Sometimes it's not about saying something radical as much as it is saying it in a way that people will listen and take it seriously. We could write reams of copy here about the silliness of college campuses quashing language and ideas deemed psychically or emotionally injurious by some students, but we simply don't have the reach or the prestige as, say, The New York Times. So last Friday, when the Times published an op-ed written by Judith Shulevitz that tackles exactly that topic and makes exactly that argument -- that a current movement aimed at protecting students from supposed harm has led to a ridiculous amount of overcompensation on some campuses -- you could practically feel the rush of air from Pandora's Box being opened. The piece pulls no punches, criticizing what sometimes feels like an entire generation "self-infantilizing" to escape words and beliefs it doesn't simply disagree with but finds dangerous to its well-being.
The essay, titled "In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas," takes a lot of things we've heard before -- trigger warnings, "safe spaces," and denying speaking invitations to those whose views are challenging or even offensive -- and lays them out so that their absurdity becomes almost impossible to deny. It's one thing to try to keep students from being legitimately hurt or victimized; it's another thing entirely to turn learning institutions aimed at preparing young adults for the real world into nothing more than very expensive daycare centers.
This isn't an exaggeration. Shulevitz begins by describing a physical "safe space" recently set up on the campus of Brown University to help students who might have found a debate being held between Jessica Valenti of Feministing and writer Wendy McElroy "troubling" or "triggering." McElroy, it seems, was likely to be critical of the concept of "rape culture," and at least one student member of the school's Sexual Assault Task Force felt the mere presence of her views on campus might be damaging to those who've either been victimized or felt victimized by sexual violence. She hectored the school's administrators into holding a competing talk that would emphasize “the role of culture in sexual assault.” The safe space, meanwhile, was literally the kind of thing you could imagine a four-year-old enjoying:
The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer EDUCATOR” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.
That right there gives you an idea what some colleges are dealing with. Not only dealing with, but enabling. You have to wonder how these kids are possibly going to cope with the real world, which won't worry one bit about their fragile sensibilities, real or perceived traumas, and need to be coddled at all times. There are very few safe spaces in the real world. Most of it is one big threat and what isn't simply doesn't give a damn. As for turning our nation's universities, traditionally places of higher learning where the entire idea is to challenge students' preconceptions, into exactly the opposite of that, Shulevitz mentions a junior at Columbia who published a piece in the Columbia Spectator critical of that notion. "Kindness alone won’t allow us to gain more insight into truth," he wrote, adding, "I don’t see how you can have a therapeutic space that’s also an intellectual space." That just about sums it up.
There's been quite a bit of debate in our culture over how exactly so many from this new generation became so skittish and feeble. As quite a few of those who've broached this subject before in the recent past have done, Shulevitz homes in on overprotective parents who figured that sheltering and accommodating their children was best for them, better at least than letting the world get in a couple of good shots once in a while just to create some callouses and impart some street-smarts. It's hard not to agree with that and to see it as a response to being constantly inundated with terrifying images and phantom threats, the reality of which is nowhere near as awful it seems. The media should get some of the blame for this -- for deciding years ago that its mission was to scare the hell out of people because that fear translates into revenue.
But our media climate may play an even more influential and direct role in creating a nation of scaredy kids. Every generation before this grew up without the ability to curate its own environment, to censor what it didn't like and approve only what it did. On-demand media has now given us the power to shut down what offends us, and if you literally grew up with the cultural shift toward this kind of power from childhood so that it's practically all you've known, when something bursts the safety of your hermetically sealed dogmatic bubble you might want to respond by, well, running to a room filled with Play-Doh and bubbles. Childhood was safe. No wonder these young people want to return to that.
There's certainly an argument to be made that since much of this overcompensation stems from a good place -- a desire to consider the emotions and needs of people who've been underserved in the past -- it's not fair to rip it to shreds and leave nothing left. But the problem here is that, as any child learns very early on -- or at least used to -- two wrongs don't make a right. Crushing ideas and language in the name of keeping everyone "safe," especially in a place like college, is both a fools errand and incredibly myopic. College is supposed to be a safe place for students in terms of their physical and emotional well-being, but it's still a place where a free exchange of sometimes dangerous ideas deserves as much protection as anything else.
When you go to college, you need to expect to be pushed hard out of your comfort zone, because that place is where you're going to need to learn to live if you want to survive the next 70 years or so. You're also going to have to learn that not everyone thinks the way you do and, even with on-demand media being what it is, those people are entitled to their opinions and even to shout them in your direction on occasion. You will never have a world that is, as Judith Shulevitz writes, "scrubbed clean of controversy." Far from it.
The contrarian argument some will make -- and let's be clear that while we hear a lot about this, it's mostly a vocal minority that's attempting to engineering it -- is that universities have become living nightmares for female and minority students. The oft-quoted line that one-in-five women have been sexually assaulted or raped during their time in college may be starting to lose a little of its potency, which is important not because campus sexual assault shouldn't be taken seriously but because basing decisions on faulty information is never a good idea. The one-in-five number has always been a questionable and misleading statistic. While sexual assault on campus is a very real problem and one that demands an authoritative response -- because even one sexual assault is too many -- American schools aren't the Congo, where women are dragged off and raped a half-dozen at a time as a weapon of war. It's actually a perfect illustration of how privileged and secure most American kids are that they can't even fathom a genuine crisis they're confronted with day after day, minus the benefit of a place to run and hide when someone so much as mentions it in passing.
The Times piece is both thorough and thought-provoking. And what it has to say matters simply because when you designate something a "safe space" it implies that everything outside of it is potentially unsafe. When we're talking about the right to expression, that can be a real problem since stifling someone's viewpoint because it doesn't mesh with your own isn't just a kind of soft censorship that's antithetical to the college experience, it's bad for the person doing the stifling. That person may not think it is now -- but he or she is going to find out the hard way in a few years.