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.

130 Comments on “The University of Chicago, Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces”

  1. As with every political-based discussion, the Mallet is out, so please behave and be courteous toward each other.

    A couple of other thoughts I didn’t want to jam into a 2,000 word entry that is already long enough:

    1. As always, hi! I’m a straight, white male and was those things at the University of Chicago! This will have an effect both on my apprehension of my time there and how it exists today, and also my consideration of its educational approach. Others who attended who were not some or all of those things may show up to tell me how I’m missing certain data. That’s great! Listen to them.

    2. As someone on Twitter noted when I commented on this stuff there, there is an irony of conservatives celebrating Chicago’s non-“safe space” policy when it has the second largest private police force in the US (my own understanding is that it’s the second largest force in Illinois, but whichever, the point’s basically the same). I added the observation that also the University is (or was, I suspect it still is) the largest land owner in Hyde Park, the neighborhood it’s in, and has most certainly used that leverage to control how the area has developed. There’s a lot going on there.

    3. Although I noted it earlier, let me make the hashtag #NotAllConservatives here to again acknowledge that not all conservatives are secretly foot-stompy, whining children when they’re challenged regarding their poor arguments, bad use of facts and general smug assumption that everyone will drop what they’re doing in a conversation to gather round and admire the conservative’s contribution to the discussion, simply because they are them. Rather a lot of conservatives I know (and not just the ones who went to Chicago) are not that in the least and are a positive delight to have discussion with. That said, I can think of some who used to show up here who no longer do because they just couldn’t take it when people rebutted them, and who now largely stay in their own space so they don’t have to encounter people outside their own little bubble. I wish them joy there.

    (Note: I didn’t name names above for a reason.)

    4. I do think it’s important to note that in the letter, it’s explicitly stated that “freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass and threaten others.” I suspect a) that’s going to set up some interesting conflicts in the classroom, b) some folks are going to be surprised when their “free speech” has a shorter length of chain than they expected in those same classrooms.

  2. There were two things in the fragment of that I saw that I was unclear on.

    One is whether they were trying to *define* “safe spaces” as places where ideas go unchallenged, or stating that it was only the subset of safe spaces which operate that way that they don’t condone the creation of.

    The other is whether they meant “we won’t do this as part of our curriculum”, or “we will be actively hostile to anyone doing this in our general vicinity”. Because “do not condone” sounds like the latter to me.

    So I’m conflicted, because I basically think that in general academia should be a free-for-all as much as possible, but I also think there’s good reasons for people to sometimes want something which could reasonably be called “a safe space”.

  3. I find the Hegel comment a bit amusing, considering that Chicago was the prime mover in taking the Socratic method out of legal education.

  4. I see you fell of the wagon for keeping Whatever a place of lightness, sunsets, and cats (and ensuring you have time to work), oh Esteemed Host.

    So that I don’t do too much of the same (or become an enabler …) I’ll pick on the one tiny thing I can claim to know something about:
    “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?”

    As a former college professor who taught a lot of freshman: Very few of them arrive with any clue what they’re getting into, in any way, shape, or form. They may be expecting High School with More Beer and Weed. They may be expecting an MTV reality show. They may be expecting Hollywood New England Private College (even though they are going to the Possum Droppings Community College branch of Big Square State U). They arrive expecting to be validated in knowing everything already (one history prof friend mentioned having an advisee who didn’t see how anyone could major in history when you already had that in eighth grade); to be able to fake their way through every conceivable subject (the student who has read five or six new age “quantum” books and expects to test out of quantum physics is not mere legend); they arrive expecting to spend their entire time “networking,” i.e. partying with future smalltown gentry like themselves.

    The mistake is in thinking that anything you tell them is going to make a difference. The only difference it makes, maybe, is that it reduces the number of lawsuits they have to defend. So they send out the note that says “Here at the University of Hot Stoves we are committed to glowing red burners, which some people may find cause painful burns” and, if they’re wise, stock up on salve and bandages.

  5. I had never considered ratings as a form of trigger warning but you are, of course, correct. Heck, they even tell you right there in the rating what it is a trigger for (e.g., “Lord of The Rings: Fellowship of The Ring is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for epic battle sequences and some scary images.”).

    As for safe spaces, under your definition we called that a “dorm room” back in my day. Sometimes the term would include “library” but only if everyone was quiet.

  6. Right with you there, John. Not that it’s surprising; we seem to rarely disagree. The whole point of a university is to challenge us to think better and differently, differently better, and betterly different.

    Calling this a “no safe spaces” policy is just missing the whole point of the phrase. Given the unending string of major news stories this year about police killings of people of color, it was a revelation for me (at Readercon this past July) just how well the many and diverse people of color kept it together — I would have been ranting and weeping and gnashing my teeth and tearing my hair — and how ernestly they wanted and needed safe spaces where they could go to decompress and put on their calm faces before re-engaging. I’m cis/white/etc./etc., but I try my damnedest to be a good ally and support them in this.

    For trigger warnings, I’ve largely adopted the policy “sorry but I don’t do that” for the fiction side of my site. It’s not that I don’t believe in triggers — I do firmly believe that people have traumas they’re dealing with and that it’s a kindness to acknowledge them. The problem is that there are as many triggers as there are people who might visit the site. I tend not to write about the common triggers anyway, but I have no way of knowing what obscure subjects or phrases might trigger someone. It’s just not possible. So instead, I’ve got a clear note that explains this and suggests that visitors contact me to describe their trigger so I can provide appropriate guidance. I recognize that this will be difficult for some folk, but it seems like the only way to proceed that is both responsible and feasible.

  7. Most of my fellow alumni have been all, “Yay, U of C!” on Facebook and elsewhere, liberals and conservatives alike. In fact, it astonishes me how many liberals have apparently swallowed the Fox News talking points on trigger warnings in particular, apparently completely unaware that, as you point out, they are the exact opposite of censorship.

    Also, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the backlash against trigger warnings and safe spaces is so loud when the people who most commonly benefit from them are women and people of color. It’s so much easier to say “stop whining and deal with it” or “we’re not going to coddle you” than to try and understand why people from marginalized groups might not feel welcome in our classrooms.

  8. Thanks for this. Over the last several days, I have made many of the same points you have made here; (1) the letter itself was a trigger warning, (2) the letter did a poor job in conveying what it was “meant” to convey, (3) in an attempt to be hip, Ellison used words/phrases incorrectly, showing that perhaps he is more unfamiliar with what they mean than he thinks.

  9. A few years ago, my parents subscribed to a national newspaper with a centre-right bent to its coverage of the news, and for the front page of their Christmas edition they published a picture of a stained-glass window depicting Jesus with the words “MERRY CHRISTMAS” prominently displayed. Now, neither my mother (who is Jewish, leans left, and mostly doesn’t read that paper) nor my stepmother (who is Christian, leans right, and does) gave the cover much thought. But they were both rather amused by a letter to the editor that appeared in the paper a few days later praising the editors for not giving in to political correctness. To paraphrase my stepmother, it was a depiction of Jesus (a Jew from the Middle East) as a light-skinned, brown-haired man with features that would look better suited to an area of the world like Germany. If you think there’s no political correctness at work there, you need to take a long hard look at the assumptions you’re making.

  10. I have plenty of liberal U of Chicago alumni friends praising this letter on social media. My impression is that the polarized responses to this letter divide less along a liberal/conservative binary than they do along a “working in higher education”/”not working in higher education” bifurcation. Those of us who are trying to create exactly the kind of intellectual experiences Dean Ellison provides (often at less elite, well-heeled, and selective institutions than UChicago) have a much more narrow understanding of what “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” are and how they aid in that very endeavor–and frankly, if our students had enough mental space and leisure to not only attend a talk from a visiting speaker but also try to shut it down, we would shout HOSANNA regardless of the content involved. Most of them are too busy trying to minimize their debt burden and obtain a job credential. People who only know about higher ed from what they experienced decades ago and the stories they see repeated in the media (about the shenanigans at elite institutions) assume that the politics of social justice pose a much greater threat to the life of the mind than they in fact do.

  11. To expand somewhat on James Kakalios’ link to Brad DeLong’s discussion (which largely, if more briefly, parallels Our Gracious Host’s):

    Professor DeLong suggests that the letter could, and perhaps should have been written to stress the twin objectives of:

    As I see it, a university is:

    first of all, a safe space for ideas.

    second, a safe place for scholars.

    Those two imperatives do not forbid but rather mandate trigger warnings, whenever they are helpful in aiding the members of the University and scholars to grapple and process with difficult ideas or shocking facts.

    Those two imperatives also require all members of the university to treat one another with respect–to avoid giving even a hint that other members do not belong or do not have rights or are not secure in their persons.

    And these two imperatives require that sub-communities within the university have spaces that are safe–in which discussion can proceed accepting for the moment the premises of the sub-community.

    To say that you are against trigger warnings without immediately saying that you are for situating difficult ideas and shocking facts in a context where members can auccessfully grapple with them is unprofessional.

    To say that you are against sage spaces, without immediately saying that the two overriding purposes of the university are to be a safe space for ideas and for its members as scholars is also unprofessional.

    Emphasis added. It might be a voice-to-text error, since DeLong uses VTT. If so, though, it’s remarkably apt. Either way, the whole post is quite worth reading and IMHO better yet read alongside OGH’s.

  12. I have never understood the hatred of trigger warnings in the classroom. I have, on three separate occasions, passed out during discussions of FGM and other kinds of nonconsensual body modification. How in the world would my Gender and Religion class have been better served by me passing out and hitting the floor during the middle of class, rather than me seeing the topic on the syllabus, talking with the professor ahead of time, and being excused from that portion of discussion?

  13. I know it’s been said before but I really like bringing it up but spoiler alerts are so incredibly prevalent and I see them in articles with entirely unnecessary rape parallels, but oh dear, don’t you dare spoil the latest season of game of thrones! Someone’s tv watching might be mildly less enjoyable.

  14. Another fine post, John, especially the point about ratings systems.
    In my early 40s, I did a master’s degree – one of the happiest experiences of my life. I was a bit shocked to realize that a great deal of the joy derived from my actually having opinions based on experience, evidence and logical skills, none of which I had had in my undergrad days.
    UofC sounds great …

  15. This article was useful in that it helps me understand what conservatives and others are thinking when they hear “trigger warning” and “safe space”; it’s just so far from my experience that no wonder I thought people against these things were just misogynistic asshats. Here’s why:

    1) In my experience, trigger warnings were things like, “BTW kids, next week I’m going to show you footage of a mob right before a lynching, as well as disturbing photos of the aftermath. Please let me know beforehand if you have any special concerns,” or, “Next session’s French film will involve a rape scene. Please be forewarned.” I consider these courteous statements that allow students to prepare themselves to be thoughtful and respectful before difficult discussions. Just springing gory photos, rape stories, and stories of violence on people with no warning prevents a number of students from participating meaningfully in discussion. If you’re too busy having a panic attack or running out of the classroom to vomit, it’s difficult to get those class participation points.

    2) Of course, warnings before discussions of rape and often racially-inflected violence disproportionately benefit women and students of color. The alternative to trigger warnings of these sorts is having a bunch of white suburban boys with happy upbringings* debating whether or not it’s really that bad for, say, US servicemen to be engaging in significant sex trafficking of “native” women, while others are too thrown off balance by seeing people like them being exploited as the prof drones on in clinical language. And the debate among a bunch of suburban white boys with happy upbringings about sex trafficking is just not intellectually challenging or rich. That’s why I didn’t understand why this UChicago guy was against trigger warnings — does he not, like, want actual debates going on in history classes or foreign policy classes? This is just coming from my personal experience, though, again.

    So I thought trigger warnings were a tool used by conscientious professors to facilitate the full critical involvement of all their students. Why wouldn’t you support that?

    3) Likewise, I thought “safe space” meant something like “someplace where people won’t imply I just got that scholarship because I’m a woman” or “someplace where I don’t have to worry my button-down shirt is too clingy” or “someplace I can talk about tech and people won’t assume I’m just a girlfriend”. I didn’t know it was about intellectual debate at all! I thought it was just a place where I could relax and not feel like a potential target for existing in my body! I certainly am not presumptuous enough to expect that in a classroom space, mind you — I know those are just as polluted as any other public area in our culture. But hey, a women’s center or something? Just a room on campus other than my tiny dorm room? Too much to wish for I guess.

    To me, then, Ellison’s letter served to remind me personally that there’s no place at U Chicago that I can exist in my female body that will be safe for me and no reason to allow me to gird myself beforehand to participate conversations in the classroom that are theoretical for my classmates but viscerally uncomfortable for me. U Chicago will not be a place that coddles people who have experienced abuse: like the rest of the world, I’ll just need to be on guard at all times. That last part at least accords with what all the other people on the internet are saying: “life doesn’t have trigger warnings,” and since you’ll just have to deal with repeated injustice with no warning you better get used to it. I initially read the letter as saying that U Chicago will proudly take its place in perpetuating the status quo rather than being a true venue for critical dialogue.

