‘Trust and Respect Are the Lifeblood of Frank Conversations’

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

This comment comes from alumnus Joel Avila, who lives in Chicago and works as a program manager at CVS Health. It’s so good that I’m posting the whole thing (bolding is my own). Joel touches on one particular angle I’ve been thinking about a lot regarding the national coverage on campus politics: If the premise of good faith is important for academic freedom, then do letters such as Ellison’s build or erode that trust between people who disagree with each other?

From Joel:

“Love your neighbor as yourself” seems like a decent rule from which university communities are trying to create some kind of secular analogue to address this controversy. To me much of the controversy is actually about trust and respect (and the lack thereof) among students, faculty, and administrators. Hot-button contemporary social problems (e.g., student debt, sexual discrimination, racial prejudice) are typically deliberated on campus in ways less encumbered than in society at large, for the simple reason that you have unstructured time to talk about them with lots of different people.

Having said all this, I have little faith in trigger warnings and safe spaces, from which standpoint I would make a few observations and comments:

1. The letter itself strikes me as a broad type of trigger warning (a “meta-trigger warning,” if you will). By telling incoming first-years that they don’t support trigger warnings, they are implicitly telling—dare I say “warning”—students that certain conversations on campus may trouble them. By making this statement in the welcome letter, the college is getting the benefit of giving a general trigger warning while discouraging particular ones.

2. Your magazine’s big cover story last year made quite an impression on me, especially in the way it raised the question about safe spaces and mental health. My wife is an outpatient clinical therapist (SSA ’13), and she said that the piece articulated her question of whether safe spaces could stunt emotional well-being. What follows is a quote from her: “In therapy, it’s really important to learn that you can’t keep other people from offending you, but that you can control your response. To become a successful adult, you have to recognize that other people are coming from different experiences and won’t see things the same way as you. It’s fundamental to almost every therapy approach that you change your own reaction, rather than demanding that your environment accommodate you.”

3. The controversy over trigger warnings and safe spaces seems to be a phenomenon specific to elite institutions. I wouldn’t be surprised if middle-tier colleges and universities are also experiencing this in some form or another. But I’m not reading about protests at UConn, UCF, Kansas State, or Northern Michigan University. Instead I’m reading about tensions at U of C, Yale, and Oberlin. “Simple random samples” of college campuses these are not.

4. Because of #3, I guess I don’t see the endpoint of this debate as it relates to the social problems in light of which it emerged. Basically, what’s the payoff for instituting trigger warnings and building safe spaces at elite institutions? What’s the payoff for banning the same? I think people on either side—but especially the “pro” camp—will be disappointed and disillusioned when the underlying socioeconomic morbidities linger or worsen despite their best efforts.

Going back to one of my first points, I think trust and respect are the lifeblood of frank conversations—for academic environments and pretty much any other relationships. When people at elite academic institutions can practice these two virtues (because that’s what they are), I think we can listen to each other in good faith and admit hard truths to one another. Evil is real. Greed is real. Power corrupts. Trauma and abuse are ubiquitous. Racism and its roots are deeper and uglier than we want to admit. Shame is paralyzing. We all fear “the other”—other races, other genders, other classes, etc.

All of this is really, really hard to process, let alone to speak in public. As an 18-year-old first year (and still today as a 31-year-old!), I certainly failed at this constantly. But life is hard and full of failure too. But if academic elites strive to do a better job at admitting hardship and failure, and speaking their fears in trusting, respectful communities (read Brené Brown!), I think this controversy won't go away, but it might gradually subside. As the New Testament says elsewhere, “perfect love casts out fear.” We’ll see.

When I was at the University of Chicago, I remember students protesting every week. It was just a thing that happened. My professors often covered very uncomfortable topics such as racism, colonialism, slavery—I even remember a particularly heated discussion about female circumcision. Frantz Fanon's Black Face, White Masks was required reading for the Core; I remember some students crying during a class covering that text and everyone was so supportive. I have never felt “unsafe” in these spaces; on the other hand, I have always felt I could walk out. Nothing was ever personal; we were always debating for intellectual pursuit.

That’s why I find Dean Ellison’s letter puzzling. Maybe the fact that such a problematic letter felt necessary to reclaim that dynamic shows how much it's broken down—that neither students nor administrators feel they can trust each other to speak on open and respectful terms. But I do know that respectful discussion is happening between alumni, and I am certain good faith has been fundamental to these insightful conversations. In fact, my favorite feedback of the week has been from a former classmate who I often disagreed with in class: “Really enjoy reading your pieces (even when I disagree with them).”