Safe Spaces and Marketplaces

Many readers will by now have read the letter that University of Chicago Dean of Students (and, evidently, veritable Edgelord™) Jay Ellison sent recently to incoming students, promising them that they will be sorely disappointed if they arrive on campus expecting “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” The university sees these practices, Ellison wrote, as an affront to “our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression,” one of UChicago’s “defining characteristics.”

This is the most important thing to emphasize about this letter: like all anti-trigger warning/safe space discourse, it is not actually about the practices in question.

The ferocity and volume of criticism is almost surreally disproportionate to the actual prevalence of trigger warnings and safe spaces on campus. As I emphasized in a dialogue on WBEZ Chicago last year with Geoff Stone (another UChicago denizen), trigger warnings in particular are not only scarce, but when they do appear they are almost never formally labeled as such but instead are of a piece with the many mundane, informal ways in which we practice the idea behind trigger warnings in our daily lives: characterizing the level of violence in a movie to a friend who’s about to see it for the first time, giving a heads-up about content that is “not safe for work,” and so forth.

As for “safe spaces,” even after four years as a college activist I’m a little unclear about what exactly critics are referring to with this phrase. The only time I can remember my alma mater (Northwestern) establishing something like a “safe space” was after the campus-wide distribution of a “campus climate survey” about sexual violence. They set aside a few hours at the Women’s Center on campus for people who were upset by reliving past traumatic experiences on the survey to stop by and decompress alone or with a counselor. I’d like to hear Jay Ellison explain how those students were “retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

So especially when criticism of trigger warnings and safe spaces comes from academics who live and work at universities, I am skeptical that they are responding in good faith to a problem that they legitimately perceive to be plaguing their campuses. Rather, I suspect that they are engaging in a subtle but effective rhetorical maneuver. By portraying the controversy over procedural issues like trigger warnings and safe spaces as the salient debate on college campuses, they avoid having to engage with the substantive issues on which student activists actually spend the bulk of their energy.

Bedfellows as unlikely as Sara Ahmed and Northwestern president and economist Morton Schapiro have pointed out that the purpose of trigger warnings and safe spaces is really to facilitate access to difficult conversations. As much as people like Ellison like to praise the “discomfort” of discussion about important issues, that sort of discomfort is only tolerable if students are equipped with the resources to help themselves deal with the strong emotions sometimes provoked by academic inquiry into social sources of pain and trauma like racism and misogyny. The students who do “retreat” from conversations about those subjects are the ones who are neglected by inadequate university support systems, and they are legion.

But by targeting fictitious student activists who demand trigger warnings and safe spaces as ends in themselves, instead of as instrumentally valuable strategies to open up discussion about systems of oppression, critics like Ellison succeed in shoving that ultimate goal back out of view. Thus they are the heirs of a long tradition, stretching back to that original UChicago curmudgeon, Allan Bloom, of critics who seek to scrub the academy of leftist politics under the guise of championing “openness.” It’s extremely telling that many of the most “viral” examples of “trigger warnings gone wrong” are about classic material like Greek mythology. It’s not actually true that trigger warnings are being attached to Ovid on syllabi left and right: these stories really owe their power to anxiety about the disruptive politicization of traditional “ivory tower” scholarship.

Free and challenging academic work is enabled when universities proactively provide students with the support they need to take risks. In a sense, then, there is a real if unintentional germ of truth to the oft-cited image of academia as a “marketplace” of ideas. In both intellectual and financial marketplaces, in the absence of healthy external intervention, structurally disadvantaged players have difficulty accessing the system and the status quo rapidly acquires an overpowering inertia. Make no mistake: whether coming from the UChicago Economics Department or the UChicago Dean’s Office, calls for laissez-faire are really calls for the domination of the powerful to go unchecked.

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