    Now, I think that *is* actually what the letter from Ellison is saying, but your article allows me to see that to most people raging about it on the internet it’s really just an intellectual discussion about intellectual “freedom,” being had at a far remove from the experiences that led to the development of trigger warnings and safe spaces. People really think it’s about being comfortable or getting out of homework, instead of allowing people who have experienced injustice to participate fully and vocally in classroom debate. So people against trigger warnings and safe spaces may just be ignorant instead.

    * note that the intersection of these four descriptors (“white”, “suburban”, “happy upbringing”, “boy”) doesn’t imply that the four groups of people are one, since some recent thread I read here had some debate about a phrase like “rich white men”.

    pps, I know that there are many types of triggers and that the trigger warnings I mentioned don’t cover everything. If you’d like to deal with that in class, one idea is to use the intro survey Erika Price provides here:

  16. Given the economics of the modern university system this is undoubtedly about keeping donors happy (probably very specific -large- donors).

    There needs to be a distinction between a student group creating a space that’s safe for their group (GLBT groups, religious groups, conservative, anarchists, Harry Potter fandom, etc.) and a sort of generalized bland “safe space” the term conjures up.

    This is what happens when specific terminology (trigger warnings from fanfic, trigger from psychology/substance abuse recovery) wanders off to be misused and abused in the public discourse.

  17. Trigger Warning: There are no trigger warnings at the University of Chicago. That is all.

  18. Thanks for starting this discussion, John.

    I went to the University of Wisconsin in the 1970s.

    Some of the discussions I remember that had profound effects on me were the ones that dissected the Civil Rights movement and the conditions that precipitated it. Ditto the anti-war movement. And the Equal Rights movement- the ERA had recently passed and ratification was underway (yeah, it failed.)

    One that left me with nightmares, however (I still have them sometimes), was the discussion of the Manhattan Project, and its aftermath and the consequences that led to my childhood experiences being taught to “duck and cover” under my school desk to save myself from nuclear annihilation. Images of atomic and nuclear explosions. The aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer’s agonized, regretful pleading to bring ethics and humanism into the discussion of science in the service of power.

    The other one that left me with lifelong nightmares was a discussion of capital punishment that included graphic footage of both crime scenes and executions, and interviews with family survivors of various dead people. And still photos of execution chambers, guards, and prison death cells. I will never escape those images.

    And I was raped, but… hey, it happened. To many, if not most female students. Rape was a fact of life for female students then, everything from waking up after attending a frat party with that “oh no” feeling, to not being believed that you didn’t *invite* the guy into your dorm room, to the endless variants on date rapes.

    There were no “safe spaces” on campus back then. No one saw any need for them. The hairy-underarm-feminists were welcome to meet in the Student Union, sure, but take the before-and-after heckling on the way to and from the meeting as read. Tough noogies, Toots. Put on some makeup a bra and shave yer pits, you still won’t get a date. Bag over yer head, maybe. Woof-woof.

    Those experiences helped shape who I am.

    And I am pretty much everything that the average alt-right whiny, entitled man-baby is terrified and enraged by.

    Guess it wasn’t too much of a price to pay.

  19. John, I was a student at Chicago for most of the same time you were, so we come from very much the same background there. (In fact, I first became a fan of your writing when you were entertainingly sounding off in the Maroon.) And, on the whole, I had a similar reaction to this letter that you did: i.e. “Geez, they’re going to get themselves in trouble with how they’re phrasing this, but the essence is pure Chicago — you WILL be made to deal with ideas here, including those that make you uncomfortable, folks; deal with it or be someplace that is else — and it’s right on.”

    A couple of things that I noticed which I’m not sure you did, though… partly because I’ve been fairly heavily involved with the Admissions department for the last several years, so I see what they’re telling people; and I also was involved in some pretty major protest activities during my time at the school, and lived to tell the tale.

    First, about Admissions: the problem the faculty is facing is a direct result of Admissions’ marketing strategy of late, which has been to try to be all things to all people and to hell with the intellectual culture the school has had since the days of Robert Maynard Hutchins. As far as I can tell, it hasn’t actually changed the university… the faculty are still what they were, and the older students let the younger ones know what to expect when they get there, and mostly, the very bright young people who arrive there find that this actually works for them and fall in with the scheme. So the culture is similar to what it was when we attended, but the way it’s *presented*, by an outside marketing agency which was never part of our community of scholars, has become very different.

    So I’m not sure that intellectual territory-marking is such a bad idea, coming from a Dean of Students who has no control over the marketing Admissions has been doing and may well not approve of it in the least. Very few outside of Admissions do, and even Ted O’Neill, who ran Admissions since God was a little boy and who has recently left the department (he says, in order to do more teaching, though his recent articles make one wonder) has been writing some truly scathing stuff about the way Admissions has abandoned everything which would draw, not merely students with brains, but those who *belong* at the U of C; those who are different in the same ways that particular university’s culture is different.

    Bottom line: I’ve been deeply worried about the ways in which Admissions’ marketing campaign has been counterproductive to the effort to find students who are a good fit for *that school*, rather than simply the same bright kids that are accepted everywhere from Stanford to Swarthmore. And if the Dean of Students is fighting back against that mainstreaming effort by laying out, to students who have arrived at the school with quite possibly zero concept that this place is much different from Columbia or Harvard except perhaps in having smaller classes and a more conservative Econ department, that This Is Who We Are, I have to say I think it’s not only a positive thing, but a critically necessary one at the moment, precisely *because* the freshman class has not been given any hint of these differences in their contact with the U of C through its admissions department… and it bloody well should have been.

    Finally about activism: it’s *always* been possible to protest at the U of C without complaint from the administration. It just has to be done in a way they respect. I don’t remember whether you were still at the school when the violent attacks occurred on gay Biology students in the early 1990s, but if you weren’t, let’s just say that most of the student body was not happy with the way the administration handled the problem (which, as far as we could tell, consisted almost entirely of stalling and trying to prevent the subject from reaching the press). There were three separate protest efforts I know of, one of which I ran:

    -GALA held daily rallies at the flagpole, as the first protest to get off the ground. The administration ignored them. This didn’t seem to be doing much, so a few friends and I took things in two different directions, creating the other two waves.

    -One friend of mine, when speaking at the flagpole rally, decided that he was tired of being ignored. He asked how many of his listeners were carrying their security-issued police whistles, and most of them were. He then led the entire group — about 40-50 people — into the administration building and up to President Gray’s door, where they commenced blowing whistles and making a deafening racket. Nobody was going to ignore that and continue to work, and in fact, they didn’t ignore it. He and a couple of other leaders were invited in to discuss their concerns, and he waved the group to shut up as soon as they were acknowledged. They dispersed, on the understanding that their leaders would report back at the next day’s rally, which they did. My friend reported a productive conversation, which gave him some real information for the first time about what was going on and why the university’s strategy was what it was.

    -Meanwhile, another friend and I developed the Danish Star Project, which built off the (apocryphal, but that didn’t matter much) story of the King of Denmark’s request to the Danish people to hide the Jews in their midst without breaking Nazi law by ALL wearing the yellow star, so nobody would stand out. We took over the table outside Cobb and started passing out pink triangle badges, telling all who stopped to hear us, “This is not a sign of sympathy; this is painting a target on your back. If you’re wearing one of these, you are saying ‘If you’re looking for trouble, consider me gay for the purpose.’ If you aren’t prepared to say that, don’t take one.”

    Within 36 hours, we were out of fabric, we had three volunteers asking to help out, and I had my first lesson in how EASY it is to create a movement if you have a reasonably compelling story and are willing to go stand on a table and sound like an idiot for a while. We bought more fabric, and created policies for the volunteers to make sure that our message was unified. Within three weeks, we’d given out more than 10,000 of the things, and they were everywhere you went: on students, on faculty, on janitors, on health care workers, on bulletin boards.

    I’ll never know how much good our work did, though I do know that whoever was attacking people did not like these tactics: I was the only woman to receive the distinction of a death threat from them, left on my answering machine. I turned the tape over to the police and went about my business. There were no more incidents after the Star Project began, but I don’t credit us with that particularly; that’s a post hoc argument and there were plenty of reasons why they might have been winding down anyway. But I’ll settle for having clearly pissed them off. ;-)

    The point is that in *neither* case did any of us get in trouble for the protests. Including the fellow who led students with police whistles into the Admin building to disrupt everyone’s day and give Hanna Gray a headache.

    Why? My strong suspicion is because they had a point, and they were prepared to shut up and negotiate the instant they were addressed reasonably. I do know something about the 1960s protests at the U of C also; the ones who got a bunch of the leaders suspended — my father was a student there during that time. He said that the biggest reason most of the student body had zero sympathy for the protesters was that they didn’t have a clue what their own demands were. They’d gone in unprepared, and had no real idea what to expect or how to negotiate. So, when the administration courteously asked to hear what they wanted to say, they didn’t know how to begin. They knew what end result they wanted, but they’d never thought about how to discuss getting there. And they weren’t coordinated, so they didn’t even know who was going to speak for them, or have an agreement about what their spokespeople had authority to promise.

    When my friend led people into the Admin building with police whistles, he had control of his group. He could and did shut the whistling down the instant somebody stepped out of the office. He knew what he was going to ask, and it wasn’t an unreasonable request: he wanted an explanation he could give the others about what the school was doing to handle the problem, and why it had chosen that approach. He and the others had agreed on what they would do if the administration offered to talk: these three people would go inside; the others would go away, and there would be another meeting at the flagpole the next day to discuss the next step. They hadn’t ruled out the possibility of going back in with those whistles again, if the administration proved recalcitrant… but they were prepared to discuss the whole thing in a civil manner so long as the administration was willing to do the same.

    That’s always been the University of Chicago way: you’re allowed to defend your position vigorously, so long as you’re also doing so rationally, and so long as the position isn’t stupid. I saw the same policy in action in the way they handled our protests. We showed them we weren’t doing this recklessly or thoughtlessly, and they responded by treating us like adults.

  20. ket: Yeah, I think one (but only one) problem is that people are talking about completely different things when the topic is “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”. Immensely helpful to define what we’re talking about.

    pocketnaomi: immensely interesting discussion on what works and doesn’t work for protests at UChicago. Applicable to some other situations, not applicable to others, but something to think about.

  21. Methinks the issue is not trigger warnings as such, but rather mandating professors to give trigger warnings. Coupled with this is the realization that outside actors will attempt to dictate which topics, images, and so on, require trigger warnings.

  22. As a follow up to a comment over “right wing donors”, there’s actually a far more interesting tale about UoC out there, and the interesting thing is that it has been totally ignored, and now finds itself a target (from various sides of various factions):

    A tiny number of schools took the opportunity to confront years of administrative and staff bloat and moved to cut costs by shedding unneeded administrators and their brigades of staffers. The most notable example is the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, which in February 2009 addressed a $100 million budget deficit by eliminating fifteen “leadership positions,” along with 450 staff jobs, among other cuts. The dean also emphasized that faculty would not be affected by the planned budget cuts. Chicago’s message was clear: administrators and staffers were less important than teaching, research, and—since this involved a medical school—patient care; if the budget had to be cut, it would be done by thinning the school’s administrative ranks, not by reducing its core efforts./em>

    Unfortunately, few if any other colleges and universities copied the Chicago model. Facing budgetary problems, many schools eliminated academic programs and announced across-the-board salary and hiring freezes, which meant that vacant staff and faculty positions, including the positions of many adjunct professors, would remain unfilled until the severity of the crisis eased

    Administrators Ate My Tuition Washington Monthly, 2011

    The students, some dressed in their graduation gowns, say their school’s austerity measures are part of a broader pattern of corporatization in higher education.

    Students Protest University of Chicago Budget Cuts, Say Admin Is “Acting Like a Corporation” In These Times, June 2016.

    Far be it for me to suggest that there’s a far larger and more dangerous beast at lose here, but, yeah: there is.

    What’s amazing is that both the “Identity Left” and “Alt-Right” are attacking here on an issue that bears little reality to the actual battle that was fought (and lost).

    Administrator Bloat / Graft and Corruption vrs Faculty / real teaching.



  23. pocketnaomi:

    I do indeed remember those protests because I was student ombudsperson at the time. I can’t divulge the details of the discussions I had regarding the protests, but I did have them, including with the administration.

  24. @gwangung: Absolutely, not relevant to all situations — but useful as data to add to a lot of other data which can help with other situations. At any rate, it suggests that the U of C is not straightforwardly anti-protest, in all ways and all circumstances.

