In Defense of Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

On college campuses these days, there is much discussion about so-called “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” two concepts that seem bizarre and unnecessary to those of who went to college back in the late twentieth century. The idea that a professor should warn students about potentially disturbing or offensive aspects of a reading assignment seems ridiculous to many of us. What, and spoil the surprise? And the idea that there need to be “safe” spaces for marginalized students to gather and commiserate sounds suspicious. Why do marginalized students need a safe place to talk? What are they plotting that makes the rest of the campus so dangerous?

Because these ideas sound so nonsensical, many in my generation have taken to disparaging college students who support and promote them. The University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison famously sent a letter last fall to the class of 2020 informing incoming freshman that they were not going to get any warnings at the U of C. A “free exchange of ideas” is what students should expect at U of C, he told them, because open discussion and debate are part of what used to be called an “education.”

Institutions that support trigger warnings and safe spaces are now regularly ridiculed as places where students are being coddled. Perhaps people with such tender sensibilities shouldn’t be in college, the thinking goes, because college is a place where people have to change their own diapers. Treating college students like babies isn’t doing anyone any favors, they say, because, among other things, breast-feeding takes a great deal of time. Older academics feel it’s much better to treat students like the young adults they are. That way, teachers can expect their students to feed and clothe themselves, which leaves much more time for the sort of hugging and hand-holding young adults so desperately need.

Still, I think it’s unfair to sneer at students who want to be warned how a reading assignment might affect them. Who among us wouldn’t have appreciated a heads up the first time through “Goodnight Moon,” when it gets to the part about “the old lady who is whispering ‘hush.’”?

Wait a minute, who? Where did this woman come from? And why is she hushing me? I’m just sitting here, quiet as can be, listening to my dad read a book. How much quieter can I get? What gives her the right to hush me, anyway? She’s the one making all the noise.

And then that last line: “Goodnight noises everywhere.” What noises are they talking about? Who—or what!—is making those noises? Is it some sort of creature outside I need to worry about? Are we safe in this little house? Is going to sleep right now even a good idea, given the uncertainties involved? Maybe we should re-think this, dad? What are our priorities here—sleep, or survival?

Just speaking from personal experience, a simple trigger warning from my father could have saved me a great deal of anxiety in that situation. Something along the lines of, “Son, the story I’m going to read you involves a creepy old lady who welcomes bears and kittens and mice into her house. She’s going to hush you, but it’s okay, because after the story is over, the bears are going to eat her.”

That said, the real problem with trigger warnings in college isn’t that they’re silly, it’s that they don’t go far enough. In my first English class, for instance, I could have endured The Great Gatsby much less traumatically if I’d simply been told that the book contains characters whose wealth and behavior is so far removed from anything in my own experience that they will seem like alien creatures from a very weird and wordy planet where they name cities after eggs. And I would have been eternally grateful if someone—anyone—had warned me before diving into Great Expectations that the title is ironic, and that four-hundred pages in my mind would seize, my eyes would bleed, and I would slowly lose the will to live.  

Trigger warnings could come in handy later in life as well. Wouldn’t it have been great, for instance, if every investment I made came with a warning? Something like: “Dear Investor: Shares in Tricor stock are likely to disappoint you by under-performing predictions by a wide margin. The CEO is a crook, after all—so, even though the stock looks like a sure bet, it's going to make you cry and beat your fists, then it's going to make you question everything, in particular the special ‘plan’ your own personal god has for you.”

Likewise, when I dated Gwen Sheffield for six months after a troubling run of involuntary celibacy, I could have used a simple heads-up: “Hey, this chick is crazy. She will eat your soul.”

And for young people entering the job market, what could be more useful than a helpful preview of the job to which they are applying?

Something like: “Dear potential employee: This job looks great on paper, but it is going to be a boring slog with no hope of a promotion or raise, and it is going to force you to compromise every value you have, so that by the time you leave you will be a thin shell of your former self, hollow and weak, unable to remember why you ever applied for the job in the first place.”

In my life, other trigger warnings could have come in handy as well:

Warning: The kid your wife is about to birth is going to rob you of sleep, infect you with germs, deprive you of sex for the rest of your life, and eventually bankrupt you.”

Warning: In that vacation cabin you rented there’s going to be a rat in the toilet, and you won’t see it until it’s too late.

Warning: There’s a serious crack in the foundation of your new house that the inspector missed.

Warning: Buy the Mazda, not the Nissan!

In fact, there are so many ways my life would have been better if I’d just had a simple warning about what to expect in the sea of uncertainty ahead. Likewise, my life would be much more pleasant if people weren't constantly arguing with me. Having one’s ideas challenged all the time is exhausting.  Honestly, wouldn’t it be great to go through life secure in your own ideological bubble, never having to defend yourself to anyone? In that sort of environment, one could believe anything—the idea that trickle-down economics works, for instance, or that wealthy people desperately want to create more jobs in this country; all they need is more money.

And oh my god, how many millions of heart attacks and ulcers could have been prevented if someone had just had the courtesy to tell Cubs fans the world over: “Don’t worry, the Cubs will eventually win the World Series, even though it may not seem possible until the very last out in Game 7.”

So no, I don’t think trigger warnings and safe spaces are necessarily a bad idea. In fact, I think they are a fantastic idea that should no longer be confined to college campuses. For the sake of humanity, they should be implemented everywhere, for every occasion.

I am terrified of what might happen on Tuesday, Nov. 8, for instance.

Please, someone, tell me it’s going to be okay.