University of Chicago condemns trigger warnings

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The University of Chicago has issued a letter to its incoming students outlining its opposition to “so-called ‘trigger warnings’” and safe spaces.

The letter, from the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students, John Ellison, explains to its incoming freshers that, “Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.”

“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.”

The letter comes after an increasing number of American Universities have created introduced “safe spaces”, where students can relax free from ideas that might be stressful or anxiety-inducing.

Brown University created a room last year “with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies” because a debate on sexual assault was taking place on campus.

A survey by the National Coalition Against Censorship found that the majority of American educators questioned had at some point used trigger warnings, intended to warn and shield students from ideas that might be discomforting or trauma inducing.

“Controversial” speakers have also been cancelled across America, including Condoleezza Rice, George Will, Jason Riley and Michelle Malkin after pressure from students and faculties. This has proved a prevalent issue in the UK in light of the government programme, Prevent, aimed at tackling extremism and limiting radical speakers from attending University events.

The letter may be seen to echo Oxford’s Vice Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson in her commencement speech this year, when she stressed universities must ensure students “appreciate the value of engaging with ideas they find objectionable”.

In May, Oxford began issuing “trigger warnings” to undergraduate law students before lectures containing material deemed too “distressing”.

Third year linguist Jake Smales commented, “It’s precisely our exposure to controversial opinions which helps us to formulate our own. Being sheltered from these, or even having the option to hide away from them, is simply not a representation of how the real world works. I think it’s important that Oxford, like the University of Chicago, encourages debate and discussion rather than hindering it.”

Pembroke third year Carl Gergs commented, “This is Marine Le Pen at the Oxford Union all over again. We need to learn how to challenge these abhorrent opinions. Simply ignoring them won’t make them go away.”

Ronni Blackford, Pembroke’s equalities rep last year, commented, “I think it’s a shame that the University of Chicago has adopted such an uncompromising stance. My own experience of trigger warnings is that they allow survivors of abuse and sufferers of PTSD a chance to mentally prepare themselves for a difficult subject or to make an informed decision to remove themselves from an overwhelming situation, without halting the conversation itself. Rather than achieving the admirable aims of upholding academic discussion and combatting censorship, the University is instead failing its most vulnerable students.”

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