However cliché it may be, I still cling to the idea that the university is a place where one’s deepest beliefs not only can but should be challenged. It is a place where ideas and opinions, however important we regard them, however much we feel that they play a part in our identity and sense of belonging, must be open to examination and questioning.
The essential function of this is that if our deepest beliefs are not open to testing and inquiry, if other people cannot challenge us to justify our reasons for holding them, then we will never really know whether they are true or not. We will not even know whether the reasons we give are good or not. We are as good as ignorant if we hold an opinion or a belief without knowing why.
It is for this reason that I doggedly hold onto the belief – which is by now a minority opinion on the university campus – that if one wishes to pursue knowledge, to discover what is true, to be challenged and to challenge others and in the deepest sense, to freely experience the full range of ideas in the public square, one can find this zat university.
However, is this really what the university stands for today? Can we as students say any longer that the university is a place for critical thinking and unfettered investigation without cringing and feeling slightly embarrassed? Unless you have a totally closed mind, I don’t think it would be possible for you to utter the words above.
Allow me to rephrase my statement above for any young person who is thinking about attending university and is reading this article. The university is not a place where you can express your views and have those views challenged in an open and free environment. It is not a space where you will be taught how to think – quite the opposite. It is a space where you will be taught what to think. You will be taught the “right” opinions. You will be taught the “correct” attitude to have, especially on subjects considered by faculty to be ‘controversial’ or ‘sensitive.’
You will learn that your feelings and your identity are more important than what is inside your head. Worst of all, what you will come to discover – if you have these “right” and “correct” opinions – there is a readily available structure to protect you from people who disagree with you. If you consider yourself a conservative, a libertarian, a free speech advocate or an equity feminist, do not be surprised if you find yourself being labeled a danger or a threat to the emotional well-being and mental stability of your fellow students.
There is a wealth of journalism, research reports and studies on this trend if you think I’m exaggerating what is going on at our universities today. Some examples will give you at the very least an inkling of what I’m talking about.
Two years ago at Brown University a student group invited Wendy McElroy, a sex positive feminist and critic of third wave intersectional feminism, to debate Jessica Valenti, the founder of feministing.com. The topic of the debate was sexual assault on campus. When Katherine Byron, then a member of the university’s Sexual Assault Task Force, learned that McElroy was invited to the university to speak, she explained to New York Times reporter Judith Shulevitz that “bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences. It could be damaging.”
McElroy is a noted critic of radical gender feminists. She has criticized university sexual harassment policies, defended pornography and believes that modern institutional feminism is opposed to equality between men and women. Perfectly acceptable positions to hold, but her views on gender feminism were enough to incite a crisis on campus when it was learned that such a person was invited to the University. “Student volunteers,” Shulevitz reports, “put up posters advertising that a “safe space” would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting.” Although the debate went ahead as planned, the safe space that the school made available “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.” According to Emma Hall, one of the students and staff members who was working at the safe space and attended at least part of the debate, recalls that “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” she said.
Last November, at the University of Missouri, student activists forced the university’s president, Timothy M. Wolfe to resign over allegations that he failed to address issues of racism on campus. Tim Tai, a University of Missouri student, was asked by ESPN to photograph the activists. He quickly discovered that he was unwelcome there. A twitter account associated with the group stated that “We ask for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, fellowship, and sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives,” adding that “it’s typically white media who don’t understand the importance of respecting black spaces.” Tim Tai for anyone who cares to know is not white.
In an interview with the New York Times, Tai explained that “we’re documenting events with our photographs, and when people are crying and hugging when Wolfe resigns, it becomes a personal issue that people all over the country can connect with. It’s my job to help connect those people to what’s going on,” he said.
The video that emerged from his interactions with the protestors or ‘safe spacers’ as they are increasingly being referred to is a chilling one. They started to surround and intimidate him to prevent him from taking pictures. As the group gets louder and closer they start to physically push him. Conor Friedersdorf, a reporter for The Atlantic, recalls that “all the while, they are operating on the premise, or carrying on the pretense, that he is making them unsafe. It is as if they’ve weaponized the concept of safe spaces.” They scream in his face and continue to physically assault him. Students are heard calling him an “unethical reporter” and someone who does “not respect our space.” One person in the crowd yells “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.” That person, Melissa Click, was an assistant professor of mass media at the university.
