By The Sewanee Purple Editorial Board
This summer, Dean of Students at the University of Chicago John Ellison informed members of the class of 2020 that the university “does not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” allegedly for the purpose of “[learning] without fear of censorship.” Dean Ellison seems to be under the impression that trigger warnings, otherwise known as content warnings, are a form of censorship that keep students from coming across views that differ from their own. The Editorial Board of The Sewanee Purple wholeheartedly rejects this definition and ban of trigger warnings.
A trigger warning is defined by both Oxford Dictionaries and Merriam-Webster as “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).” This is not our definition, this is an internationally recognized definition by academic and editorial standards. When you go to a concert, you will most likely be alerted beforehand whether there are flashing or strobe lights during the performance. If you have epilepsy, this forewarning can prevent you from having a seizure, because you will be able to adequately prepare yourself to leave if necessary. Similarly, according to the Medical University of South Carolina, 31% of rape victims will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lifetime. If a rape victim is not forewarned that a book or a movie required for class contains a depiction or description of rape, his or her PTSD may be triggered by the content. This is a legitimate medical condition all too often not treated as such. If a professor notes in the syllabus ahead of time that a book contains a graphic rape scene, a student has the opportunity to approach the professor and discuss options that will not be medically harmful to the student without inhibiting his or her learning experience.
The use of trigger warnings goes beyond medical needs. There is a difference between being uncomfortable and being so disgusted or shocked that one is unable to participate. Students should be uncomfortable, pushed beyond their boundaries. That’s the best way to learn.
But we should never be de-sensitized, and nor should we celebrate de-sensitization. When students are forewarned of potentially disturbing content, they are able to better prepare themselves to participate fully in class. Disturbing content can include anything from rape and racial violence to murder. More than likely, the student has to read the book for class in spite of this. It’s not censorship; it’s a forewarning. The Editorial Board would like to be clear that we do not consider opposing views to be disturbing, and that content warnings are not appropriate in such usages.
Dean Ellison additionally states in his letter that the University of Chicago “does not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” Intellectual safe spaces are not bubbles in which a student can hide from the outside world. Rather, at Sewanee, we have noticed an effort among professors to create environments where all students feel comfortable talking, regardless of their views. If there is only one conservative individual in a class and he or she is attacked by liberal classmates every time he or she speaks up in a Politics class, there will be a point when that student no longer feels welcome to speak in class, and will stop contributing. Any learning environment suffers when a student no longer feels like his or her contribution is welcome. “Safe space” is an often tossed-around, misunderstood word, but in its proper form regarding classrooms, it refers to when students and professors agree to open academic discourse where everyone’s views are welcomed and challenged without personal attacks. Expectations of civility and being able to disagree openly do not seem farfetched or needy.
We do not believe content warnings and the creation of safe spaces lead to censorship. In fact, we have seen the opposite to be true. When both are introduced with proper usage, content warnings and safe spaces lead to a better learning environment. By empowering students to discuss difficult issues and opposing views without personally attacking each other, academic discourse and freedoms are celebrated rather than censored.