  25. @John: Damn! I get why you can’t tell, but I’d love to have been a fly on the wall at those discussions. ;-)

    At any rate, whatever they said about us, they didn’t discipline anybody that I ever heard of, and they certainly didn’t discipline the leader of the whistle movement at all, despite breaching the sacred perimeter of the Admin building. If you know why, that’s more than I do; I can only speculate. But they didn’t. And they even negotiated with them. (And rather a lot of the administration officials were spotted on campus wearing our triangles.)

  26. @pocketnaomi

    “UChicago says they’re broke, we know that’s a goddamn joke!” chanted about 60 students and alumni as they gathered outside the University of Chicago Admissions Office Thursday afternoon. The university faced its second sit-in in two days with a dozen imminently graduating seniors gathering to protest the University of Chicago’s proposed budget cuts of 5-6% to all non-academic staff and student positions, with academic departments taking at 2% hit.

    Why is an institution with a $7.55 billion endowment and in the process of raising $4.5 billion more cutting its budget? The answer starts with debt. As recently reported by Crain’s Chicago Business, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded $3 billion of U of C debt last year. In January, Moody’s again stated concerns about “thin” cash flow and rising debt service, stating that university debt is on track to grow by $450 million through fiscal 2018. These debt costs are associated with ambitious building programs—which, as Crain’s has also noted in the past, are part of the U of C’s consistent effort to attain and maintain a status on par with the Ivy League.

    From earlier piece.

    60 protestors.


    Moody’s is the (in)famous agency who managed to rate any number of subprime packages AAA rated, along with a couple of countries…

    But hey: I’m sure “Safe Spaces” is all you’re allowed to discuss these days, so go at it. Ignore the Mega-Sharks in the Ocean…

    (This would be a great comedy if it wasn’t actually real).

  27. @Cthulu: Um… I’m discussing safe spaces here because that’s what John’s article was about. Why is this addressed to me, in particular?

  28. What ket said. And you are definitely giving them the benefit of the doubt.

    Their Econ dept certainly has a rep for not caring about anyone who isn’t a wealthy white male. Because markets don’t allow discrimination to exist so anyone who isn’t rich isn’t working hard enough or isn’t smart enough. There is no such thing as market failure.

    Also, I think a place should invite controversial speakers AND allow protests, or not invite controversial speakers at all. Otherwise they are implicitly saying that they support, say racist faux intellectuals like Charles Murray.

  29. @Pocket

    Sorry, I assumed you were also alumnae, so I imagined that you’d be more interested in the financial gutting of your Mental Incubator and the horror-show financials rather than faux-outrage and fire about a letter about “safe spaces” that certainly was passed through both Lawyers, HR and the frankly predatory Admin side of things.

    But hey – if not, join the (((Alt-Right))) hordes or the Unicorns of Light and Happiness (mandatory) brigades.

    I was providing some much needed meta-commentary to an issue that has been stripped of it… precisely because you’re not allowed to discuss Moody’s AAA debt ratings and so on anymore.





  30. [And, mature actual comment: this is known in the PR game as a “spike” – it’s a hot spike, in that it’s designed to garner a great deal of noise, heat and grawwwwwrrr from as many sides as possible. Get as many Twitter / foaming bigots / noise as possible.

    The purpose is to occlude the actual real story, which I’ve already outlined for you.

    This is Media 101.

    June 2016 is the Student protests over austerity and the debt downgrade – derp? You think this hasn’t been run to run-over this?

    If you’re not adult enough to immediately understand this, then upgrade your software and so on.]



  31. Well said, John. I always thought the university was expressly designed to examine all ideas, philosophies, and events with open, sceptical minds willing to embrace the good and reject the bad after considered debate. U of C sounds like they are continuing the true university stance.

  32. My only thought is that, at least from what I’ve garnered from some people in academia, trigger warnings can be abused by college students and used as excuses to either not have to engage with stuff that challenges them, or to avoid having to do work. I don’t know how often this happens, but it does happen. Maybe it should just become standard to issue warnings about the usual suspects (rape, torture, racial violence, etc.), and for anything else a student will have to talk to their professor beforehand – kinda like how common allergens are called out in menus, but my wife always has to check if things have almonds or strawberries in them, since not as many people are allergic to those. of course, that puts the prof in the role of having to judge someones mental health and what is reasonable to accommodate, which is another issue. If your trigger is obscure, maybe it is up to you to talk to the professor to see how best to mitigate it.

    There was an article in the new yorker recently about two books on political correctness (, and the article’s author’s point was that there is often so little actual power behind these PC dustups,which mostly happen in universities or on facebook or tumblr, vs. the harm can be caused by something like the anti-trans bathroom laws or the rollback of voting rights etc. We get all exercised about the latest example of college students being overzealous and self-righteous, when it is mostly limited to twitter and facebook vs. state constitutions.

    The irony is that the same people that are so triggered by talk of trigger warnings and safe spaces also tend to subscribe to the politics of exclusion and keeping out people who don’t look or act like them. I think you said on twitter, john, that the RNC’s platform is basically to make the U.S. a safe space for straight white christians.

  33. I was vaguely under the possibly mistaken impression that this letter was at least in part a response to the protests that shut down a Breitbart speaker and a critic of the Israel boycotts. Was I misinformed?

    @John Barnes

    the student who has read five or six new age “quantum” books and expects to test out of quantum physics is not mere legend

    That sounds pretty far fetched. I’ve never see a “new age quantum book”, or even one the hundreds of perfectly sober layman’s quantum physics books, that taught a lick of the mathematical tools needed to pass even an undergraduate QM final, which is usually the standard for testing out of a course required for a particular degree.

  34. @Host
    The funniest part of this is that I just took the time to look into the cost of this spike: It’s roughly between $75,000 and $200,000. I even know the company and the channels.

    UoC alumnae, please prove your University is worthwhile by not doing this unpaid.


    Do Not Claim To Know Hegel When You’ve Never Read Him


    Ethical horrendous and we shall descend from the Heavens and smite you, but at least you made a choice.

    The rest?

    Please Grow Up. All you’re doing is feeding the unethical and base-crap-line of PR / Psych stuff you should be mentally able to look through.



    I won’t post links, but please: this is an anti-spike to save your reputation.

    Moody’s are really not your friends.

  35. John, at the time you were a student there, I was going through basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood. The only safe space for any of us was at the chapel on Sunday morning. Trigger warnings applied to keeping our fingers off the trigger. Every thing we held sacred was mocked.

    For some people that kind of atmosphere is horrible, but for me it was what I needed. While some people there were upset by dealing with people not their color or even language of birth, I’ve always reveled in it.

    On the other hand, what is right for me isn’t right for everyone. My niece was physically assaulted by her ex-husband at one point and I’d NEVER ask her to relive that. She’s as much a younger sister to me as her mother is a second mother to me. The idea that she might have to relive any of that makes me… You don’t wanna know.

    Some of us can deal with difference… even revel in them. My last wo jobs have been with Hispanics. While others have been of the “Speak English or go home” flavor, I’ve leared to speak Spanish, because it’s a challenge to my abilities and some of my amigos appreciate the effort.

    At the end of the day, I think we all need different things, although in my experience, the more conservative amongst us need things to be how they see it. I was a liberal way back when, even in basic. I need the different flavors. I also believe most of us need to be challenged But, there are times when a trigger warning is needed, and safe spaces should be welcomed. I ain’t everyone, and everyone isn’t me.. if that makes any sense.


    Chicago’s motivation may also be to head off actions such as Arizona students’ overenthusiastic reaction. As someone said earlier in the thread, students arrive not understanding norms. They’ve most of them come from sales where they’ve been wrapped in cotton wool and helicoptered, or alternatively traumatized and given phenomenally scant supports for regaining resilience, or both.

    But a primary mission of academia is developing leaders who can confront problems that traumatize the world. To pursue this mission, material on traumatic issues must be presented. It’s normal. It’s expectable.

    Trauma, on the other hand, is individual, and idiosyncratic. It’s also something that CBT and other therapies have great success in treating such that one is no longer disabled by triggering events.

    If triggers are disabling to the point that the individual requires reasonable accommodations under the ADA, the university is legally obliged to comply, so a student with PTSD or C-PTSD and triggers can ask a professor for reasonable accommodations (something I’ve seen nowhere in these discussions).

    But a student who does not seek therapeutic help and just feels that the language in a textbook is “rapey” is likely engaging in a fashion trend. I’m sorry. As a woman diagnosed with PTSD who has done the work to bring triggers down to a liveable level in most cases, I find that much of this stuff trivializes the work vets and other trauma victims go through to live with our triggering events.

    A triggering event causes profound involuntary reactions in the autonomic nervous system. It is not aesthetic disgust. It is not “microaggression.” It is as potentially disabling as a grand mal seizure.

    When your local vet asks you not to set off firecrackers, s/he’s not asking for funzies. When a person with actual PTSD from a history of rape asks the same regarding triggers, it is just the same.

    However, that person doesn’t have to ask by courtesy. They have the ADA. It is only people who have not sought therapy and dealt with their shit and are relying on the school alone to deal with it, or are feminist fashionistas, who don’t have the legal accommodation to fall back on.

    … gives ideas on ADA accommodations from workplaces, and universities are similar. But the university can ask that the student be diagnosed and seeking therapy.

    I find it really upsetting that this whole thing waters down the discussion that many of these people are self diagnosed, undiagnosed, untreated, and may be either using “trigger” in a misleading way, or may be leaving themselves open to seriously far more harm by not seeking professional help beyond trigger avoidance.

    The elephants in the room are so crowded, a stampede is inevitable.

  37. Shava:

    If triggers are disabling to the point that the individual requires reasonable accommodations under the ADA, the university is legally obliged to comply, so a student with PTSD or C-PTSD and triggers can ask a professor for reasonable accommodations (something I’ve seen nowhere in these discussions).

    Speaking as a current university student [1], I can actually cite the policy that’s explained to every student at the start of every class here (NMT). In brief: if you have mental or physical limits that require accommodation, go to the counselling office (location). They will work with you to determine appropriate accommodations, bearing in mind that they will be less than high school if more than private industry. They will then notify the instructors what to do without informing them more than that, because of confidentiality. If in doubt, see the counselling office, because better to play it safe.

    Trigger warnings are included as “reasonable accommodations.”

    As the father of LD children (now long since adults, all with postgraduate degrees) that works just fine for me.

    [1] Very, very non-traditional

  38. As someone married to a prof, I can tell you that the dean’s letter is bullshit and is aimed at threatening both faculty and students — particularly faculty, who are being told that they can’t use free speech or facilitate free speech in their class, and also students who may organize for change at the university. PZ Myers, who is also a prof, has a very good piece on the letter:

    And in particular he lays out what this dean is doing, because the dean is yet another business obsessed conservative freaking out about the fact that numerous students are protesting administrators in their universities who are blocking their educations and their safety — and who are being fairly successful in those protests. So he gives a completely erroneous definition of both terms in order to intimidate those students, many of whom are black and other students from marginalized groups who have frequently been denied free speech at universities, as well as in general and have to fight for it. (And faculty who may support them.) He’s basically just warning them that they better not protest his being dean. Which is now exactly what he may get, though since U. of Chicago is primarily a graduate school, what also is going to happen is that most of the student body and the faculty will ignore his snit fit. But he has just laid open the university to a wide variety of lawsuits, including discrimination suits from faculty, who already have quite a lot of discrimination against women and non-white professors.

    P.Z. Myers:

    We all create safe spaces and give trigger warnings and expect that our institutions of higher learning will feature worthy speakers. It’s just that if you are part of a privileged, dominant majority, you don’t have to say it: you can trust that your values will be well represented, sheltered, and unchallenged. It’s only if you are a member of a minority that you find it necessary to be explicit and openly demand a place for your ideas; these phrases about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” only evolved because people found that institutions were unthinkingly assuming that the majority (and the money) rules, and it took hard work to hammer out room to talk about alternative views or oppression or privilege.

    The problem is that now those phrases are used as red flags to tell that privileged majority that, hey, look, here’s a minority group that’s trying to carve out a place in our university — quick, shout ’em down. Silence them. Make up rules to break them apart, to allow us to openly disrespect their concerns, to allow us to shove horrible people in their faces while not allowing them to complain. This is not about encouraging “freedom of expression”, it’s about creating tools to club down anyone who opposes the accepted status quo.

    In other words, the dinosaurs are roaring from the tar pits. The 1960’s dinosaurs to be exact.

