Saturday, September 10, 2016
Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces
We’ve come a long way in opening up dialogue and controversial exchanges among and within our best colleges and universities. But in recent years, under pressures from diversity activists, representing one constituency with a cultural, racial or ethnic bias, the pendulum has swung strongly in the other direction. Despite the fact that the very foundation of “tenure” was created to preserve the right of controversial professors to speak their mind, regardless of the fact that they may represent positions far from accepted mainstream thinking, classroom speech is now monitored and generally restricted.
At first the pressures were on university endowment investments, causing these funds to be withdrawn from companies that violated generally-accepted values (child labor, smoking, major environmental pollution, out-and-out racial discrimination, etc.). Pressures mounted to have such funds pull back against companies in entire nations, most notably Israel, in defiance to Israeli policies of West Bank settlements and efforts to contain Palestinians within their borders. But at least these efforts did not invade classrooms or campus activities.
But then this university movement spread to banning controversial speakers from being invited on campus. On-campus events were often required to stay clear of controversy. “Diversity” officers at the highest levels of university administration were charged well beyond seeking balance in the admissions process; they were ostensibly in charge of enforcing some notion of campus neutrality within events, clubs and even the classroom.
Building names and symbols of distant past and currently unacceptable values came under intense scrutiny. In some schools, the squeakiest minority wheels actually held greater sway than old-world existing groupings at that university. Strangely, in more than a few such schools, some minorities have taken to harassing students who disagree with them… with no administration reprisals! A double standard? Misplaced overcompensation?
As these trends continued, students developed a notion of a “right not to be offended.” Many schools required professors to avoid controversial literature and historical texts or, where these were allowed, to give students advanced warnings (“trigger warnings”) that some assigned materials might prove offensive to some, who would then be exempt from reading the offending materials. Pejoratives, offensive academic material and even occasional slips of profanity were dutifully reported by “offended” students to the administration, which often warned or disciplined the offending professor. Such infractions could negatively impact promotions for untenured faculty. Censorship and self-censorship have become regular parts of modern American college education. College protests from “offended” students are now routine.
Where the intensity of controversy and debate is too much for some students, some colleges are creating “safe spaces,” where such matters are simply banned. “Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints… [Avoiding controversy is increasingly a college mandate.]
“[Three years ago], a Hampshire College student group disinvited an Afrofunk band that had been attacked on social media for having too many white musicians; the vitriolic discussion had made students feel ‘unsafe.’
“[In the fall of 2014], the president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, apologized for causing students and faculty to be ‘hurt’ when she failed to object to a racial epithet uttered by a fellow panel member at an alumnae event in New York. The offender was the free-speech advocate Wendy Kaminer, who had been arguing against the use of the euphemism ‘the n-word’ when teaching American history or ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’ In the uproar that followed, the Student Government Association wrote a letter declaring that ‘if Smith is unsafe for one student, it is unsafe for all students.’
“‘It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism,’ Ms. Kaminer said in an email.” New York Times (3/21/15)
It’s not that college and universities should be open to ISIS recruiters or that “hate groups” should have open access to campuses. Common sense and physical safety concerns do have a place in all this. But colleges are not high schools. College students are supposed to step into a deeper, interactive and analytical understanding of the world as it actually is or perhaps could be. Controversy is part of life. Understanding those who do not share your political or cultural views is an essential part of this higher educational process. To the extent we suppress or prevent such expressions, we are negating one of the most basic aspects of a university education.
This anti-academic trend has hit a wall in some universities, usually private versus public institutions. The most recent major statement against this notion of a student right “not to be offended” came from one of America’s most prestigious private institutions, the University of Chicago. Their new policies have been welcomed by some and strongly rejected by others. The Economist (August 30th) explains:
“IT IS safe to say that no welcome letter to incoming university students has attracted more attention, or inspired more tweets, than the John Ellison, the dean of students at the University of Chicago has sent to freshmen. After telling the class of 2020 that ‘our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression” is one of the ‘defining characteristics’ of their new academic home, Mr Ellison noted a few things the newbies will not find on campus: ‘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.’ ‘Trigger warnings’ alert students to potentially distressing passages in literature or speeches.
“His comments sparked predictably polarised responses. Many cheered the letter for standing up for cherished academic values. Geoffrey Stone, a law professor who chaired a faculty committee on freedom of expression at the University of Chicago, said ‘we've been deeply committed to the notion that we're here to learn from one another and to learn from the world and to study things and to figure out the answers.’ The best recipe for this inquiry “is to hear all sides of everything.’ The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) praised the letter for ‘push[ing] back against the nationwide trend toward student-led calls for censorship.’
“Some student leaders at the university criticised what they saw as an inhospitable message. They also detected hypocrisy in the statement of principles. ‘The most insidious threat to 'freedom of inquiry and expression' on campus right now is not trigger warnings or safe spaces,’ the student-body president and vice-president wrote, ‘but rather the heavy-handed suppression of free speech and free press by the university administration.’ And reflecting on the influence the dean seemed to be asserting over faculty members’ pedagogical choices, Jeet Heer issued this counter-charge in the : ‘The University of Chicago is attacking academic freedom’ by pressuring professors to keep warnings off their syllabi.” Sigh.
We just have gone too far in over-protecting college students from the reality that they will immediately face when they step into the real world after graduation. Learning only what you agree with and what does not offend you is not education. It’s time for a ground up reexamination of this misplaced notion of a fundamental right in college students “not to be offended.” Aside from the fundamental difficulty in enforcing diversity subjectivity, the entire concept is antithetical to higher learning. To have the best colleges and universities in the world requires an open and free exchange of dialog, especially where there is controversy and divergence in points of view.
I’m Peter Dekom, and unfortunately I am sure this blog will offend a whole pile of people.