What Is a Trigger Warning, Anyway?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday, my colleague Bourree Lam looked at how University of Chicago alumni are responding to the high-profile letter their alma mater sent out last week to incoming freshmen. The letter essentially warned students that the university—which for decades has espoused its commitment to “freedom of expression”—would not tolerate “intellectual ‘safe spaces’” and “so-called ‘trigger warnings.’”

The thinking behind the letter, presumably, is that safe spaces and trigger warnings inherently suppress free speech and academic freedom—and, in turn, that the university felt a need to defend those values. As Bourree highlighted yesterday, that premise outraged many alumni, who remember their years at the university as experiences rife with challenging and uncomfortable discussions. Others argued that the wholesale rejection of things like trigger warnings misses the point.

It got us thinking: What is a trigger warning, anyway? What defines a safe space? Lots of people have questioned whether Dean of Students John Ellison, who wrote the letter, actually understands what the terms mean. My colleague, Conor Friedersdorf, chimed in on the topic this morning. Here’s what some from the academic community had to say.

From an alum, Audrey Truschke:

I would say that the letter brought up mixed reactions from me. I wholeheartedly support the basic idea that universities ought to have a strong, unflinching commitment to academic freedom of speech, and I think numerous institutions have dangerously compromised that ideal recently.

That said, I use trigger warnings periodically on syllabi.

I started including them formally, as part of the written syllabus, last year when I realized that I had been doing them informally for years. For me, it always seemed to be common sense that when you find yourself, say, assigning a graphic description of rape, you might give your students a heads-up, during the prior class meeting, concerning what they are about to read.

Even now, I often issue "trigger warnings" more informally. For instance, this past spring I sent out a podcast on female genital mutilation to my students with the caveat that they should not listen to it while driving. I had made that mistake, I told them, and nearly had to pull over at one point because it was such a hard listen and brought tears to my eyes.

The point of giving due warning, for me, is not to silence debate but rather to prepare people so that they can (hopefully) move beyond their understandable initial reactions of shock, horror, disgust, and trauma and enter into an intellectual discussion of the materials and questions at hand.

From another alum, Nabeel Ebeid:

More than anything, I’m embarrassed. UChicago taught me to question so many assumptions and helped me to revise so many of my priors with logic and data. For the school to send its undergrads a letter without a clear definition of “safe space” or “trigger warning,” without any reference to sexual assault, harassment, or the contexts in which these words emerged, and without substantiating any link between those terms and academic freedom, Ellison is being lazy at best and, at worst, gratuitously malicious. One need not denigrate safe spaces or trigger warnings to support academic freedom or defend the right to bring controversial speakers to campus.

More puzzling is that the school is full of safe spaces: the Center for Identity and Inclusion (Amandla Center in my day), worship groups, any number of campus affinity groups, etc (to say nothing of health counselors’ offices). The school appears to endorse them wholeheartedly, and it's hard to imagine a day when it wouldn’t. These spaces have provided both vibrant fora for in-group discussion as well as support systems for the marginalized. In my time at UChicago, they contributed to campus conversation with a wide array of speakers and perspectives that were often underrepresented in the Core. I can’t recall a single instance in which these communities stifled free speech.

The aversion to trigger warnings seems even stranger. Trigger warnings by definition prepare the reader or listener for triggering content; the notion that these warnings stifle speech is unsubstantiated and farfetched. I also wonder how taking a stance against trigger warnings doesn’t stifle the free speech of professors who may see value in sensitivity when introducing potentially triggering material. Finally, I wonder what kind of message a note like this sends to community members who may already be wary from recent Title IX investigations.

Ellison seems to be reacting viscerally to the feeling that the marginalized have it too easy. If he was concerned about disinviting speakers, he could have said as much. Instead, he chose to bash vaguely liberal-sounding terms without appearing to understand them, and he strung them together into a paragraph of non sequiturs ... all in the name of freedom.

From another alum, Maira Khwaja, who graduated this past June:

Dean Ellison misrepresents what trigger warnings and safe spaces have been on our campus, which are often nuanced and personalized for each professor (UChicago is nothing if not nuanced and overly verbose) and syllabi and department and extracurricular. His simplification, misrepresentation, and conflation of trigger warnings/safe spaces/disinviting speakers are poor examples of the “rigorous discourse” that he boasts.

In our histories of violence class, we did not shy away from any of America’s most brutal understudied history, but we were given a thoughtful paragraph on the syllabus about the nature of the images and text we’d read in the archive. It'd be naive and foolish to disregard that thoughtful paragraph from our professor as something other than analysis that contributed to class discussion and understanding.

Safe spaces are not made so that students can “retreat” from ideas they don't want to hear; in fact, often safe spaces are built in our campus so that they can dive even further, with careful support (like support staff on hand, or respectful mutually made ground rules created), into discussions that would often be too uncomfortable for the classroom.

An anonymous alum:

I’m very disappointed in this admin at my former school over his nonsense about trigger warnings destroying freedom. And I love that it's a scholar at my current one so splendidly calling him out: As CUNY historian Angus Johnston notes, “There’s no college in the country where profs are required to give trigger warnings. They’re all voluntary pedagogical choices. Which means a professor’s use of trigger warnings isn’t a threat to academic freedom. It’s a MANIFESTATION of academic freedom.’”

Academic freedom means that professors get to design their syllabus, not administrators like Ellison. His letter is a prime example of how the outcry against “political correctness” often leads to policy changes that limit free speech."