  39. The thing that annoys me about this discussion is the implication that this is something new and radical. Consider safe spaces: U of C has had a Hillel organization since 1940 and a ‘Calvert’ organization (similar to Newman on other campuses) since 1901. What are those but safe spaces for Jewish and Catholic students to hang out with each other and talk about Jewish or Catholic issues amongst themselves? It sounds like a fine thing to me, and obviously those communities have found them valuable and worthy of support for years. Are these venerable institutions now ‘not condoned’ by the university and Dean Ellison? That’s what his letter says but he of course doesn’t mean these TRADITIONAL safe spaces, only the newer kind for less familiar groups that make him uncomfortable.

  40. In other words, the dinosaurs are roaring from the tar pits. The 1960’s dinosaurs to be exact.

    Not really. In fact, that’s a complete and depressing lie. Nice myth, total rubbish.

    They’re the high-tech Wall Street ones running games through channels. The Dinosaur Stuff is part of the spike.

    Waiting on anyone here to have the courage to connect Admin UoC with Wall Street, Moody’s and loans and then to the rest of it.

    You won’t…

    The only question is why.

    [Hint: it’s because your lives depend on the scam. Just be honest about it]


    This stuff really is kindergarten levels of engagement in the current USA Power Structure.

    Oh, and Host has me on a tight leash – but I’m more than willing to dump docs showing the links.

    Oh, America, Land of the Free and the Brave, Land of the Football and the Pedophile Scandal that lasted for over 40 years.

    The Dirt on your Universities is obscene. The fact you can’t even bring yourselves to challenge the Capital Investment driving it?



  41. Hint to Kat: Don’t ignore the 2011 and then 2016 piece.

    Admin corruption of Universities in the USA has taken hold in the last 10-20 years, largely driven by easy credit, then easy credit then QE.


    Please tell us about the PFI initiatives and debt deals made please. You can make references to State, Universities or Hospitals, I don’t mind.

    Hint: this stuff isn’t old men in shower rooms, this stuff is fresh shiny predators. This stuff has Large Shiny Brochures.

    Spoilers: your narrative is shady and slow and ignorant.


  42. So, speaking as a student at an extremely social-justice conscious school…this doesn’t strike me as some grand conspiracy by the bourgeois establishment to deceive or distract the proletariat or the students at Chicago. I’d say that Mr. Scalzi is right and it’s an out-of-touch old white dude trying to talk down to a bunch of kids. I am also certain that, as has happened here in the classes with similarly crotchety old professors, that alt-right types who come in and try to spout their usual BS will be summarily torn apart by liberal seniors who have 4 years of intensive experience on those alt-right types. I’ve seen it happen, it’ll happen again.

    Honestly I don’t think this is worth the fuss. An out-of-touch white bourgeois buffoon said something out of touch. That happens about 1,000,000 times a minute. I think we all have more important things to worry about–like the lovechild of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Herman Goering who’s running for President with a dead fox on his head.

  43. Trigger Warnings in plain language: a combat veteran may have a PTSD flashback if you set off a firecracker behind their seat. A trigger warning is letting them know ahead of time that you’re about to light a firecracker. Repeat concept for rape victims, abuse victims, victims of violent bigotry, and so on.

    Safe Spaces, imho, is two fold: (1) Having an anti-harassment policy on par with standard corporate America, modified to deal with students as well as faculty. (2) letting disenfranchised groups create infrastructure that can support their members in dealing with disenfranchising behavior.

    Once you acknowledge the basic fact that inequality exists, then safe spaces and trigger warnings and anti harassment policies become natural solutions to the problem.The only reason to deny safe spaces and trigger warnings is to deny that there is an inequality problem on campus and in america.

  44. It seems to me that the classic safe spaces are churches and chapels. A safe space to me is any location where like minded individuals are allowed to assemble and deal with their common business with some level of assurance that their activities won’t be disrupted by those that disagree with them.

    If you’re going to do away with safe spaces for real then I would expect that the biggest impact would be allowing free discourse in such spaces, even during services (when better to engage the largest number of people in your conjectures about their faith). I don’t really expect that the university will follow this course, but it would seem consistent with their declaration. Allowing a group of atheists to disrupt morning services seems consistent with allowing alleged Christians to disrupt an LGBT gathering. Plays both ways…

  45. I think what Ket said above covers much of my thinking. Just to add my own two cents, I’ll repeat something I’ve said a number of times , “political correctness”, “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” are really nothing more than common courtesy.

    A little civility goes a long way.

  46. I think Greg hit the nail on the head: denying the necessity of these solutions is necessary if you need to continue to deny the existence of inequality and some people rely on this denial for their peace of mind and/or livelihood.

    If you follow up with jkylewilson’s suggestion, then you find out who still has the power not just to keep their safe spaces, but to “plausibly” deny they are in the same category as these upstarts.

    It wouldn’t shock me if Cthulhu’s new predators exist concurrently with the faltering dinosaurs and if there is synergy with their action profiles. To beat an old horse to zombiehood and beyond, fascists had no problem using naturally occurring monarchists and old time religious zealots as cover and auxiliary fuel sources.

    Can I mention Hegel if I read Hegel, but don’t remember much of him?

  47. As an alum, I found the letter ridiculous, since trigger warnings and safe spaces have certainly been in place long before I graduated 15 years ago. Insane rantings of Cthuthu aside, I do think the idea that the letter is really an appeal to conservative donors has some merit – a classmate of mine now works in admissions and was discussing the current financial crisis which started with the construction of Max Pavlesky and the athletic center and has continued unabated, leaving the university with some very shiny new buildings and not a lot to show for it but massive depletion of funds – probably why fundraising is so obnoxiously aggressive.

  48. “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?”

    As alumni, we are supposed to use “The University” as opposed to the lower case version, are we not? Otherwise a fine reflection.

  49. From what I’ve read here about trigger-warnings, I’ve become a fan (Thanks Kat & John et al). Here’s quick personal PTSD story about me for your entertainment. Once in the earliest 70s in a desert I’d had surgery done on my knee with some piecing back together of parts w/o anesthetics or even pain killers. I’d had to practice some very serious mind control (yoga-like) in an attempt to keep myself from jerking while the doc cut, until finally I fainted dead away & and the EMS guy finished his business w/o interruptions (hey, he was a Chicago Hospital EMS!) Well, that all gave me a kind of PTSD from then on. To this day you can nearly poke a stick through me in some random parts and I may not feel much; but in other parts if you even brush me I’ll be on the floor sometimes in convulsions. My brain got re-wired – and I can’t see why this can’t happen to others from emotional hardships too, just like me. But don’t get weepy about me here: I often think my “new body” is funny, and can ride it out. But I can see how PTSD would be a serious problem for others, especially young kids in college.

    Now, from a practical NON-POLITICAL standpoint, I say Trigger Warnings are an excellent idea, just as long as nobody would get too openly touchy-feely with me when my PTSD becomes a factor (just a personal preference). For example: touching the back of my tongue normally puts me into convulsions. So, if the doc doesn’t want spit on his face and who knows what else, Trigger Warnings for Doc & Me is a good to go thing. Can’t see why this wouldn’t work in classes, too, with PTSD participants. Its just working with what there is to know.

    Maybe metaphorically, if the UofC doesn’t want spit all over its face, maybe a policy of Trigger Warnings should rather be encouraged? This has nothing to do with avoiding truths, but rather the opposite, for gosh sake. The Dean in that letter sounded like a jerk to me, and I’d ignore him (if I were teacher or prospective student).

  50. @Cthulu: Oh, I see. You think you’ll draw adherents to your point of view by insulting and threatening people. I was under the mispprehension that you had something to say to me, rather than my simply being the nearest person you could grab by the collar and attempt to bully.

    @Richard Norton: There’s no question that the U of C is not a school for those who are not pretty healthy people, in all fashions. I dropped out without my degree because of a purely physical disability which made it impossible for me to do the sheer amount of work needed to keep up with the courseload. Another student who lived down the hall from me committed suicide out a sixth story window, unable to cope with the emotional stresses.

    There are schools which offer a lot more support and protection for people with disabilities or fragilities of all sorts. They can be every bit as intellectually rigorous, but in different ways. Chicago is intellectual boot camp — no frills, few comforts, and every expectation of pushing you as hard as you can go and then some. It’s not entirely coincidental that every single “silly, fun tradition” that the U of C has is, in some way, profoundly masochistic. (Midnight wintertime Duck Duck Goose on the Midway? A three-hour crawl-through maze? 6AM Calisthenics at the Point in February? A scavenger hunt which requires a thousand miles of driving and four days without much sleep?)

    It’s great for some people. Others will break. This is *why* the admissions department used to do its best to drive off everyone who wasn’t the right fit for that particular university. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with places that require a robust health, physical and mental alike, to keep up with. I do think there’s something wrong with not letting people know it before they arrive on campus.

  51. @pocketnaomi Don’t mind him, that’s his shtick. He finds a thread only vaguely related to what he wants to talk about, and then does this condescending Socratic thing to change the subject. He ends up sounding like that stoner who really wants to explain how the universe, like, really works, man, but something heinous will happen if he actually says something. Most people ignore him, so he’s fishing for someone to play with.

  52. I feel that the concepts of safe spaces and trigger warnings have been taken out of context and generalised in a damaging way. As an LGBT person, a place where I’m not going to have to defend myself from harassment is a necessary thing for me at times and essential to my mental health. As a volunteer worker in mental health, I spend some of my time creating spaces such as that. As someone many of whose friends have experienced abuse and harassment and rape, I see a value in content warnings – PTSD is a real thing, and being triggered into a panic attack by the occurrence of a reminder of a traumatic memory can have serious physical consequences. I myself don’t deal well with discussion of suicide.

    There is in addition a political aspect to these concepts, which is where it gets smeared out and starts to touch the ideas that you have discussed here. Women, people of colour, disabled people as well as LGBT people are suppressed in the regimes where you yourself move freely. As you have said, they don’t play on the easiest difficulty setting of life. Rules for discussion in spaces that prevent such people from having their voices silenced, go some way towards balancing those difficulties. By explicitly not condoning such rules and spaces, UoC biases the game towards those who play on the lowest difficulty setting, confirming that they support the status quo, that they are happy that you get to play on the easiest level while I am on one of the hardest.

    I see the outcry against ‘safe spaces and trigger warnings’ is in some ways a misconstruction of what they really are in the first place, but also using that convenient misconstruction, in reaction against changing the rules to prevent voices from being suppressed, by people who have a vested interest in the status quo.

  53. Hey, Cthulhu? Everybody else here’s too polite and/or worried about being malleted to say it, I suppose, but would you please just shut up? Your schtick is tiresome, offtopic, uninformative, unconvincing drek, and it’s been that way for ages.

    Re: safe spaces & trigger warnings: I’ve always thought it simple common courtesy to warn people if you were going to talk about something you would reasonably expect to bother them. Media ratings systems are a more formal expression of the same. There’s just something about the phrase “trigger warning” that seems to put people’s backs up. I attribute it to social signalling, I think.

    It’s a handy windmill to level a lance against, to ‘prove’ your own testicular fortitude, and to group-bound over how you’re better and different than those weak sots over there, etc.

    Funnily enough I see ever so many more people complaining about trigger warnings and people “being triggered” than I ever actually see of the behaviour they complain about. This tracks with the first law of Feminism and the Internet: The comments on any discussion about feminism on the internet will prove the need for feminism. I figure the motivations are much the same, even if the people are different; the resulting behaviour certainly is.

  54. SB Cabal Member:

    I suggest leaving the telling of people to shut up to me, please.

    On the matter of Cthulhu, the point that administrators have been a growth position in universities and that they end up costing a lot, therefore tying universities closer to donors (thus possibly coloring the content of that letter) was on point, so I allowed it. With that said, I think the point had been made sufficiently, and no one seems to have a real objection to it, so it can probably be tabled from here on out.

    Toward the idea that the letter is in fact a sub rosa communication to conservative donors: maybe? But honestly UofC has no problem communicating to donors directly (trust me) and the letter doesn’t say anything new – it’s stated basically the same position before, in public. Occam’s Razor suggests its primary purpose is what it looks like: a letter to incoming students.

  55. Call me clueless, but is there more to a “trigger warning” than alerting your readers/students/discussion participants/whatever that there are some potentially rough topics ahead, so people should kind of brace themselves for it? Sort of like an airliner captain turning on the fasten-seat-belts sign before the plane flies into turbulence?

    And why the heck would anyone with a lick of sense object to a “brace yourself” sort of warning?

  56. I want to think a bit more about this misconstruction of ‘safe spaces’.

    In the original sense of the term, a safe space at UoC would be one in which a girl raped by a college boy would have her assault taken seriously. The consequences for her attacker would not be made trivial because he was ‘a good kid’ and ‘think of his career’, and she would not be forced to associate with her rapist for the rest of her time at the school. A safe space in that sense would be one in which people are not abused in any way and need not fear abuse or to encounter reminders of abuse without a chance to prepare for them. I would hope that UoC provides such an environment. The statement from them doesn’t go into it.

