The first time I was given a trigger warning was as an admitted student during the SHARE-sponsored “Not Anymore” module focused on sexual consent. Prior to this time, I had little notion of a trigger warning and no idea that in this harsh and obscene world there were ways to not be constantly reminded of such grief, both physically and psychologically.
I didn’t use the trigger warning — I didn’t need it. However, even as someone not tied to the experiences real victims related during the module, I was haunted by these stories. In retrospect, I realized how valuable these trigger warnings — the option to interrupt the victims’ stories if they became too traumatic for certain viewers — could be for someone.
In August, the University of Chicago issued a welcome letter to its students. The letter made national news due to its stance against both trigger warnings and safe spaces. Instead of upholding the necessity of trigger warnings and safe spaces for students, the letter made clear to incoming students that “academic freedom” and resistance to censorship were of the utmost importance.
This letter was not particularly painful for me, mostly because I don’t attend UChicago and have the privilege of not needing safe spaces or trigger warnings. Nonetheless, a “trigger warning” can be defined as a piece of writing that warns a reader or viewer that material may prove harmful, while a “safe space” allows one to feel comfortable speaking without fear of being made uncomfortable or alienated because of various identities or intersections.
It is important to realize that the privilege of considering trigger warnings and safe spaces “useless” is not immutable. As privilege usually operates, it is easy for someone who considers these resources dispensable to overlook them and even consider them detrimental, without weighing the costs and benefits to others, namely those who do need trigger warnings.
UChicago is by no means a school in an arbitrary abyss. Indeed, such rhetoric has been emerging for months now, which I remember most clearly as a response to the protests at Yale last November. I am also reminded of Princeton’s own protests created by the Black Justice League that same month, which sparked outcry from arguably reactionist individuals on campus over the matter of ‘free speech.’
One common thread runs through semantic debates over “anti-censorship,” “academic freedom,” “preparation for the real world” and “freedom of expression”: the idea of free speech.
What is particularly odd about this “common thread” is that the so-called threats to freedom of speech are in fact nearly perfect examples of this right. Trigger warnings are nothing more than added words at the beginning of material. Would not advocating against such warnings essentially be advocating against freedom of speech? Let us also not forget that safe spaces, controversially and commonly thought of as disallowing certain speakers from speaking on college campuses, are often created through students’ successful freedom of protest.
At this point it is exhausting to list the ways the free speech movement fails to be anything but hypocritical. I find myself attempting to rationalize the logic of a matter-of-factly reactionist movement, where there may be none at all (and quite deliberately). I am not arguing that all freedom of speech advocates wish to employ unnecessary harm and trauma on fellow human beings. However, as I stated in a previous article, reactionist movements arise because the status quo sustains many of us, especially those of us with privilege. My incentive to shift the status quo is that the privileges I’ve received as a black woman are in fact not a rule in this nation, but necessarily the exception.
For most, if not all, white, heterosexual, cisgendered males who are also able-bodied and young, this may not be so clear. With recognition of our privileges and on our own campus, I hope that we continue to think critically about how free speech advocates may very well be participating in a long legacy of maintaining the status quo. Soon, we all must consider the status quo as not only a scheme that benefits a select few, but also one that I believe cannot continue unbounded if we wish to be leaders for the millennial generation.
Imani Thornton is a Politics major from Matteson, Ill. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.