On Your Own Terms

As incoming freshmen prepared for life at college this sum- mer, many received welcome letters from their future commu- nities intended to set the tone for the new year. Some of these letters included lists of things their campuses do not approve of, like plagiarism, string lights, and illegal substances – or, in the case of the University of Chicago (UChicago), trigger warn- ings and safe spaces.

In his letter to the UChicago Class of 2020, Dean of Students John Ellison openly rejected “so-called ‘trigger warnings’ ” and the creation of “intellectual ‘safe spaces’ ” on his school’s campus. Declaring that trigger warnings inhibit free speech, Ellison’s letter informed incoming freshmen of the university’s commitment to “academic freedom.”

While the letter conveyed the administration’s intent to en- courage debate about controversial topics, it failed to precisely define the terms “trigger warning” and “safe space.” The lack of clarity in Ellison’s letter obscured the school’s stance on pro- tecting the psychological needs of its students who have suf- fered from trauma or seek safe spaces.

To some, “trigger warning” is used as a way to flag content depicting or discussing causes of trauma, such as sexual vio- lence, self-harm, or military combat. “Trigger warnings” by this definition forewarn university students of classes or read- ings that are potentially damaging. Based on this definition, the administration’s letter has been criticized by some for blatantly disregarding students who might have a physical or emotional reaction to content related to trauma.

Others, however, consider trigger warnings in a different light. To some, trigger warnings are used as an excuse for peo- ple to avoid opinions that differ from their own. Because of these contradictions in the term’s definition, the university’s letter has also been interpreted as an effort to preserve free- dom of expression and allow all opinions to be shared.

Similarly, some understand the term “safe space” as a place where people who share an identity, like race, gender, or sexual orientation, can discuss their views and experiences without the presence of people who do not belong to the identity group. These types of “safe spaces” are sometimes perceived as places people escape to in order to avoid listening to viewpoints that oppose their own. Alternatively, others define “safe spaces” as places where people of different backgrounds and opinions can discuss their opposing views while maintaining respectful atti- tudes towards one another. The university’s stance on the exact definition of “safe spaces” is unclear.

We respect UChicago’s attempt to be transparent in its stance on the growing debate over free speech in academic and in- tellectual spaces. We, however, are disappointed in the ad- ministration’s inability to clearly express its core values as a school. The lack of clarity in the letter has left people to debate conflicting speculations regarding the administration’s actual views – does the university support victims of sexual assault? does it support affinity groups for those who have been margin- alized? – rather than debate the merits or standards of freedom of expression.

As a board, we do not agree with one another on the topics of trigger warnings and safe spaces. Our newsroom, and the rest of the United States, cannot find a common stance on this divisive issue. But we do agree that any letter – any assertion of opinion, for that matter – needs to define its language clearly so that readers can easily discern its intention. A shared vocabulary with plainly stated definitions is crucial for any conversation, especially those regarding identity or free speech. We can do better than using vague language that polarizes our conversa- tions. We must be able to engage in debates and disagreements over more complex topics than ambiguous wording. Clear ter- minology lays the groundwork for constructive dialogue.

This editorial represents the view of The Phillipian, vol. CXXXIX.