    The misconstruction of ‘safe spaces’ that they and you discuss, I would rather term, ‘fair spaces’. By that I mean rules of discussion and engagement that account for and compensate the societal advantages and disadvantages that students bring to the school. Classrooms where the queer girl of colour is taken as seriously as the straight white boy, where women are admitted in the syllabus as having done as much valid work as men, where everyone gets to play the game on the same difficulty level. That means active bias in favour of people with disadvantages that they bring from the outside, and against people who already play on the easiest level. This will be experienced by the rich white boy as being unfair. But before anyone objects that it really isn’t fair, there is precedent for it in sport, in every handicapping system there ever was. The point of the level playing field is to eliminate outside advantages and give everyone an equal chance.

    The misconstruction of ‘trigger warnings’, that some works and ideas will be objected to by some people and that they should not get to object, denies the validity of the experiences of people who are not wealthy white straight males. The canon of literature, art and science does not value those people’s work and experiences, and reinforces the idea that the opinions of dead white males are the only valid ones. Given that over the past several centuries those opinions have been dismissive of women, people of colour, queer people, I feel that such people in the classroom should have the right to object to being denigrated and erased by the works that they are being taught. This is a healthy debate and I think should be enabled rather than shut down. I think it is right to press for a wider balance of diversity in the works being taught and to have that pressure misconstrued as a call to ban objectionable works, is disingenuous and reactionary.

    There is a quote from someone, I can’t remember who right now, to the effect that being neutral is to take the side of the oppressor. By insisting that their classrooms must be neutral, UoC allows the voice of the boy who has been indulged all his life and who is used to talking over everyone else, to go on doing just that. The woman, the queer person, the person of colour who is used to being dismissed, who has learned from an early age that their voice will not be listened to, will go on learning that and leave the college with the lesson reinforced.

    You describe as well a disturbing authoritarianism on the part of the college, where dissent is punished severely. I see that as going further to reinforce the status quo and make sure that the difficulty levels of the game are set in stone.

  57. @Scalzi: Given that the least worrisome interpretation is that this is a poorly-drafted statement that accidentally misused buzz words and misrepresented generally unobjectionable (although potentially capable of abuse! like just about anything) teaching practices, I suggest the Razor that should be in use here is Hanlon’s, not Occam’s.

  58. America has always had an infatuation with power. We love power more than we love equality. I find it unsurprising that the way America puts down the pursuit of equality inherent in safe spaces and trigger warning is by calling it a weakness. There is no more visceral insult in America than to call someone a weakling or a coward. And that’s exactly what the dean of students is calling people: weak.

  59. In the original sense of the term, a safe space at UoC would be one in which a girl raped by a college boy would have her assault taken seriously. The consequences for her attacker would not be made trivial because he was ‘a good kid’ and ‘think of his career’, and she would not be forced to associate with her rapist for the rest of her time at the school.

    No, that is not remotely the situation a safe space was originally conceived for.

  60. I just wish anything I’d been taught in 6 years of college (not to mention high school) had been worth a trigger warning, instead of getting the blandest, glossiest possible view of history and society whenever possible.

  61. It’s always terribly amusing to me how social conservatives can snark about trigger warnings and safe spaces. Tell you what, guys: when you stop stacking school boards to ensure that biology textbooks teach the nonexistent controversy and glossing over any event in history textbooks that doesn’t cover America with glory and make we want to get a screaming eagle tatooed on my chest, we can talk about those pansy-ass college students and their trigger warnings. But motes in my eye, logs in yours, glass houses, and so on. Social conservatives have been working for decades to not just warn of triggers, but delete them entirely, and in so doing make society an even safer space for them than it was previously.

  62. Many years ago, I read Into the Heart of Borneo. I then wanted to share the interesting concept of a palang on a feminist website. Before I did so, I included a trigger warning for the guys. (This was so long ago that it wasn’t called a “trigger warning.”) Some expressed their distress anyhow.

    I thought I’d use a photo of a palang here to illustrate that even straight, white, male people without previous trauma could sometimes use a trigger warning. But, alas! The internet does not seem to have such a distressing photo on it. It has a crude sketch, and photos of a leather cover that imitates a palang, but not the real thing.

    Make of that what you will.

  63. Ket and a number of other people have talked about what they “thought” a “safe space” is. The trouble is, there’s a lot of disagreement and confusion about what a safe space is, not must among us laypeople but among professionals. (The same is true of “trigger warning” and “microagression,” among other terms that have passed from professional jargon to more or less mainstream discourse.) So, for example, the therapist Walt Odets wrote (In the shadow of the epidemic: being HIV-negative in the age of AIDS [Duke UP, 1995]: 274f.):

    In any well-run group, safety can only mean one thing: any expression of feelings or thoughts will be received and tolerated by the group, and an attempt will be made to honestly respond to it. This will be done without physical violence or undue emotional hurt to other members, and without abandonment of the group. This essential objective is most easily accomplished in a professionally facilitated therapy group, because the group leader will have the necessary skills to mediate and limit conflict to a safe and constructive level. When the idea of safety comes to mean, as it often does in poorly constructed therapy groups and many support groups, that members be polite and “non-judgmental” toward each other, then the prime therapeutic objectives are undermined. Interpersonal interaction — as opposed to social form — necessarily involves feelings and judgments about others, and unless they can be expressed and discussed truthfully, the group can provide neither insight nor the meaning that comes of bearing witness….

    The function of a group is not to make members “feel better when they leave than when they came in,” as one poorly supervised peer facilitator has routinely billed his weekly support group for San Francisco gay men. It is the function of a therapy group, like individual psychotherapy, to help people attain the insight that allows them to make themselves feel better.

    As Odets indicates, even other professionals have very different ideas of what a safe space should be. I’ve long observed that, just as many conservatives want to express their beliefs without being challenged or rebutted, many non-conservatives want and demand the freedom to trash people with beliefs they detest. This includes non-conservatives who pay lip service to diversity, respect, civility, and other Good Things — but for themselves, not for Those Others, the Bad Guys, because they are full of Hate, unlike Us, who are full of Love. For not a few non-conservatives, “safe space” means a place where they can freely attack the Haters, and they get to decide who the Haters are.

  64. @Duncan
    Congrats on bringing liberal vs. conservative to the discussion again, while carefully not saying “liberal”. Political correctness appears to be going both ways here. “Many” “Not a few” “Some” say… I see what you did there. Trump uses that sort of rhetorical device quite a bit, in order not to have to prove that any particular actual person said or did such a thing.

  65. Shava: “But a student who does not seek therapeutic help and just feels that the language in a textbook is “rapey” is likely engaging in a fashion trend.”

    Duncan “This essential objective is most easily accomplished in a professionally facilitated therapy group”

    The idea that someone has to have a professional therapist to claim being triggered or to want a safe space smells sort of like the anti abortion folks who want abortion providers to have admitting privileges to a hospital. They say it is only meant to protect women, but all it really does is get rid of abortion providers.

    Just because someone didnt file a police report doesnt mean they werent raped. Just because someone doesnt go to the emergency room doesnt mean they werent hurt. Just because someone doesnt go to a professional therapist doesnt mean they werent traumatized.

  66. Most of this discussion (and John’s OP) is a little depressing in the superficial views expressed and what I feel is the deliberate missing of the point. I believe most commentators are too astute not to realize the real impetus behind the new policy. In practical terms, what are some of the events that Chicago is responding to? Here are just a handful of examples of speech shut down by student protesters in the name of safe spaces:
    – Condoleezza Rice was forced to withdraw as commencement speaker at Rutgers after students and faculty protested
    – When former philosophy professor Christina Hoff Sommers spoke at Georgetown, activists held up “trigger warning” placards warning that her arguments would be potentially traumatizing. They also posted signs directing students to a “safe space” in another part of the college.
    – Conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro was banned from speaking at DePaul University due to “security concerns”.
    – provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos has been banned from multiple campuses for making students feel “unsafe”. Hell, the College Republicans at UC-Irvine were even sanctioned on trumped-up grounds for just inviting him! (The sanction was revoked after legal action was threatened).
    – Christine LaGarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund canceled a speech at Smith after Facebook protest against her by some students and faculty for her connection to “global capitalists.”

    I could go on and on. But there is a clear trend in the data. Nearly all instances of the “hecklers’ veto” have been from the left. I think you would be hard pressed to find a recent example of any talks being canceled due to pressure from conservative students or faculty. That’s why John was so roundly mocked for his rather silly tweet about UC’s policy applying to conservatives too.

    It is a common enough trend to claim the victim role, but John’s apparent claim that college campuses (like the rest of the world) is an “implictly (sic) safe space” for conservatives is bizarre. Many liberals claim to be fact driven, but then feel free to ignore the evidence. Look at any survey of political affiliations of faculty – the skew to the left is immense. I attended universities for both grad and undergrad of a similar ranking to Chicago (maybe a little better ranked) and my (moderate conservative) views were continually challenged by my professors. One particularly memorable moment when I explained what I thought was strained logic in a professor’s argument, he responded “Mr. xxxx, when you are an old and rich alum who has given a lot of money to the school, you can say that to me. But until then, keep quiet!” (I am now an old and rich alum who has donated fair sums to the school, but unfortunately the professor has long retired. In case he is reading this and remembers me – you are still wrong!). To be clear – I didn’t feel at all victimized by the professor or his colleagues. I found it great that my ideas were challenged – it made me rethink certain beliefs and vastly improved my rhetorical skills. Contrary to what John claims, it is liberals who tend to exit from the more prestigious colleges unprepared for debate as they have often not been exposed to substantive contrary arguments. I cannot fathom how John thinks that the UC policy will have any practical implications for campus conservatives. He can’t really believe that conservative views are not currently open to interrogation. His tweet was ill-advised and its mockery was well founded.

    Finally, I applaud the UC letter. I feel they made one error in not originally clarifying that there is no prohibition against trigger warnings, but the overall sentiment resonates with me. The increasing trend of safe spaces being used as an excuse to shout down contrary speech needs to be opposed. (Full disclosure – I have a passing social acquaintance with Bob Zimmer and this policy is fully consistent with his New York lower-east-side up-by-his-own-bootstraps mentality). I know John is busy with his writing and doesn’t have much time for additional reading, but this piece does seem to suffer from a lack of research. If he really wants to understand the underpinnings of the policy, he should start with reading the underlying UC report that lead to the letter (Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression – His comments would be far better informed if he understood the background.

  67. Michael Jarmin:

    “His comments would be far better informed if he understood the background.”

    Thank you for the condescension, there, Michael.

    Now, for your part, you might entertain the thought that I was already well aware of the report you mention, and the letter’s connection to it, and yet still feel it’s a bit silly, for the reasons I’ve outlined. You’re free to disagree, as it’s clear you do.

    “I cannot fathom how John thinks that the UC policy will have any practical implications for campus conservatives.”

    That much is obvious, I’m afraid. And yet.

  68. Some of the different definitions of “safe spaces” are relating to different levels in a Maslovian hierarchy of needs and thus are not disagreeing with each other. Protecting students from rape, bullying, slurs, etc., is entirely consistent with providing an intellectually challenging and stimulating education. To those who are opposed to “safe spaces”, please consider that whatever definition you use, it’s not the only one, and that you probably should not be completely opposed to the concept of safety in general.

  69. The UofC still has the federal investigation of Title IX violations with regard to sexual assault pending, plus the recent decision by the NLRB to allow grad students to organize, plus the on going protests regarding racist policing and Fight for $15, and lastly their bond rating was lowered. Many here in Hyde Park think this was just an awkward warning and a fund raising letter, very little to do with academic freedom.

  70. @Michael Jarmin:

    – Condoleezza Rice was forced to withdraw as commencement speaker at Rutgers after students and faculty protested

    Commencement speaker at the very least implies some level of endorsement by the college. If the students and faculty don’t want to endorse one of the Shrub’s minions, that is entirely within their rights.

    – When former philosophy professor Christina Hoff Sommers spoke at Georgetown, activists held up “trigger warning” placards warning that her arguments would be potentially traumatizing. They also posted signs directing students to a “safe space” in another part of the college.

    And? How is this in any way bad? How does protesting a speaker–which by the way IS a fundamental civil right in this country–negatively affect that speaker’s freedom of speech?

    – Conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro was banned from speaking at DePaul University due to “security concerns”.

    So? Shapiro’s a racist asshole, and a smug jerk with no respect for others. The university, moreover, is a private institution that has no obligation to provide a sixth-rate nobody from Breitbart’s–I mean, Pravda‘s–lower bowels with a soapbox.

    – provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos has been banned from multiple campuses for making students feel “unsafe”. Hell, the College Republicans at UC-Irvine were even sanctioned on trumped-up grounds for just inviting him! (The sanction was revoked after legal action was threatened).

