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Photo by Mariah Wilson

U of C’s stance against trigger warnings is outdated and out-of-touch

By Trevor Landsburg, April 4 2018 —

At the most recent Board of Governors meeting, University of Calgary provost Dru Marshall said that the school’s stance regarding trigger warnings is similar to the University of Chicago’s.

The University of Chicago doesn’t support the use of safe spaces in classrooms, arguing that this compromises freedom of speech and academic integrity. A document provided to the class of 2020 by the Office of the Dean of Students stated, “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.”

This is an extremely flawed and antiquated argument about trigger warnings and safe spaces, so it’s troubling that the University of Calgary is adopting these ideas. The notion that trigger warnings somehow hinder freedom of speech is misinformed because trigger warnings do not intend to restrict the content that is being presented. They simply provide students with the ability to prepare themselves for potentially harmful content when it is shared.

Providing students with warnings allows them to prepare for what might be a harmful experience or leave the classroom to manage their well-being. It isn’t about the institutions’ freedom to share this information, it’s about acknowledging that some topics place students at disproportionate risk and understanding that some students have experienced significant trauma. It’s the duty of an institution to serve its students and that begins with understanding that within a diverse population of students, there will also be diverse experiences and needs. Institutions should not adopt a paternal approach to deciding what is or isn’t harmful to students and instead should enable students to challenge or protect themselves as they decide is necessary.

Not all universities and administrators hold problematic views on trigger warnings and safe spaces. In contrast to the University of Chicago’s statement regarding trigger warnings, Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University, affirmed the value of safe spaces and trigger warnings.

“I’m an economist, not a sociologist or psychologist, but those experts tell me that students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable,” he said. “Safe spaces provide that comfort.”

The University of Calgary should consult with faculty members in disciplines that study safe space policies before coming to an institutional decision. Marshall’s rationale for moving towards the University of Chicago’s policy relies on a misguided interpretation of freedom of speech. This does not address the duty of the institution to provide a safe learning environment for its students. By allowing experts, students and student representatives to speak on this issue, we could create an informed policy that reflects the needs of our students and faculties.

Articles published in the Gauntlet‘s opinion section do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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