The University of Chicago lit up social-media feeds last month after its dean of students published a letter informing incoming freshmen that “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” had no place on a campus dedicated to “freedom of inquiry and expression.”
Although some journalists noted that the letter may have been aimed at pleasing high-profile right-wing donors, opposition to such measures doesn’t track neatly along party lines. Neither the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek nor the paleoconservative pundit Ann Coulter has much use for so-called “political correctness” measures.
As is usually the case with blanket denunciations of these terms, the dean’s letter doesn’t bother to define either “safe space” or “trigger warning”—a major problem for adjuncts and other vulnerable university employees, whether they are required to use them or to refrain from doing so. And since safe spaces are now a critical part of modern pedagogy, students may have utilized them in other areas long before encountering harried, at-will instructors thrust into introductory courses at the very last minute.
Safe spaces, researchers note, are never completely safe, even if their implementation offers an extremely modest way of confronting systemic cultural oppression. At the risk of oversimplification, one reason for carefully approaching controversial content in the classroom is the asymmetry between how white, well-off male students engage with ideas relative to their more disadvantaged peers. A “safe space,” then, isn’t some carefully policed setting like Bob Jones University, where for many years interracial dating was banned and skirt length was carefully regulated; rather, it describes an area where subject matter is studied with a full awareness of the students’ own subjectivity kept firmly in mind.