    That guy’s a professional asshole who’s made a living out of writing racist, sexist, and homophobic screeds. Sanctioning the College Republicans for tone-deafness is a bit much, but Milo Howeverthefuckyouspellhisname is nothing more than a petty hatemonger who build his brand through toxic bigotry and inciting the far-right to violence. This is no different from Australia banning MRA trolls for bigotry.

    – Christine LaGarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund canceled a speech at Smith after Facebook protest against her by some students and faculty for her connection to “global capitalists.”

    So? That was her choice in response to public opinion. She wasn’t made to do anything.

    In a nutshell, Michael, you’re full of shit. You cite a couple of cases of conservatives being denied safe spaces to be toxic hatemongers, and a bunch of peaceful student protests. You seem to be implying that student protests themselves are un-American, which is deeply troubling given that that was the attitude that got us Kent State.

  71. Floored, Michael Jarmin:

    I’ll make the general note that litigating specific incidents as the two of you are doing will likely lead us far afield, so insomuch as there has been a statement and rebuttal on these, let’s go ahead and table it. If you want to pursue it further, go ahead and do it in email. Thanks!

  72. Regarding your last paragraph of point No.5, which had to do with the underlying differences between liberals and conservatives I would also posit the use of faith. Many conservatives subscribe to faith, generally religious faith, as a fundamental principle. This is at odds with anything that relies on the empirical universe as the basis for all observation or discussion. The result is not unlike vegetable oil poured into a bucket of H2O.

  73. John,

    I assumed since you did not reference the underlying report (or Zimmer’s WSJ op-ed), that you were unaware of it. I stand corrected and apologize. However, I think I have a reasonable excuse for being wrong-footed by your decision not to address these points. These are obviously highly relevant, even fundamental, to your posting. I also continue to believe that your tweet about conservatives was ill advised.

    And thanks to “Floored by Scalzi’s awesomeness” for making my point about it being liberals who tend to leave college unprepared for debate. It it wasn’t for mischaracterizations, strawmen and ad-hominems, Floored would have no argument at all. John, not to put you on the spot, but you don’t actually agree with anything substantive Floored said, right? (Except of course for his name). People like Floored are a great example as to why UC felt the need to send out the letter it did.

  74. my thought on this: doesn’t conservative basically mean “not ready to have their own baseline assumptions challenged”? (For “ready” of course you can substitute “willing”. If someone is willing to be challenged, they are much more likely to be ready for said challenge.) Teenagers in general tend to be somewhat conservative in the sense of holding pretty hard to what they’ve grown up with (which may have been progressive or reactionary: it’s the *holding on* that makes it conservative). The years 18-22 are prime change years. I think it’s good that incoming students are being explicitly told “you will be challenged,” but it does seem that letter was clumsily written.

  75. Pfusand – I’m a little confused; there’s a wide variety of well-known male genital piercings, with many types having pages on Wikipedia (e.g. the “Prince Albert” piercing – yes there are pictures so “trigger warning” for folk put off by body modifications). Is there something particularly outrè about the palang, or was it just that such piercings exist? I suspect this piercing is known in western culture by another name.

  76. As a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School near twenty years past, I was delighted by this letter in as much as it reflects very much the University of Chicago I know and love.

  77. Greg Leon Guerrero:

    I know a number of liberals who are religious, so I’m not entirely sure I’m 100% behind this hypothesis.


    Apology accepted, of course. And you’re perfectly within your rights to think the tweet was ill-advised. I make ill-advised tweets from time to time.


    I don’t think that’s the definition of conservative, and even within conservative circles there is room for argument on details even if everyone generally agrees on ground assumptions (it works that way in liberal circles, too).

  78. I find it hilarious that many who proudly and loudly boast they don’t need safe spaces are doing so from their own safe space.

  79. Michael: “I think you would be hard pressed to find a recent example of any talks being canceled due to pressure from conservative students or faculty.”

    Dont know about university speakers, but you want to see conservatives shut down speech they disagree with? Just check out the album burnings after the Dixie Chicks said they were ashamed Bush was also from Texas. Or, see how many conservatives loose their goddamn minds if an olympic athelete or football player doesnt stand to their satisfaction to the national anthem. And it is conservative morons who have been pushing creationism in school and cant bear that evolution is real, and insist that their idiocy of a 6000 year old earth be taught side by side with evolution proven by scientific method. And I believe it is conservatives in congress who refuse to even meet with a supreme court nominee, apparently out of fear of what horrible communist thing he might say?

    Its certainly not the case that liberals collapse at the sound of a differing opinion while conservatives welcome the opportunity to hear things they disagree with. But I’m sure its fun to pretend….

  80. Greg,

    The debate is about college campuses. Your bringing up extraneous examples is not useful. Sure, many conservatives are intolerant. I can match your examples with many on the liberal side (reactions to Brendan Eich or Curt Schilling for starters), but they are meaningless to this discussion. Let’s stay on topic – name one recent example of a speech being canceled on a US college campus due to a hecklers’ veto from the right.

    As an aside, why make comments like “Its certainly not the case that liberals collapse at the sound of a differing opinion while conservatives welcome the opportunity to hear things they disagree with. But I’m sure its fun to pretend…”? This is a gross mischaracterization of what I actually said and hardly progresses your argument.

  81. Lawrence Rocke:

    The UofC still has the federal investigation of Title IX violations with regard to sexual assault pending, plus the recent decision by the NLRB to allow grad students to organize, plus the on going protests regarding racist policing and Fight for $15, and lastly their bond rating was lowered.

    Oh yeah, and then there were the protests the student government has been making against the administration regarding several important issues. Here’s another article talking to the students that shows pretty much exactly why the dean wrote the letter — didn’t have much to do with the in-coming freshmen:

    Incoming college students know perfectly well that their views are going to be “challenged.” Their views are challenged in freaking high school and a good percentage of them have had experiences already that would curl their elders’ hair, especially as a large percentage at U. of Chicago are not white upper middle class suburbs kids. Half the students there are graduate students — they’re adults.

    But older generations always try to cast the younger generation as selfish, entitled, ignorant, etc. It’s a defense mechanism because they fear the younger crowd will replace them and because the younger crowd doesn’t automatically accept how their elders are running things as awesome and fair. So it’s easy for them to claim that the students have to toughen up, etc. because lots of people will nod and buy it — even the Generation Xers who had all the same garbage claimed of them when they were at university and in twenties.

    But what they are really concerned with is the fact that the youngest generation is more liberal and supportive of equality on average than they were and that the millenials are TOO tough. They worry that the safe spaces are where students are organizing. And trigger warnings mean that students won’t accept discriminatory policies at the university without protest, they think. (Mostly it’s just seen as a liberal thing and therefore, attack it.) If students of color find the campus security is ignoring them and issues they go through that block their education, they will organize and protest. If, as is happening at U of C, the university spends more on shiny athletic facilities to please donors and not emergency medical clinics it needs, they organize and protest. The letter is warning incoming freshmen not to make noise in protest or organize in campus groups and protest.

    When students protested the draft, discrimination of black people and women, and opening up curriculum to more than dead old white guys in the 1960’s and 1970’s, administrations gave the same speeches. When students protested in the 1980’s to get their universities to divest from investments in South Africa because of apartheid, they got the same speech from university administrations. And when students have been protesting at universities today about the lack of professors of color, about discrimination they face, about sexual assault on campus, exorbitant student loans, etc. they are getting the same speeches. The faces change, the rhetoric does not.

    So basically this dean and his administration fear their student body, particularly the grad students who are cash cows for them, and a good chunk of their faculty who they also want to rein in — from talking about anything the admins find problematic, while they try to monetize parts of the university in an extremely inefficient and clueless fashion. As many people have already noted here, it’s the university that doesn’t want to be challenged by new ideas. And they don’t want the students thinking they have any power or leverage to change things.

    So we get an old-fashioned, you have to listen to white guys barking at you because bootstraps rant that is basically a cannon shot across the bow. And it ain’t going to work. And maybe the dean figures those battles will add luster to his resume and get him a nice job in business circles, but what it’s going to mean for the university is more change, better circumstances.

  82. The thing is, as was seen across campuses last year, if you give SJWs an inch, they’ll take a mile. A firm stand needs to be taken to put them in their places. Perhaps, if University leaders were dealing with reasonable people, a reasonable compromise could be reached, but, as it stands, a firm reminder of the function of education is probably required.

  83. Michael: “The debate is about college campuses.”

    The discussion is about safe spaces and trigger warnings. You moved the goal posts to be about campus speakers, and then tried to limit discussion to your new favorite (off) topic.

    Talking about safe spaces and trigger warnings as if they make people weak is a conservative idea, not a conservative-on-campuses idea.

    As far as colleges rescinding invitations to speakers for having liberal views, how about Ted Kennedy’s wife being invited then disinvited because she supports gay rights and abortion rights.

    This will, no doubt, cause you to move the goalposts again as you explain that you were only asking for some certain subset of college speakers, and this didnt meet your search criteria, but meh.

    In other news, the dean of students is on linkedin, and his resume is a BA in bible studies, an MA in theology, and a PhD in near eastern languages.

  84. Do you think some of the geniuses in the University of Chicago Economics Department might have their precious ideas about how amazing trickle down economics are challenged by the new policy?

  85. I like how you get your snarky digs in on twitter vs. vaguely specified “gloating conservative lads” (Who are these conservative lads? When did they say they didn’t think it would apply to them? Are you saying these gloating lads are representative of conservative lads in general, or are you just commenting on specific lads? Oh well, the 140 character format cannot afford answers to such questions), and then take the high road here on your blog.

    Well trolled, sir.

  86. Gregg,

    Maybe you missed the first three words in the title: “University of Chicago”. This post is fundamentally about the letter at the University of Chicago. I was explaining why a college would feel the need to send out this type of letter. My response was completely on point and directly relevant to the posting. Your bringing in the Dixie chicks is beyond a stretch and besides the point. What point are you trying to make? Is it that some conservatives can also be intolerant of speech? If so conceded – but what relevance does it have to the UC action or my comment (which you were responding to)?

    I asked for one recent example of a hecklers’ veto from the right. The best you can come up with is a 5 year-old disinvitation of a pro-choice speaker at a small Catholic college. This is weak gruel, indeed. The fact is that censorship on modern college campuses is almost exclusively from the left. If you don’t believe me, spend 5 minutes reading

    I am not sure why you are focused on the Dean’s qualifications. This is clearly a top level administration decision, as evidenced by Zimmer’s coordinated op-ed in the WSJ. The method of communication just happened to be the Dean’s letter.

  87. I love the university I attended; it is perfectly capable of doing what Chicago has done in this letter; I would be kind of embarrassed if they did so.
    So thanks for posting about it.
    I was not lucky enough to be in college during those amazingly awesome 60’s protests, like the ones that inspired the quote “The Year that Shaped Our Generation”. My school still had 2 protests that I remember: Freshman year, undergraduate drinking was banned for like two weeks. (Long story.) We all (yes me included; I’m still disappointed in myself for participating in mob behavior but I was 18 and thought it was fun) brought a couple of kegs to “college green” at noon or 4:20 or something and had a beer. . Senior year was I suppose a more legitimate protest. Sweatshop workers? Something.
    But the whole going-about it bit was stupid. It doesn’t even matter what it was about; what mattered was, the internet was widely available and people brought the protestors takeout from the best local eateries (you know, the ones your parents take you to when they visit), clean clothes, and TELEVISIONS. They rotated out for showers. ? I bet the 60’s kids didn’t worry about daily showers. And there were more than enough computers with internet connections (run by “ethernet” back in the day). Cell phones were starting to come in. Texting was not yet the rage. But altogether, I thought it was not much of a protest, especially after one girl asked my English professor if she could miss class in order to create disorder in the university president’s office by sitting on a sleeping bag in everyone’s way. (In case you’re wondering, the professor considered a moment, and said, “Yes, if you do all the reading and assignments.” No lie. Oh, that irritated me all to hell.)
    In what kind of protest do you ask PERMISSION?? And is it really a GOOD protest if you get to watch, I don’t know, Beverly Hills 90210 or Gilmore Girls or something? I mean, watch CNN to see if you’ve made the news. – of course you haven’t, but you’re allowed to check. These reflect my own personal protest ideas; I’m sure everyone’s vary a bit.
    That aside. I get annoyed at these “safe spaces” and trigger warnings, not because they are used so often…well, partly because of that… but mostly because of the words themselves. Those are names that are taken from treatment of serious mental illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, turned into pop psychology. I mean, I read ‘Beloved’ in 8th grade and I got an A Plus for writing a 2 page paper that said the ending made me cry. Now I’d probably get an A Plus for one sentence saying “This book really ought to have a trigger warning.”
    These words also remind me too much of those little old-fashioned couches they used to keep in ladies’ rooms for the delicates going through their time of the month. This is a much less important point, but it stands. Clearly, students with PTSD or related illnesses must figure out their own system, rather than expecting an entire university, or even a professor of a single course, to guess that mentally ill students might exist, and work around them. “Safe place” as I’ve known it, again via a kind of pop psychology, is a place in your head where everything is ok. Now I guess it is an actual space. Triggers are similar. Triggers are words or situations or statements that might cause a mentally-ill person anything from a little discomfort to a full-blown panic. Students who struggle with these issues should be speaking with people like the disability office, the ombudsman, and possibly each of their professors.
    I try to shrug and move on (“MOVE ON”? GET IT?), but I think it all sounds kind of soft and silly the way they are used now – I’ve never had patience with these words being thrown into some kind of conversation where no one seems to remember their origin. Oh boy I’m a curmudgeon.
    “But words and meanings change!” some say. This is true. And they have. They are still silly. What is a safe space? Does the English Department have to have lounges that are safe, and if so, mustn’t they have similar spaces in the Engineering School building? Even if they are never USED.. Well you never know when an Engineering professor might suddenly discover a trigger. Do they have word problems in advanced math? I wouldn’t know, personally, as I followed the stereotype and avoided such classes. But I bet they do. You know like those logic problems on the GRE’s. And they must encourage, women.. and, just like those period-couch-things, girls are probably more inclined to be triggered and need safe places. And we can’t do one tiny thing to discourage girls from our STEM programs! Women. You know what I mean.
    I can only trace it back to illness. “Triggers” do things like trigger panic attacks. I’m not sure what a fully healthy student might be triggered by, or triggered INTO. What exactly does a trigger TRIGGER? Can’t a trigger trigger, like, a newspaper article in the student paper. (I mistyped “stupid paper”.)
    My main conclusion is: People are sissies.
    There are of course a zillion more things to say. But mostly, John Scalzi, I do sympathize that your alma mater has done something so dopey. UChicago is a very good school and I hope this ridiculousness has blown over quickly.

