New “safe space” movement silences collegiate discussion

Credit: India Price/ Credit: India Price/
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Everyone wants to feel safe, but what actually constitutes a safe space is murkier than it seems. According to Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to sexuality education, it is “a place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or challenged on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect, dignity and feelings and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.” The concept sounds great on paper. An environment in which everyone can just be themselves, and not be scared of being judged, of being discriminated against or harassed. Sounds almost utopian. This should be exactly what we desire in an educational institution, right?

But something went wrong. This seemingly innocuous idea has cost many careers, led to the imposition of unconstitutional speech codes in some of our country’s most prestigious institutions, and led to books as influential and important as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Ovid’s Metamorphoses being censored on college campuses. In a more personal incident, it led to the residence of Omar Mahmood, a student at the University of Michigan, being vandalized for a satirical op-ed published in The Michigan Review mocking political correctness and trigger warnings. The irony of this incident is greatly exaggerated by one of the scribbled notes left on his doorstep saying “everyone hates you you violent prick.” The idea of a safe-space has turned into a tool for silencing people on college campuses.

In an essay from The Atlantic titled The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, postulate an interesting culprit to explain why safe spaces have gone so astray: the impulse of vindictive protectiveness which creates “a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.” This concept relies on the fundamental misconception that words can, perhaps unintentionally, cause emotional harm equivalent in magnitude and intensity to physical assault. If we base our idea of harm on this frankly absurd foundation, we can easily understand how striving to create a safe-space could lead to some of the troubling circumstances described above.

The most disturbing part of the entire phenomenon is that it is largely imposed by the students. Lukianoff and Haidt go on to describe and comment on the two major tools used by student activists to censor speech and ideas on campuses: trigger warnings and microaggression. Trigger warnings began as just a courteous gesture out of respect for the trauma experienced by victims of sexual assault. You put a warning before any content that might bring up the trauma, and people who need to can avoid the content or go in prepared. Sounds perfectly reasonable right? And in some contexts they are. The problem is, where do you draw the line? A draft guide on trigger warnings from Oberlin College tells professors “triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” This would include most content that would ever come up in a humanities or social sciences class, which would make it difficult to teach.

Of course, you could ask, what is the harm in giving a bit of warning if distressing content is ahead? Nothing, if we had a clear idea of what is considered distressing. The problem with anything based on subjective human experiences, like distress, is exactly that: they’re subjective, and putting warnings on some things and not others can favor on kind of trauma over another. In the end, it boils down to whether the trigger is something you should expect in a given scenario. Of course trigger warnings preceding graphic material pertinent to veterans and victims of sexual assault aren’t being debated. But if you enroll in a course on 20th century literature, it’s almost impossible for you not to expect misogyny, so giving a trigger warning before The Great Gatsby, as proposed by a student at Rutgers University, not only seems redundant, but also unreasonable.

Ultimately, it’s a question of what you are trying to accomplish. The original intent was to be courteous to victims suffering from PTSD. Now, however, the intent seems to be to forewarn, and make optional, even the slightest discomfort that could possibly be experienced in a classroom setting. The impact this could have on the quality of education is summed up brilliantly in the anecdote recounted by Jeannie Suk in The New Yorker, in which law students at Harvard requested their professors not to teach rape law lest it distress students.

The concept of a microaggression is even more problematic. For those of you who aren’t up to date on your politically correct terminology (honestly I didn’t know this word existed until a week ago), microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent, but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. Yes, you read correctly: microaggressions may seem to have no malicious intent. This means that they could actually have no malicious intent, until willfully misinterpreted. For example, asking an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?” may be considered a microaggression, since you could be interpreted as implying that they aren’t a real American. Other statements that are considered microaggressions by the University of California system are: “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” This is chillingly reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible: all that is needed to prove your case is to generate the right amount of hysteria.

An incident that captures this perfectly was the Halloween debacle at Yale. Following a mass email sent to the student body about appropriate costumes, Erika Christakis, the then Associate Master of Silliman College, sent out an email basically asking the students to decide for themselves whether a costume would be considered offensive or not. “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity — in your capacity — to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?” You would think that granting students the courtesy of autonomy and respect would have resulted in reciprocal courtesy. No such luck. “Be quiet!” a Yale student yells at Nicholas Christakis, the Master of Silliman College, in a temper tantrum fortunately captured on video. When Christakis disagrees with her, rather than responding like an adult, the student goes on to yell “Who the fuck are you?... It is not about creating an intellectual space!... It is about creating a home here!”

There you have it, the fundamental problem, the misconception at the root of this poison tree whose fruit are being plucked on campuses all over the nation. It isn’t about creating an intellectual space, but a home, a safe-space, where we will never feel uncomfortable, never have to face dissenting opinions like an adult, never have to confront conflicting views except through mass hysteria and the strategic use of the magic words trigger warning and microaggression. The macroaggression from the student body ended up causing Erika Christakis to quit her position at Yale due to, as she put it, the climate not being "conducive to civil dialogue."

How does this affect us at Carnegie Mellon? The beauty of it is that it doesn’t. Incidents like this have happened at Yale, University of Michigan, Claremont McKenna and many other prestigious institutions, but not here. We need to realize how lucky we are and try hard to preserve it. In Spotlight on Speech Codes 2016, FIRE surveyed 440 schools on their nominal speech code policies, policies that tend to restrict the First Amendment rights of students. They classify schools as one of either Red, Yellow or Green Light, where a red light institution is one that “has at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, or that bars public access to its speech-related policies,” while a green light campus is one whose “policies do not seriously threaten campus expression.” Of the 440 schools, 49.3 percent were found to be red light (including Princeton, Swarthmore, CalTech, and Harvard) while only 22 schools were found to be green light, including Carnegie Mellon! I didn’t realize what a stroke of good fortune it is to attend a college that doesn’t seek to curtail our right to freedom of expression, but apparently it’s quite a lot to ask.

Meanwhile, in a survey of incoming college freshmen released two weeks ago, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles found that 43 percent of incoming freshmen believe that colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers from campus, while a whopping 71 percent think that racist/sexist speech should be prohibited. If we’re not careful, we might not be in the green light for much longer.

In a town hall meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, President Obama stated that the purpose of college is “to widen your horizons, to make you a better citizen, to help you to evaluate information, to help you make your way through the world, to help you be more creative.” He continued to say that “the way to do that is to create a space where a lot of ideas are presented and collide, and people are having arguments, and people are testing each other’s theories and over time people learn from each other because they’re getting out of their own narrow point of view and having a broader point of view.” This process isn’t comfortable. At times it can be quite infuriating. I spent most of a night last week trying to convince my friend that cultural appropriation is actually an issue. Was it frustrating? Sure. But in the process, I uncovered a plethora of assumptions and biases that I had been conditioned not to question. And that’s what college is about: creating a space where it is safe to express any opinion or idea, not just those considered worth protecting.