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Trigger Warnings vs. Freedom of Speech Is a False Dichotomy

You can — and should — have both.

  • Much digital ink has been spilled over the contemporary culture of academia in the United States. Is the move towards "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" a beacon of progress, or unhealthy coddling of students, insulating them from the real world? Are student protesters expressing their freedom of speech, or going too far by silencing their opposition?

    The University of Chicago waded into this debate this week when they sent out a pre-emptive letter to incoming freshmen, warning them of the following:

    "Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called "trigger warnings," we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual "safe spaces" where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

    Many are applauding the university for taking a stand against those damned whiny millennials — just look at the comments on our YouTube video on the subject, and you'll see where the internet's opinions lie.

    I think, however, that there is a fundamental misunderstanding going on. First we need to clear up a few definitions.

    A trigger warning is an advance notice that something will happen that may trigger a deep, unhealthy reaction in some people. For instance, a combat veteran with PTSS may experience dangerous flashbacks during fireworks ceremonies, or a survivor of sexual assault may suffer from vivid recollections of her abuse when confronted with depictions or descriptions of another assault.

    These are equally valid; if a person has been through an extreme stress in his or her life, it is not our place to be gatekeepers of trauma, selecting which abuses we consider valid and which ones people should "just get over" (as Reddit is fond of doing). Nor is it our place to disregard other people's triggers. Most people wouldn't show a traumatized veteran a graphic war film (at least, not without giving proper warning first). Is it really "academic freedom" to force rape survivors to watch something equally triggering?

    Contrary to the opinions you'll see spouted on the internet, the world outside of college campuses is full of trigger warnings. We warn people with epilepsy when something might trigger their condition. So why not take the two seconds to warn people with a different, equally dangerous brain disorder — PTSS — of the things that might hurt them, too?

    We also need to look at what a trigger warning is not. It is not someone disagreeing with you. Nor is it someone expressing a controversial opinion in your general area. It is not for neurotypical people. You can't trigger a person who has nothing to trigger.

    The internet loves to jump on people who misuse the term, finding obscure Tumblr accounts claiming to be triggered by pictures of cupcakes and taking them as spokespeople for their entire generation. The University of Chicago itself seems to have a pretty tenuous grasp of what a trigger warning is, and they're banning them.

    So what is a trigger warning? It's common decency.

    Now, what is academic freedom? Proponents will claim that this is all about free speech. Even the First Amendment has its limits, though — you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater or threaten to assassinate the President. Beyond the legal limits, there are common sense limits, too: though you have the legal right to, you'd be very stupid to shout about how much you hate the Hell's Angels in Sturgis.

    Just because you have the legal freedom to thumb your nose at people who have been through terrible trauma doesn't mean you should seize that opportunity.

    Higher education should challenge all of its participants. Students should be exposed to perspectives other than their own. There ought to be a free exchange of ideas, and no topic should be off limits to those who can discuss it without having to relive abuse or tragedy.

    The University of Chicago is not challenging anything by banning trigger warnings. They're just being dicks.

    What do you think? Can we have freedom of speech and be considerate at the same time? Let us know in the comments below or @WhatsTrending on Twitter.

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