    Oh, yeah, and Rutgers is a liberal mess. Susan Sarandon spoke at graduation once (she’s from Edison, doncha know).

  88. Actually, plenty of folks from the left and the right have been disinvited. A few more lefties:

    Transgender activist Janet Mock
    ( … the article also includes conservative and middle-of-the-road types who’ve been disinvited, so, ya know …

    Rev. Kevin Johnson, civil rights activist
    ( … in this case, he had criticized President Obama, but it was criticism from the left …

    Game critic and feminist Anita Sarkeesian
    ( … “You’re invited but our students may shoot you.”

  89. Folks should watch what they’re doing; they’re leaving a lot of straw lying around.

  90. Some thoughts:

    (1) When it comes to issues of invitation, commencement-type speaking is a very different thing to me than “coming to give a lecture/q&a” type speaking. I’m hostile to commencement speeches in general, but they’re a very different form of address, and they carry the presumptive weight of endorsement. The lecture/q&a format implies the promise of intellectual discourse; the commencement speech is a place for the audience to shut up and take what’s being offered to them. If I find a commencement speaker morally objectionable, I’m going to resent the idea that I’m supposed to listen to them prattle on while I listen politely in an environment where any attempt I make to express my disapproval will be taken as rude.

    (2) Everyone’s boundary is going to be a little different, but there’s a point where debate with a particular sort of speaker crosses a line. It’s the point where I’m not someone with a different point of view, but rather someone the speaker inherently thinks less of (due to gender, race, immigration status, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) Whether we’re talking about the classroom or a school-sponsored event, there’s a social cost to making certain students have to re-litigate their value as human beings as the price of entry into rarefied academic discourse.

    (3) FWIW, I’m UofC class of 2005; when I skimmed this letter, my reaction was to be completely unsurprised that they managed to sound like assholes discussing something so simple.

  91. Nonce,

    Thanks for the link – . The article lists 11 speakers disinvited and every last one was because of protests from the left. You specifically mention transgender activist Janet Mockbut somehow forget to add that her disinvitation was solely a result of her pro-Israel views. So, yes, ya do know…

    I am killing this dead horse, but conservatives applaud the UC action because they feel that current college censorship is overwhelmingly a left-wing phenomenon.

  92. A line needs to be drawn between what’s traumatizing versus what’s merely uncomfortable to discuss. Topics that could trigger “involuntary” neurological responses (aka “flashbacks”) in people who have experienced war, rape, and other violent crimes should come with a warning beforehand.

    Everything else? Not so much.

  93. So, ah, tangentially, there was this candidate SETI signal in the news:

    “… If it were a narrow beam signal focused on our Solar System, it would be of a power available to a Kardashev Type I civilization….”

    Tell me something — if we happened to be the target of a fractional-C railgun, and detected the triggering of the launch, what would the signal look like?

    Not to scare anybody …

  94. Michael: “My response was completely on point and directly relevant to the posting”

    Your response was the standard right wing talking point that the liberalz are ruining edukashun, and that this dean of students is going to save college speaking jobs for conservative speakers, because conservatives are so much more open minded to new ideas that conflict with their worldview. All of which is true in bizarro land.

    “This is weak gruel, indeed.”

    Meh, you gave a list of poor oppressed conservative speakers, but Milo Y is a bigotted asshole and Condi Rice should be brought up on war crime charges with the rest of the Bush administration for lying their way into an immoral war and torturing pows. Cant a conservative gal start an immoral war and then get paid to talk to children later??? What is the world coming to??? So your whine about the oppression of conservative speakers who also happen to be flaming bigots or cheerleaders for bad wars is weak sauce indeed.

  95. There’s a tension between the most aggressive form of safe-space construction (exclude all but those whose safety or comfort is seen to be at stake) and the notion that exclusionary spaces are at least suspect, based on the memory of various flavors of racial or gender segration along the lines of men/whites/gentiles-only spaces. (And I am old enough to remember garden-variety social institutions like the smoker, the poker game, and the hen party–the men’s/women’s lodges of American culture.) Any affiliation group can be seen as a kind of safe space–or at least, a space for reducing X or Y tensions and anxieties and expectations by limiting access or membership–and people seem to create these virtual or physical spaces spontaneously.

    But as a long-ago (oh, all right–30 years ago) English teacher, I wonder how safe and for whom I would need to make my classroom now. My wife is, among other things, a Shakespeare teacher, and she is very aware that some of the plays present challenges that go beyond the difficulty of the language: Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, even aspects of Romeo and Juliet. I would say that most of the challenges these plays present are emotional-intellectual-imaginative (that is, they require us to confront some unpleasant and uncomfortable or repellant representations of human behavior), but I would not rule out the possibility of more visceral reactions to, say, the murder of Desdemona.

    It is clear that triggers exist, but it is not clear to me that there is for a lay person any easy way of determining qualifying events or thresholds–in fact, the “trigger” metaphor poses a problem, since it suggests that the issue is primarily in the external event rather than the internal, subjective response to the event. Deciding what constitutes a trigger is necessarily a statistical and empirically- (or clinically-) determined matter, and describing the space over which one needs to be vigilant for trigger candidates is not an easy or trivial matter. At what point does checking the classroom environment for triggering material wind up in peanut-allergy territory? (I choose that comparison fully aware of the differences in the two areas of concern. See the problem with metaphorical labeling?) (This has been long in the drafting, and I see that posts by PST and Shava bring up this issue–it’s a practical and in some cases a legal matter.)

  96. John,

    Apologies – I appear to have hijacked the thread. You won’t hear from me again. But if you go back and read Greg’s comments, I’m sure you’ll also understand why I have no interest in continuing a private conversation with him. My last comment: notwithstanding our clear difference in political views, I have read all (I think) of your books and believe you are a very talented writer. I look forward to your next work.

  97. Toward the idea that the letter is in fact a sub rosa communication to conservative donors: maybe? But honestly UofC has no problem communicating to donors directly (trust me)

    Yes, indeed, but my point wasn’t this (that’s a trivial given that many USA admins will bow to pressure from Donors / the ranks of their emeritus boards).

    My point was that it was a signal to the larger Market to allay fears over the debt downgrade.


    Is a rather more worrying proposition.

    More worrying is that no-one spotted it, even when I launched large silly landing lights all over it.


  98. Dear Cthulhu,

    Making essentially the same point repeatedly in multiple posts is what’s most annoying people. You said it once, that’s enough. Repeating it over and over has a spammy quality that is off-putting and persuades rather less.

    You said your thing, It’s been read. Done, please?

    pax / Ctein

  99. I haven’t read the actual letter. I’ve tried to read even the articles that explain what the letter says, and I can’t. My hands start to shake and I feel nauseated.

    What “not a safe space” and “no trigger warnings” mean to me is “People with PTSD, whether because of rape, childhood trauma, or combat experience, you should find somewhere else to go to school. We’re fine with people setting off strings of firecrackers in the middle of the night, jumping out at people and putting bags over their heads, and so on. It’s part of the challenging academic environment we strive for here.”

    In other words, it seems (again, just from the headlines) to be a manifesto of ableist privilege. I fully expect the bozo to announce that they’re taking out the ramps and elevators, because you should embrace your extra challenges, not expect to have them coddled.

    On a slightly different topic, I offer this quote:

    A troll is a person who persists, despite evidence to the contrary, in believing that it’s his opinions, and not his behavior, that get him the reaction he gets.

  100. @Xopher: where is that quotation from? It’s excellent.

    Also, I think you’re on point with your comments about privilege. There’s been something floating beneath the surface in this Lettergate (no?) discussion that I couldn’t put my finger on. And I couldn’t figure out why so many people get so up in arms about trigger warnings and safe spaces. Your comment and Kat Goodwin’s above have helped bring it to light for me however.

    I think this generation of students is pretty damn tough in that they won’t sit down and be quiet. And isn’t that part of your job description as a student? Kids should be shouting back and protesting and making a scene. Of course some of them go too far sometimes (on both sides, ahem) – but that’s necessary and should be supported.

    This country isn’t going to fix itself. And no one at the top is going to make any changes if we’re all standing in line obediently.

  101. OK, I’ve screwed my courage to the sticking place and read the actual letter. It says exactly what I thought it said, and in addition, has a flat-out lie in it, when the bozo says it’s “a related University priority” to build “a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds.”

    Not if your background kinda fucked you up, it isn’t. Also, I hadn’t quite realized until today that it was supposed to be a welcoming letter to new students. So sorry, if you’ve already committed to UofC and have PTSD, you’re just fucking screwed. Ellison is a total asshole of the finest water.

    thomasmhewlett: I probably misquoted it. It’s from Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

  102. You said your thing, It’s been read. Done, please?

    Um, sure.

    I guess I’ll let y’all ignore what the implications of it are then. Not important that major Uni who went against Market Forces was then bent to them, indebted and shackled to major debt and is now issuing proclamations about “Safe Spaces” that are ultimately there to smooth Conservative Funds (Hedge and Pension) over debt rating threats via Moody’s (who are up to their eyeballs in Wall Street Corruption).

    Got you.
    It means y’all A-OK about Market predators and are too afraid to tackle them, but will argue, ever more angrily over your pool of water that’s drying out in the Sun of Capital and act like the mud-crabs.

    Hint: Kat doesn’t understand Predators. I do.

    And you wonder why Trump exists…

    You’re Fucked

  103. thomasmhewlett: I looked it up. It’s actually

    One of the known definitions of “troll” is “one who cannot be brought to believe that it’s his behavior, not his opinions, that’s getting him into trouble.”

    and it’s from this lengthy comment.

    It’s getting more obviously applicable.

  104. I forget just where on this thread, but I think some folks have said that high school students are already getting some challenges, if not some triggers and micro aggressions. I disagree, as least as regards challenges.

    To me, high school is a time to get socialized to society, with any controversy taught being within socially allowed limits. To put it visually: the headmaster was correct, near the end of Dead Poets Society, in telling the teacher to wait until the kids were in college before teaching them to be different from society.

    Even during the days of long hair, when by (visual) definition students were ready to challenge their beliefs, I found that when I had my mind blown, by learning secrets of the grownup world, that the academic (future college) kids had no such knowledge. It was lonely for me; I didn’t begrudge the other kids their innocence. …After long hair became merely cosmetic we went back to short hair.

  105. To put it visually: the headmaster was correct, near the end of Dead Poets Society, in telling the teacher to wait until the kids were in college before teaching them to be different from society.

    This. Is. Comedy. Gold.

    It’s also evil.

    Σκιδναμένασ ἐν στήθεσιν ὄργασ
    μαψυλάκαν γλῶσσαν πεφυλάχθαι

    Oh, America. Where hast thou fallen.

    @Host. Ok, done now.

    But, really: there’s serious reckonings coming, we’re doing our best to stop them.

