A friend of ours who studied philosophy at a top university once told us an amusing anecdote. Prefacing a course on classical philosophy, the professor explained that he would not be reading the ancient philosophers through the lens of modern values and so, for example, would not impose on them gender-neutral pronouns and would not censor any perceived “misogynistic” or “bigoted” language. This didn’t sit well with some of the students, who rudely began to protest in the lecture, shocked at the professor’s insensitivity. In response, they were told they could leave. Some left. A short time later, the professor sent an email to those who left letting them know that they would be failed.
For those of us who fear that academia is trending evermore towards the infantilization of students by insisting on accommodating all manner of emotional, fetishistic fragilities, the anecdote inspires in us a strong sense of solidarity with the professor, and perhaps a stronger sense of schadenfreude for the students. The professor understood that the university is no place for those who insist on such benighted anachronisms, speech codes, trigger warnings, or safe spaces.
Or, at least, it wasn’t. The original purpose of the university was to seek and explore truth, a purpose that is at odds with speech codes, trigger warnings, and safe spaces. One important way of pursuing truth is to engage in critical dialogue. Ancient philosophers mastered this through what has come to be known as the elenctic method. This simply cannot be done when students are encouraged to take offense at, conditioned to feel “hurt” by, and protected from, opposing ideas. Despite the protestations of some feminists and other limp-wristed philosophers who confuse being combative with being rude, critical philosophical dialogue is and should be at least to some degree inherently antagonistic, and so is, as a consequence, also inherently antagonistic to speech codes, trigger warnings, and safe spaces. Let us explain.
Consider safe spaces. These are designated areas on university campuses where certain views—invariably leftist views—are not allowed to be questioned. Brown University, for instance, set up a safe space complete with coloring books, cookies, various soft fuzzy things, and a video of frolicking puppies where students could take cover from a debate about “rape culture” being held nearby on campus. And as “free speech zones”—which used to be all of America, especially university campuses—shrink to the size of dimly lit corners of unoccupied halls on campus, the “safe spaces” expand to fill the void left by them. In 2014 a group of 300 leftist agitators shut down a debate on abortion at the University of Oxford, partly on the grounds that the issue is no longer up for debate, but also because the two scheduled debaters were men (as if not having a uterus disqualifies one from debating the issue). On that day, the whole Oxford campus became a very safe space for the leftist agitators who couldn’t tolerate disagreement. Pushed to the margins, however, were Oxford Students for Life, who invited someone with whom they disagreed to dialogue in good elenctic fashion. If there is a case where conservative students have shut down an event organized by leftists, we are unaware of it. But there is no shortage of other examples where leftists hijack events organized by conservatives. On one occasion, the leftist bullies went so far as to pull a fire alarm to prevent conservative speaker Ben Shapiro from giving a lecture (so much for the “You can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater” argument for restricting free speech…).
As the above examples illustrate, leftists promote safe spaces not because they want protection for the weak and offended. Anyone who is so weak that they can’t attend a challenging event without getting hysterical can simply refrain from attending. Their dorm rooms are safe enough. They want safe spaces because they want protection from debating their ideas. This is why what they really want is for the whole university to become a safe space, which would conveniently allow only leftist thought to flourish.
Now consider trigger warnings. Some philosophers defend the use of trigger warnings by clarifying exactly what a trigger warning is supposed to do. Trigger warnings, such people argue, don’t stifle critical dialogue, but enhance it by giving participants for adequate preparation. They also suggest that “content that is ‘merely offensive to certain people’s political or religious sensibilities’ does not warrant a trigger warning.” Fair enough. It is possible to give a defense of trigger warnings that isn’t insane. But whether a palatable defense of trigger warnings can be given is, we submit, not relevant. What’s relevant is how trigger warnings are being used here and now and what their effects are on student bodies. We live in a culture where offense-taking has become a sport, with people competing with each other for the prize money and glory that will be rewarded to who is most offended. And in this sport, getting offended by even classic works of art by white males is fair game.
In the light of this circus, it’s perfectly understandable why the University of Chicago announced to incoming students that “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” have no place there. It does not want to degenerate into another intellectually stifling hotbed of political correctness that once venerable institutions like Yale and the University of Missouri now are. Give these untutored yet entitled students an inch in form of speech codes, trigger warnings, and safe spaces, and they will take the whole mile of the university, gleefully dumping its original purpose of pursuing truth along the way. Universities have a duty to their students—as well as to their faculty—to uphold that original purpose, because that purpose is worth protecting more than students’ feelings.
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