Counterpoint: By condemning content warnings, UChicago hinders free speech

| Senior Forum Editor

The University of Chicago recently released a letter to incoming freshmen that champions the idea of free speech while slamming the use of “trigger warnings.” It, regrettably, rests on an assumption that content warnings and free speech are mutually exclusive. Not only is that assumption untrue, but it ignores the fact that the “diversity of background” UChicago claims to celebrate among its students can lead to varying abilities to process and discuss disturbing content—you know, unequal levels of “freedom of speech” among students in the first place.

In an ideal world, yeah, we could all just take absolutely everything at face value and flip a switch in our brains that shuts off any past experiences or identities that could cloud our reception of the content we expose ourselves to. But this is not an ideal world, and while it’s great that UChicago wants to maintain its robotic reputation as an institution filled with purely analytical minds, damning the concept of content warnings only champions free speech for people who have no issue speaking up in the first place. You know, people who haven’t had those traumatic experiences UChicago so readily scoffs at.

A content warning is not meant to stifle free speech. It is not meant to shield potential media consumers from the “realities of our cruel world.” It is meant to highlight that, hey, there’s a graphic rape scene in this book/movie/play/whatever, and we’re letting you know that because, like, that’s a decent thing to do.

“But Sarah,” you cry, “there are no content warnings in the real world! College is supposed to prepare you for the real world!” And you know what? You’re right. But in what real-world situation am I going to have to watch a movie with a graphically violent scene if I don’t want to? In what dramatically realistic setting will I be required to read an explicit story about child sexual abuse without having the option to, I don’t know, exit out of my browser? Because I can think of several times in college where I will be confronted with disturbing content and, for the sake of my grade, will not be able to abstain from its consumption.

In the “real world” that is so incredibly harsh, I do, in fact, have the option of choosing a career path that does not require confrontation with content that reminds me of a past traumatic experience I would rather not relive.

I say this all hypothetically, because I am privileged enough to not have experienced anything traumatic in my lifetime. I am able to sit through sexual assault scenes in movies, even though I find them unpleasant. I am able to read graphic depictions of violence in books, even though I don’t particularly care for them. I am able, in a word, to retain my ability to eloquently express my opinions on graphic content because I am privileged enough to have a past absence of personal trauma.

For me to assume that the same is true of my classmates is, frankly, far more silencing than a professor pointing out to our class that “Amores perros” contains a lot of graphic violence against both humans and animals and like, “hey, if you feel uncomfortable with that, we can talk.”

To quote a tweet by Deray McKesson, “@UChicago, who exactly is this letter meant to welcome?”

The thing is, free speech is only truly free if everybody has the same opportunity to speak up in the first place. It becomes pharisaic to insist that everybody should be able to take things at face-value in the name of “free speech” when you yourself have nothing stopping you from taking those things at face value.

By diminishing the experiences of others through denouncing something as unobtrusive as content warnings (seriously, isn’t it just common courtesy to give a heads up to a classroom of people you don’t know that there may be disturbing content in an assigned reading or viewing?), you effectively render those experiences irrelevant. Content warnings have absolutely no effect on you if you have no reason to be warned, but they can help empower people who have past trauma that you yourself are privileged enough to not have experienced. So, like, calm down.

Click here to read a different perspective on how UChicago has decided to deal with trigger warnings.

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