  106. @Gulliver,

    Ask around any department that offers testing out (except math, where apparently some students have heard there is math involved) and you’ll find the equivalent. There are still many high schools out there where reading an unassigned book or two (usually a For Dummies or a Cartoon Guide To) the week before the test is enough for a glib student with good short term memory to get a passing score, and a student who thinks s/he can test out of anything because s/he is good at tests and it’s all bullshit anyway does not go to the bother of looking at sample tests first.

    When I administered a public speaking testout, I used to see the damnedest attempts to deliver plagiarized speeches (quite often fairly famous ones as those were the first they found online) in a fake newscaster voice, or using all the tricks from the Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie lists.

    So, no, it does not seem to me terribly odd that you have incoming students who don’t know that quantum physics involves math, and are expecting to wave their hands and write about how observer created reality will allow them to levitate. I had students seriously ask me when the Greek and Roman gods died.

    And turning things back toward the original topic, for the most part, incoming students are far too excited and far too engaged with non-academic things to pick up much information about what’s coming until they are actually plunged into their classes. This is one of several reasons that it is excellent that our Esteemed Host’s daughter is trying out some college classes while still in high school; IMGDO almost every kid who even might go to college should try that if at all possible. Far better to get into it gradually with time and space to ask questions than to plunge all at once. (My first plunge: “Welcome to Asian Languages 101, Freshman Japanese. This course is taught by the immersion method. That means we speak no English in this room. This is the last English you will hear from me till Christmas*. Hon-o mitte kudasai.”

    *Actually she let up on that rule as soon as add-drop period was over.

  107. As far as the “safe space” concept goes, I think that Ken White of the Popehat blog’s “safe space as shield/safe space as sword” framing does a good job of describing how the term’s acquired multiple definitions so that it applies to both good and bad things. The goodness and badness of them being sometimes subjective.

    And as for the question I saw a few people ask about why someone would oppose trigger warnings as they were described in the original post and throughout the comments… I’m pretty sure it’s a minority point of view, but there are people who believe that life should basically be nothing more than one destructive test after another and that the way to improve the world isn’t to obtain the easiest life difficulty setting for all people, but to obtain the hardest imaginable life difficulty setting for all people. And from that point of view, trigger warnings are bad because people who can be triggered should be triggered – and people who can’t be triggered yet should be traumatized until they can be triggered (and then they should be triggered too) or they become impossible to traumatize. It’s not a happy or a kind mindset, basically a mix of self-loathing and social Darwinism but it does exist. So that’s one reason why people might oppose trigger warnings.

  108. Mr. Forthrightly, permit me to point out that it is not intrinsically obvious that the word “palang” connotes “genital piercing[s].” Hence, a warning. (Especially if your talk on the Bornean rhinoceros veers off to demonstrate a possible totemic relationship on the part of the local population.)

  109. Perhaps it was an acceptance that many in Chicago pull the trigger without warning, and that there are no safe spaces in the city in general, nor at the university itself? Also, it IS the University of Chicago…. not Duke… Therefore, less should be expected?

  110. Xopher: “it seems (again, just from the headlines) to be a manifesto of ableist privilege”

    The guy who wrote the letter appears to have a page on linkedin which I believe shows that he has accumulated degrees in Bible study, Theology, and Near Eastern languages. Based on that, I am guessing he has only ever worked at a university setting his entire life.

    I dont know if I’d call that privilege, but to quote Dr Ray Stantz: “You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve *worked* in the private sector. They expect *results*.”

  111. ThomasMHewlett:

    I think this generation of students is pretty damn tough in that they won’t sit down and be quiet. And isn’t that part of your job description as a student? Kids should be shouting back and protesting and making a scene. Of course some of them go too far sometimes (on both sides, ahem) – but that’s necessary and should be supported.

    Well that’s because you aren’t an authoritarian. :) But it’s not about shouting in class (well, except for trying to give far right students a pass on shouting down others in the traditional stance — which as Scalzi pointed out isn’t really a pass given at the U. of Chicago and many other places. They don’t get to lecture, they better be able to argue and not just with canned rhetoric.) As P.Z. Myers points out, trigger warnings and safe spaces have been used for three decades and their purpose isn’t to block ideas but to facilitate the exchange of ideas and prep students for difficult material. They are educational tools and they work.

    More to the point, the dean can’t, as Myers points out, actually ban either trigger warnings or safe space techniques from the university, even if he’d used the terms correctly. Faculty have tenure and they can put trigger warnings in their syllabuses and in their lectures. They can set classroom rules that ensure civility and safety for all students to talk, not just the well-off white boys. There’s not a damn thing the dean can do about it. And even profs who don’t have tenure yet or lecturers — they aren’t under the thumb of the dean. Profs are a guild and they’ve got organizations and unions. And the graduate students — yeah, good luck with that intimidation attempt in the savagery that is Chicago graduate programs. And students can create safe spaces without any official support of the university. They can also demand resources and often get them. And half of a prof’s job isn’t teaching — that’s what people don’t get. Half of it is scholarly research and analysis, which goes out into the wide scholarly world and the university doesn’t control it or even all its funding.

    Also to the point, trigger warnings and safe spaces are not nor have ever been rampant in universities. It’s never been a big issue in universities. For many courses teaching various kinds of material, neither may come up at all unless a student has a private concern discussed with the teacher, which isn’t the business of the other students anyway.

    So why is this such a big deal with the dean doing a welcome letter where he lies about what trigger warnings and safe spaces are — both of which he surely actually knows the definition of? And the answer is that a few years ago, the far right and Republicans decided that this was a concept that they could exploit to go hassle universities that kept producing educated, questioning, more liberal students. (Because primarily what universities teach students is to be curious and to research and think about things, not accept them at face value — scholarship and problem solving.) Those terms fit beautifully into the narrative that because oppressed voices speak up, the ones most in favor of oppression are being curtailed rather than simply losing the argument, especially at those nasty universities. So they pretended that it was a rampant epidemic, and they used conservative media to ramp it up into the mainstream media. They taught the right-leaning students to declare that these things were oppressing them and stifling their speech. They claimed it wasn’t fair that, say, African-Americans could get a space to talk (plot according to them) without having to continually deal with the racist demands and clueless whining of entitled white students. They made it a cause built on a lie, and that’s why they are oh so passionate about it. And they claimed that professors are agitating students by presenting material that doesn’t fit their political views as bonus.

    People fall for this, because again, they always see their own youth as a hazy period of them being very well behaved while today’s youth are obviously not as good. (In actuality, they’re smarter than the previous generations and they’ve had to learn more stuff faster. Doesn’t mean you don’t get ignorance and plagiarism from them; does mean the stereotype doesn’t much fit.) People also find it way more comforting (safe space) to think that college campuses are shiny utopias of innocence, equality and rote learning and the folks raising problems are exaggerating and over-reacting, than it is to accept that college campuses are full of young adults from many different backgrounds and they aren’t innocent or safe or just shoveling out rote learning.

    Take the idea that high school students grow up in some state of innocence out of conformity and learn polite socialization. They don’t and they didn’t in the 1970’s. Or for that matter, the 1950’s. Not in the suburbs or the rural communities either. Kids were dealing with sexual abuse and assault, physical abuse, eating disorders, learning disabilities, depression and mental illness, suicide attempts, drugs, cutting, sex and pregnancy, racism, homophobia, etc. And those who weren’t as in difficult situations were still perfectly aware of the ones who were. They weren’t socialized a lot of the time by high school; they were victimized in it, a lot of it by adults. And college has the same situations. Such as a dean working for rightward ideology with enough dedication or greed to lie about what trigger warnings and safe spaces are and threaten the entire incoming class with a threat that the dean can’t actually enforce. (And which has been widely mocked by most of the academics, let me tell you.)

    But it might keep some students quiet. It might keep some students from going to university resources with problems or getting the full educations they are paying for. It might keep non-white students scared and putting up with racism and harassment. It might keep students from supposedly embarrassing the university by coming forward when the tiny percentage of faculty who are sexually predatory harass and blackmail them. It might keep students from joining protests and petitions. It gives roaming power to the college Republicans who unfortunately get closer and closer to the you know who youth gangs with every desperate year. And if nothing else, it makes the dean look like a tough whip em good conservative to his rightward pals.

    But there’s something that is so much a part of the students’ lives that previous generations didn’t have, even Gen X which only had it for part of the time in more limited fashion — the Web. It’s really hard to stop students, even high school students, from finding out that lots of other people are going through what they are going through and they aren’t alone or “crazy.” It’s very hard to shut them up and keep them from talking to each other, in bad ways or good. And while the Web does allow far righters to also organize and go hunting people, there’s a reason we’re in a full out civil rights movement right now. Because it actually has exposed students even more to ideas that conflict with and challenge their own backgrounds — they may not know who their Congressperson is, but they know what’s going on in Warsaw, Tel Aviv or Rio because they have pals there.

    Which is why there has been more and more pressure and canned rhetoric to go after millennials and college students, to keep them poor without easy Net access and not getting full educations. And keep them from voting and being able to register to vote. It’s quite clear whose ideas they don’t want challenging anything.

  112. Most profs aren’t unionized and admin can decide what goes on a syllabus.

    I have never ever heard of trigger warnings being required except as a libertarian bogeyman. Places (like my own alma mater) that value such things also truly value intellectual freedom and do not discourage freedom of expression, even student protests. (I suspect my alma mater is secretly proud of the number of times our student body has taken over the admin building to protest rights of workers on campus.). From that viewpoint this UChicago dean sounds like an authoritarian bully who is afraid of people getting a voice who aren’t rich white guys.

  113. @John Barnes

    I had students seriously ask me when the Greek and Roman gods died.

    Wow. As a graduate and then doctoral student, I TA’d a few undergrad classes – QM, Optics, E&M and some other stuff that required math heavy pre-reqs – but I had no idea there were incoming students who actually tried to test out of these without the math. Even so, my time as a TA was enough to learn that I did not want to pursue an academic career, and I took an industry track. Occasionally I’ve wondered what I missed, but what you’ve told me reinforces for me that I made the right decision. I don’t think I could deal with that level of naivety.

  114. Normally, I’d read a post like this with interest and move on, but I felt the nudge to weigh in just in case Mr. Scalzi has mistakenly put me in the group, “some who used to show up here who no longer do because they just couldn’t take it when people rebutted them.”

    My problem with trigger warnings and safe spaces is more to do with the mandating of those things, rather than the existence of the things themselves. To wit: I don’t mind someone prefacing their message with a trigger warning if that’s what they want to do, but I do mind the notion that I am REQUIRED to do so before delivering my message. Similarly, I don’t mind a university (or a corporation or even a family) creating an environment where someone who doesn’t want to participate in a given discussion can go to avoid it, but I do mind the notion that the university (or other institution) MUST provide such a space for each and every discussion.

    Allowing people an opportunity to remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation is kind and respectful, and trigger warnings/safe spaces are useful tools for this purpose. Demanding that one must never be in an uncomfortable situation (and then demanding redress in the form of retracting invitations for prominent speakers, insisting on the removal of faculty/administration members, or various legal remedies) is a whole different matter. Trigger warnings & safe spaces (or the lack thereof) have, in the recent past, been used as tools for this behavior as well. In that context, they are neither kind nor respectful.

    Given my perspective, it should come as no surprise that I read the University of Chicago’s letter as a policy against using these tools for social/political leverage, and not as a condemnation of their existence.

    If anyone disagrees with me, please feel free to rebutt. I can take it. ;-)

  115. @brian greenberg

    Thing is, I don’t think that safe spaces and trigger warnings have ever been required, and I’m not sure how incoming freshmen are the right audience for being told they shouldn’t be required.

    Is there a single university in the US that requires trigger warnings from their faculty? One? Or is this just another strawman for attacking higher education as being too liberal and PC?

  116. Brian: “but I do mind the notion that I am REQUIRED to do so before delivering my message. ”

    you mind something that isnt even a thing? Are you in a position where you are literally required to give trigger warnings? Not in some hypothetical scenario, not some other hypothetical person, not some theoretical scenario that might exist in some incertain future, but literally *you* are literally *required* to give literal trigger warnings?

    Out of curiosity, what do you do for a living that has real world repurcussions for failing to give a trigger warning and what are you posting?

  117. For Cthulhu at 10:41
    Regarding high school, if Dead Poets Society is too abstract for you, here is a concrete example:

    If, driving behind me as I turn left, an adult is an independent rebel and breaks the speed limit in an arcing turn, while also changing lanes prematurely, and thereby cuts me off from changing my lanes to make my exit on time, well,

    I can only hope that in his high school driving course he was taught the social rules such as the speed limit.
    Because we all have to share the society.
    Let him be independent after he graduates driving school, not before.

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