Last month in an open letter addressed to the newly arriving freshmen at the University of Chicago, dean Jay Ellison outlined his university’s commitment to academic freedom and intellectual debate by specifically declaring the University would not support trigger warnings or safe spaces. The letter has since circulated far outside the Chicago campus, earning both praise and scorn from academics, students, and the university’s own faculty. Over 150 professors at the school issued a response defending safe spaces and trigger warnings as legitimate tactics for inclusion, ones that students should debate the merits of but still feel enabled to request. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ellison’s letter spawned dozens of op-eds praising the commitment to discussing controversial concepts and protecting the free speech of students and campus speakers. Chicago is well known for its devotion to academic freedom and may be setting a standard with this declaration.
Ellison’s letter was penned within a wider context of campus protests, cancelled speakers, and demonstrations in recent years revolving around controversial speech and topics. Trigger warnings and safe spaces generally come from a desire to make colleges more inclusive and accepting for students from minority groups or diverse backgrounds, although they occasionally have been utilized to remove books from syllabi, disinvite speakers holding certain viewpoints, or ban student activities or demonstrations. In this manner safe spaces and warnings contribute to the often-named campus “bubble” of many universities; an environment striving to be free of vitriol, phobias, or bigotry, but one that periodically strays into isolation from controversial or unpleasant people, ideas, or speech.
This bubble may genuinely create a space free of hostility for thousands of women, disabled students, LGBT students, or students of color, and certainly heightens university appeal to prospective students. However, when it is claimed that racist, homophobic, or bigoted thoughts and actions do not occur just because they are not spoken, an enormous disconnect between campus and reality is created. When used to the extreme, a safe space can create the illusion that the rest of the world operates in the same manner and unpleasant ideas simply do not exist. This environment is a poor representation of reality, as has become obvious in 2016. The environment of college campuses stands in sharp contradiction to the discourse circulating American elections and media this year. Republican candidate Donald Trump has made degrading comments about minorities, women, and the disabled. But perhaps more significantly, he has brought these topics into wider discourse and constant media coverage. “Alt-right” websites formerly existing for fringe communities on the Internet now enjoy millions of viewers after Trump’s attention and ensuing discussion. In this manner, the election has become the complete antithesis of college environments. Violent political language, open racism, and bigotry dominate much of the conversation and debate surrounding the two candidates. To keep these dangerous sentiments and phobias out of policy they need to be challenged, argued against, and effectively shut down. Students cannot be poised to do this if books discussing these topics are banned, or every kind of controversial speaker is disinvited or silenced. In these instances, students sacrifice the opportunity to respond and extinguish violent rhetoric and ideas, a skill they will undoubtedly need if this year’s political climate continues.
At first glance the environments of college campuses and political campaigns seemingly operate in separate spheres. But they historically have not been so unconnected – nor should they be. Campuses have always been sounding boards for political protests and a microphone for activism. Major social and political movements were born and radiated from campuses, having real effects during election years or on major legislation and policy decisions. College educated voters are a key election demographic, and the discourse disconnect between the political world and college campuses should be of genuine concern. The mocking of trigger warnings and safe spaces has become a tool to criticize liberal ideology and progressive policy, as seen when politicians dismissed this past years’ protests as the complaints of “coddled” millennials. If ideas generated from campuses are treated with disrespect or as non-legitimate, the ability of college students to actively combat racism or bigotry outside of their small campus will be diminished. Conversely, if students do not learn how to effectively articulate and argue against unpleasant topics by confronting them, they will be unable to do so in the “real world.” Students unwilling to stray outside a college bubble increase the chasm between how they believe political discourse and policy should look, and how it actually is.
The polarization between the two environments may in fact be reactionary. Such hostile election media and conversations may drive the desire for safe spaces and silencing of conservative thought. And the conservative right has continuously used the coddling of students and similar terminology to criticize and demean liberal ideology and proposals. Both tactics push the spheres farther apart and reduce the likelihood these issues are actively discussed on campus, or the tolerance reflected in safe spaces is accepted anywhere outside of a college bubble. Trigger warnings and safe spaces play an important role, but cannot be used to create a college setting that resembles nothing like the political world we live in. Dean Ellison’s letter likely dismisses the historical importance of tolerant spaces and how they will continue to be an effective tool for many minority groups in the future. But the commitment to academic freedom and open discussion has significant merit, and a careful balance of these two tactics is critical for the political future.
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