Within and Without / The complex case for trigger warnings

I believe in the power of ideas. I believe in the right to the free and uncensored exchange of knowledge and opinions. I believe in passionate debate. I believe we should disagree with each other. I believe we should learn from each other.

And I believe in trigger warnings.

Back in August, The University of Chicago’s Dean of Students sent a letter to incoming freshmen describing the institution’s dedication to the values of free speech and academic inquiry.

A dedication, which the university argues, leaves no room for trigger warnings or safe spaces on campus.

However, an overarching condemnation of trigger warnings ignores the issue’s complexities, and is frankly ignorant — which is ironic — given that it comes from the institution that, within the very same letter, espouses the values of intellectualism.

At their core, trigger warnings let students avoid reliving traumatic experiences. They spare victims of atrocities such as rape and abuse the pain of reopening deep and possibly fresh emotional and psychological wounds.

When a professor gives a trigger warning and a student feels the need to leave, they leave and class continues.

In my experience, providing trigger warnings does not infringe on free speech or academic inquiry. If anything, it ensures that there can be a free exchange of ideas in the classroom.

A few years ago, I was taking Robert Butler’s Evil Personalities in History class. We were studying Hitler and the Holocaust.

One morning, he told the class we’d be watching a graphic and disturbing video on the subject and that anyone who needed to leave or just couldn’t take it that day for whatever reason could leave.

I was going through a particularly rough episode of depression, so I did.

By providing a trigger warning, Butler created an environment of civility and mutual respect. He respected anyone’s reasons for leaving and some years, he said, he felt like even he couldn’t handle watching it.

By showing his own vulnerability, Butler created an atmosphere of mutual respect. One that promoted the free exchange of ideas.

And to those who believe that trigger warnings don’t belong in classrooms because they don’t happen in the real world, you’re wrong.

Trigger warnings are all around us, and no, they are not a product of the “liberal media” or of a tyrannical collective of so-called social justice warriors.

Trigger warnings are subconsciously present in all of us and in our society as a whole.

For example, I wouldn’t go up to someone whose dad just died and describe the wonderful time I had fishing with my very-much-alive dad yesterday; just like I wouldn’t bring up the topic of rape for discussion with someone who was raped.

Kind of a dick move, right? 

Trigger warnings do not prove that we as a society have become weak or too politically correct. They prove that we now have the tolerance and understanding to support a greater diversity of ideas.

So no, University of Chicago, providing trigger warnings does not coddle students or inhibit the free exchange of ideas.

If anything, trigger warnings promote mutual respect, which leads to the free exchange of ideas that you and I so passionately believe in.