More recently, at Rutgers University, a student group invited British journalist Milo Yiannopoulos to give a talk on free speech, feminism, Trump and race in America among other things. Milo is witty and well-spoken but he is a cultural libertarian, a free speech absolutist and a critic of progressive campus politics, which is not exactly a good mix of views to hold if you come to a university today. It didn’t take very long before the students attending the debate descended into a hollering and screaming mob to try and shut him up. At one point, around 40 or 50 students stood up and smeared fake blood on their faces. Apparently the talk was so upsetting and traumatizing that not only was there a safe space made available for students but a meeting was actually organized the day after to discuss the emotional impact that the speech had on student well-being.
According to The Daily Targum, Rutger’s student newspaper, “Representatives from the Rutgers University Police Department, the Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance, Counseling, Alcohol and other Drug Assistance Program and Psychiatric Services and the Bias Prevention and Education Committee were present. Members from the Black Student Union, the Asian American Cultural Center, Center for Latino Arts and Culture, College Student Affairs and many more were also in attendance.”
“Students and community members participated by sharing their personal experiences from the event and by looking for resolutions. Questions regarding the legal aspects of holding a protest and what actions the administration would take were asked.” What is fascinating about this trigger warning and safe space culture is that the students and faculty who claim that a particular speaker is dangerous or threatening are quite often the only people in the room who are actually dangerous and threatening.
If the speaker voices an opinion or point of view that criticizes their prejudices and dogmas, if they present facts or studies that contradict what they’ve been taught in the classroom, rather than debate the speaker or challenge his or her views, they close ranks and form a mob. One student who attended the meeting after the Rutgers talk told the Targum that “It is upsetting that my mental health is not cared about by the University.” “I do not know what else to do for us to be heard for us to be cared about. I deserve an apology, everyone in this room deserves an apology,” the student said.
I should note that the above samples are only some of the more extreme examples one can cite. Although there are many more like them, what often happens is more subtle. A student can complain that a particular word upsets them and request it banned from the classroom as happened last December to Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk. Below this is self-censorship and the fear that an unwelcome thought or idea could very well end up with you facing down a mob and accusations that you are a danger to the security and safety of the campus.
What are we to make of this Orwellian situation? Is there anything we can do as students to challenge and resist this creeping authoritarianism that is reshaping the very purpose of the Western university? While I’m skeptical that the situation will change, we can at least start by admitting that our campuses are a dearth of intellectual diversity. It is virtually non-existent. And to the extent that intellectual diversity is tolerated at all, it is on the margins. But the texts and professorial opinions one encounters are from an extremely narrow and select vision of the progressive left.
We have to challenge this if the university is to be protected as a public forum for free-thinking and unfettered investigation. It is not a ‘home’ for the far-left or any other self-righteous worldview. It is a space to pursue knowledge and to pursue the truth. The fact that we are in a situation where the modern campus is little more than a factory for spitting out like-minded people is lamentable to put it politely.
The concepts of “safe space” and “trigger warning” are nothing more than intellectual devices to regulate and control thought. There is nothing inherently safe about safe spaces. In fact they are precisely the opposite of safe. If you can’t explain or justify your beliefs, if you can’t understand why someone thinks differently than you, if all you know is that no one has the right to question or “invalidate” your experiences or your deeply held beliefs, you are thoroughly unprepared for the outside world.
However, the fact that universities are infantilizing students and creating an anti-liberal environment isn’t my main objection. It is the fact that I can say with a reasonable degree of objective certainty that the university is not a space where can listen or speak their mind freely. It is a space for “correcting” opinions and regulating thought; to ensure that people have the “right” and “correct” attitudes towards state and society. In this stifling authoritarian environment the university is destroying the very foundations of not only intellectual and academic freedom but the freedom of students to study, discuss and debate whatever they wish.