What I See as a Marketing Ploy by the University of Chicago...


Live from DerpLand on the Midway: Jesse Singal reads University of Chicago dean John Ellison's "no trigger warnings, no safe spaces" letter via a hermeneutics of charity. I, by contrast, read the letter via a hermeneutics of derp:

Jesse Singal: The University of Chicago's Anti-Safe-Space Letter Matters:

The University of Chicago’s dean of students John Ellison... sen[t]... a rather assertive letter... to the incoming class of 2020... a flawed letter that could have been a little less provocative--maybe that was the point....

Let's look first at Jesse admitting that he has a sow's ear here:

Let’s get the weirdest part of the letter out of the way....

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.

Well, okay.... The university, as a body, doesn’t “support” an English professor giving students a quick heads-up that there’s a difficult rape scene ahead? In a similar vein, what does it mean to say the university doesn’t “condone intellectual ‘safe spaces’”? Obviously, the university “condones” Christian students’ ability to set up times and places where atheists won’t harangue them, or for LGBT students to set up a place where conservative Christians won’t harangue them. That’s all a “safe space” is in the classical sense of the word.

So there’s definitely a bit of pandering in this language--the letter is throwing up a flag for people who are concerned about political correctness on campus, saying, This isn’t that sort of school.

It seems to me more likely than not that John Ellison is not talking to his future students here. It seems to me that he is more likely than not to be talking to those of their parents who spend an unhealthy amount of time glued to and being traumatized by Fox News. And he is doing so in the hope that those parents will send more students to U. of C. It's a marketing ploy--not part of an orientation for new students.

And now Jesse's claim that he can take this and make it into a silk purse:

But on the broader question of whether the letter is responding to legitimately worrying trends on some campuses, the answer is yes. Well, a qualified yes....

Many of the tropes that have taken hold about “coddled” or “microaggressed” or “oversensitive” or anti-free-speech college students are seriously overblown. In many cases, these ideas have been bandied about so gleefully and frequently and uncritically by conservatives that the terms themselves have lost all meaning. (Heat Street recently ran an article in which women who simply requested a way to filter out sexual harassment in virtual reality were described derogatorily as wanting “safe spaces.”)

But: There have absolutely been recent instances in which campus outrage has snowballed out of hand, in which protesters have actually impinged on the ability for real debate to take place, and these episodes matter. If you actually read the letter that got Erika Christakis in so much trouble at Yale, for example, it’s clear that the outrage was disproportionate to the content. At Wesleyan, the column that sparked the uproar was far milder than what you’ll hear in the next 15 seconds if you flip on AM radio. And it isn’t just my opinion that these and other campus reactions were overblown....

The problem is that the loudest students’ voices frequently win out: Campus radicals gonna campus radical. And oftentimes in the case of the most high-profile incidents, relatively small groups of activists are, in fact, hijacking various conversations on campuses, and when they do so they often make hysterical claims couched in the appropriated language of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and so on.... Administrators have often been tepid on these issues. They haven’t stood up and expressed an important, very widely held view: Colleges can’t ban conversations that the rest of the country is having, even if they’re offensive to some students. At Emory University, for example, a small group of activists claimed that they had suffered psychological damage due to the fact that a student or students had chalked Trump around campus.... It’s impossible to say there’s not a problem here at all when a major, highly ranked university investigates--or feels compelled to pretend to investigate--students for supporting the Republican nominee for president.... The U. Chicago letter, then, could be a useful nudge to help get other, more timorous university administrators to stand up and do their jobs.

But, Jesse, surely John Ellison can find a way to say "we welcome the contributions to the intellectual life of the college of Donald Trump supporters" that doesn't also carry the very strong implication that Hillel and the Newman Center are in some sense illegitimate?

As I said, this is a very charitable reading he is engaging in here.

As I see it, a university is:

  • first of all, a safe space for ideas.

  • second, a safe place for scholars.

Those two imperatives do not forbid but rather mandate trigger warnings, whenever they are helpful in aiding the members of the University and scholars to grapple and process with difficult ideas or shocking facts.

Those two imperatives also require all members of the university to treat one another with respect--to avoid giving even a hint that other members do not belong or do not have rights or are not secure in their persons.

And these two imperatives require that sub-communities within the university have spaces that are safe--in which discussion can proceed accepting for the moment the premises of the sub-community.

To say that you are against trigger warnings without immediately saying that you are for situating difficult ideas and shocking facts in a context where members can auccessfully grapple with them is unprofessional.

To say that you are against sage spaces, without immediately saying that the two overriding purposes of the university are to be a safe space for ideas and for its members as scholars is also unprofessional.