open to interrogation, which will include conservative points of view that new students might bring in. Having seen more than a couple of young conservatives at Chicago walk into a moving fan blade of people as smart as they were, with better command of facts and rhetoric, and coming out rather upset and angry with the experience, I’m not at all convinced every young conservative is ready to have their own baseline assumptions challenged. I expect some will assume Chicago is an implictly “safe space” for them, like, as it happens, most of the rest of their world. Which of course is the point: when (some) conservatives like to brag that they never ask for safe spaces, that’s very much like a fish bragging that it never asks for water.

Let me suggest a radical idea (which is to say, it’s not really radical at all), which is that the ability to take a challenge to one’s fundamental precepts of the world, and the enthusiasm to engage with those who oppose those precepts, is largely orthogonal to one’s political views. There are liberal-minded folks who love to walk into a room full of people ready to hate them and bellow, bring it, suckas; there are conservatives who are the most special of special snowflakes who ever wafted down, weeping precious and icy tears. And vice-versa, and the same no matter where one plots one’s self on a multi-dimensional political chart.

I might suggest a salient difference between liberal and conservatives in this regard is that many of the groups that traditionally comprise the liberal coalition — minorities, women, LGBTQ+ — don’t have the baseline assumption of safety in the world that generally white, generally straight conservatives do. This makes it easier for (some) conservatives to pretend that don’t in fact expect to have their worldview coddled and allowed for every bit as much as they accuse liberals of doing. And when they run into a buzzsaw that shreds their worldview — as they will at Chicago, almost guaranteed — their perhaps previously unrealized assumption that Chicago was “safe” for them, intellectually, is going into the hopper.

6. With respect to the University of Chicago specifically, it’s been suggested that one reason for the letter is a bit of institutional territory marking (see this Vox article) basically telling the kids that the sort of protesting that works at other schools isn’t going to fly at Chicago, so don’t even bother. While I’m not at all convinced that this is really what the letter was about, it is absolutely true that institutionally speaking the University of Chicago doesn’t take kindly to protesting. When I attended Chicago, I wrote an in-depth series of articles about when, in the 1960s, Chicago students, like other students at elite universities, took over the administration building as a protest (in the case of Chicago, for a popular teacher being dropped). Chicago’s response, basically, was to wait out the protesters, discipline a stack of the students for being a nuisance, and then never speak about it again (the teacher was not rehired, either). This last year, the president of the student government at Chicago barely escaped with his degree after he allowed students into the administration building for a different protest (seriously, don’t screw with the administration building. They get annoyed and they will punish you).

But again, I don’t think the letter was a warning so much as a poorly expressed declaration of intellectual intent. Yes, the school and/or students will occasionally bring in people to speak whom you hate. No, your protests won’t stop it. Deal. Which again is a very Chicago thing to do.

7. How do I personally feel about safe spaces and trigger warnings in a general sense? With regard to the latter, I think they’re fine, and often courteous. I think the world has come to place where we understand people have their various sensitivities, and if it would be a kindness to give people a heads up that something involves violence or racism or whatever, sure, why not? It’s not censorship to make people aware they should prepare (which ironically, means you could say that silly letter was a trigger warning letting students know about their future lack at the school — in which case, very sneaky, Chicago).

As for safe spaces, my own understanding is that it’s also generally fine and courteous to give people space to despressurize and relax and be themselves, often without me around (or at least, if I am around, with me following rules others set). This is, I will be the first to admit, a very simplistic approach to what the concept of a safe space is. But it’s the foundation on which I build out complexity regarding the subject.

Also, you know. I don’t feel obliged to pretend “trigger warnings” are a liberal phenomenon; when they’re basically conservative, they’re usually called “ratings.” Movie, TV and video game ratings, content advisory notes on music, etc — none of which in the US are currently dictated by the government, incidentally — they’re pretty much so people don’t get triggered (or get triggered by their children seeing something inconvenient for them as parents). I don’t really have an opposition to ratings either. I mean, hell, back at the turn of the century I ran a video game site specifically calling out game elements ranging from violence to drug use to racism to nudity so people could decide whether or not to get a game, or get it for their kids, or be prepared for that content when it happened (here’s one of the reviews). You know, kind of like trigger warnings. Conservative folks loved the site. But that’s different! Well, no. It’s really not.

Likewise I can think of several places online and off which qualify as “safe spaces” for non-liberals, where like-minded people go to rest and relax and not have to feel like they always have to be looking over their shoulder for the politically correct thought police, etc and so on, places that have rules that you have to follow, set by moderators or owners or whomever, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door. Whether they’re called “safe spaces” or not is neither here nor there. Apply the duck test to it.

And that’s fine too — with safe spaces and trigger warnings, however you choose to label them, everyone needs their gathering holes and has their sensitivities and desires companionship with others whose journey is similar to theirs. Sometimes you need a respite from the world, because very often the world is work. It’s courteous to let others have them, and if necessary, to offer them. It would be lovely if people stopped pretending they don’t exist all across the human experience, including across the political spectrum.

8. I don’t believe the Chicago approach, or that silly letter, means fewer liberals (or conservatives! Or any other political orientation!) are going to come out of the school, a belief buttressed by looking at the rather wide cross-section of political positions and opinions that its alumni espouse. A school that counts both Saul Alinsky and Milton Friedman among its graduates can encompass a wide scope of thought; the alumni issuing forth from it since the heady days of the tenure of Alinsky and Friedman appear similarly varied in their politics. This is good for the school and it’s good for the people who attend it today — they are going to meet up with people not like them, and argue with them, and hopefully come away with a better understanding of opposing positions, and their own. And who knows? Maybe they’ll even become and remain friends with people who don’t think in lockstep with them. It happens. It happened to me. And that is a definite positive of a Chicago education.