Space For Every Idea, As Long As It’s Valuable

At the New York Times’ Room for Debate, the issue of free speech on campus is on the docket.

Free speech and the willingness to discuss uncomfortable ideas is under threat on college campuses where “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” are becoming increasingly common. Even President Obama has raised concerns about university students being “coddled and protected from different points of view.” And recently, a provocative essay in a Wesleyan University student newspaper nearly led to the demise of the 150-year-old publication.

What does this say about this generation of young people and what they will become as future leaders of this country?

To their credit, the question raises the big issue, that this isn’t merely about what some children have to say today, but how this will affect things when today’s students become tomorrow’s leaders.

It may be bad that their feelz prevent them from gaining the benefits of an education consisting of ideas other than those already deeply held, but once firmly embedded in their noggin, they will carry them forward to, as recent Brown University graduate Katie Byron explains, create “a more inclusive and just world.”

Promoting a rigorous academic environment does not mean making space for every idea that pops into a student’s head. Academic discussions make space in conversations to hear from people who have valuable knowledge to contribute.

Actually, that’s exactly what a “rigorous academic environment” means.  It means that ideas that Katie doesn’t feel are valuable still get to be heard.  It means that Katie doesn’t dictate which ideas are valuable and which aren’t. It means that every idea that pops into a student’s head has just as much right to be heard as Katie’s.

Safer learning environments ensure that students who have experienced violence are able to contribute without putting their experiences up for debate. More inclusive classrooms raise the level of discourse and nuance in academic conversations by promoting the free speech of student survivors, allowing others to learn from their experiences.

And thus, Katie Byron shifts gears without benefit of segue, to the core principle of her censorship stance: the promotion of “free speech of student survivors” is more worthy than anyone else’s.  At least Katie is forthright in her approach, that she has adopted the basic premise that her flavor of “survivors” is entitled to special protection, and that it must come at the expense of everyone else.

There are those who think calling for safer academic environments is “coddling” or “infantilizing” to students. This view frames student survivors as weak and implies that when they receive support from their community, they are made weaker. Claiming that survivors of sexual violence are overly sensitive is a way of protecting other students from confronting difficult truths about the nature and prevalence of violence on their campuses.

Putting aside the nomenclature of “survivors,” one that rankles anyone for whom definitions matter, Katie is quite right.  This view frames students as weak.  That’s because they are weak. That’s because there are things that happen in life that will be unpleasant, even “triggering” to their fragile psyches, and they don’t get to opt out of life no matter how hard you argue that they are entitled to do so. Nor, truth be told, can they actually buy alternate-viewpoint-canceling headphones.

But back to Katie’s explanation:

Those who want to frame this issue as an attack on free speech on college campuses are ignoring the reality of campus sexual violence. Requests for safe spaces or trigger warnings are not about hiding from ideas but about finding ways to engage without disturbing the people most directly affected. Students are not avoiding or silencing difficult conversations, they’re learning to face them in ways that are both academically rigorous as well as sensitive to the needs of everyone in the room.

Safe spaces and trigger warnings are entirely about hiding from ideas.  Much as your honesty, if not your critical thinking skills, was refreshing before, you’ve now taken a left turn for the worst.  What you’re arguing for is precisely avoiding or silencing difficult conversations.  By elevating the speech of these “student survivors,” you demand that non-conforming speech be silenced.

It’s okay to tell the truth. You believe that some ideas are valuable and other aren’t. They are separated along the lines of the ones with which you agree and the ones with which you don’t.  But silencing ideas you find unpleasant, or in the doublespeak of social justice, “disturbing to those most directly affected,” is precisely what it means to censor expression. Embrace your inner censor.

The other five debaters, including Eugene Volokh, who cites caselaw to make his point that the legal definition of free speech doesn’t prohibit what’s become popularly known on college campuses as “hate speech,” all take the position that campus speech codes are anathema to free speech, to rigorous debate, to the challenges that should be happening in an academic environment.

Even the closest ally to Katie Byron, Smith College president Kathleen McCartney, writes:

Sometimes we are changed by debate; always, we are tested. Other times we are not changed because our opinions reflect a moral certainty on matters of importance to us; our deeply held beliefs are linked with our identities. Still, this does not mean that we cannot disagree openly about any issue, and when we do we must counter argument with more argument. Consensus should not be the goal – even about free speech.

While her final sentence about consensus seems a non-sequitur, perhaps tossed in to soften the blow since it’s one of those words that’s beloved in academia these days, she still doesn’t demand silencing of unpopular views.  Then again, she’s old, unlike Katie Byron, who finishes up with her plans for the future:

Through these discussions, they are becoming a generation of leaders ready to create more inclusive and just world.

These are the words of a tyrant, even if uttered in the deeply held belief that it’s for the good of society.  Meet our future leaders. Just don’t say anything unpleasant about them, for once they are in power, there will be hell to pay.

6 thoughts on “Space For Every Idea, As Long As It’s Valuable

  1. Jim Tyre

    Those headphones are brilliant. I hesitate to mess with perfection, but you might consider swapping the link to them into your click here if this post hurt your feelings button.

  2. Fubar

    Requests for safe spaces or trigger warnings are not about hiding from ideas but about finding ways to engage without disturbing the people most directly affected. Students are not avoiding or silencing difficult conversations, they’re learning to face them in ways that are both academically rigorous as well as sensitive to the needs of everyone in the room.

    Juggalos and Jugalettes have needs that deserve sensitivity too.

    The equations of Maxwell, James Clerk,
    are well known to drive students berserk.
    I need a safe space
    to paint up my face.
    F-ckin’ magnets, so how do they work?

  3. Mort

    These are the words of a tyrant, even if uttered in the deeply held belief that it’s for the good of society. Meet our future leaders. Just don’t say anything unpleasant about them, for once they are in power, there will be hell to pay.

    Reminds me of a C.S. Lewis quote…

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

  4. Maarten

    “Meet our future leaders.”

    Genuine question: do you really believe such intensely fragile people have the capacity to take on a leadership position? And I mean actual, proper leadership positions in government, business and other domains of power. Either these people are going to sort themselves out and move on, or not attain any kind of serious leadership position at all.

    I have a hard time imagining diplomats that have to spend time in a foetal position in a safe space because that Russian negotiator said something mean to them.

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