Practices meant to protect marginalized communities can also ostracize those who disagree with them.
Last week, the University of Chicago’s dean of students sent a welcome letter to freshmen decrying trigger warnings and safe spaces—ways for students to be warned about and opt out of exposure to potentially challenging material. While some supported the school’s actions, arguing that these practices threaten free speech and the purpose of higher education, the note also led to widespread outrage, and understandably so.
Considered in isolation, trigger warnings may seem straightforwardly good. Basic human decency means professors like myself should be aware of students’ traumatic experiences, and give them a heads up about course content—photographs of dead bodies, extended accounts of abuse, disordered eating, self-harm—that might trigger an anxiety attack and foreclose intellectual engagement.
Similarly, it may seem silly to object to the creation of safe spaces on campus, where members of marginalized groups can count on meeting supportive conversation partners who empathize with their life experiences, and where they feel free to be themselves without the threat of judgment or censure.
The logic of this more expansive use is straightforward: Any threat to one’s core identity, especially if that identity is marginalized, is a potential trigger that creates an unsafe space.
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