The University of Chicago has demonstrated that, as an institution, it is unaware of the actual purpose of trigger warnings and has no desire to actually do the research required to find out their true purpose. As an academic, I find the concept of an entire institution publicly demonstrating their own ignorance and willfulness to continue existing in a state of that ignorance to be absolutely appalling. My sympathies are extended towards the incoming class of 2020 who received the letter announcing this policy. For the purpose of educating this class and any other people who may be interested in trigger warnings, I have outlined a brief description of what trigger warnings are and the purpose they serve the public, below, with examples provided.
A trigger warning is a warning that some content in a particular work may be upsetting or discomforting to some people. A trigger warning is no different from an ESRB rating, or the list of warnings posted outside of the entrance to an amusement ride. A trigger warning provides a label so that the individual may decide for themselves what is appropriate for them, or prepare themselves accordingly.
Trigger warnings are not censorship any more than an ESRB rating is censorship when used in an academic setting. The student is still responsible for knowing the material that has received the trigger warning. However, trigger warnings allow students with a history of trauma or marginalized students to be prepared for the content of the material. If I were to show a movie during a lecture that included a graphic depiction of rape, a trigger warning that the movie would contain a rape scene would allow students who are upset by these depictions to prepare themselves.
University of Chicago claiming that trigger warnings oppose freedom of speech is patently untrue. In fact, more perniciously, it shows that the University of Chicago does not support the ability of marginalized or traumatized students to engage in the discussion but does not want to admit that it does not want to offer support to these students. The college instead chooses the option of blatant dishonesty. The college is publicly proclaiming that it privileges those students who do not need accommodations and that the college itself believes that their voices are more important because they can exist in the discussion without assistance.
The fact that University of Chicago chooses to privilege the voices of those who are not personally affected by potentially unsettling content does nothing but discredit the academic integrity of that institution. By excluding those who are most affected, the college itself supports the creation of echo-chambers and the process of intellectual stagnation among members of the student body that would know the least information about what is actually being discussed.