Photo By Aaron Hawkins via Flickr
College and university campuses are typically considered more liberal environments due to an emphasis on free expression and a tendency to approach the freshest concepts in any field. Their curriculum is frequently and rightfully designed to challenge any student’s existing belief system with the most pressing, provocative issues of the day. The objective? To create more evolved, worldly, educated adults. For these reasons, college cultures also serve as a hotbed for intellectual debate, political protest, and social advocacy. This can become the greatest benefit or bane of a college student’s experience depending on how receptive they are to having their assumptions challenged.
Unfortunately, many college campuses have begun to morph into something more akin to a kindergarten classroom. Now, when differing ideas or stances are presented, some students are not only refusing to hear them but are also seeking to restrict these “offensive” ideas from ever being expressed. When they are not actively fighting the first amendment, students are retreating into “safe spaces.” These safe spaces can be a lecture hall where certain statements invite censure or they may even take the form of a separate room filled with stress relieving items such as Play-Doh, coloring books, and blankets intended to comfort those students who are disturbed by opposing viewpoints. Trends like these threaten our prospects of becoming well educated, well-adjusted adults because, and any grown-up can attest, the real world is not always a comfortable, compassionate place. Though this newest manifestation of the politically correct movement has helped students avoid that fact, it’s done little to change it.
The mounting trend of trepidation towards unpopular views can be attributed to a number of factors. One is the rise of political correctness. If you spend any amount of time on social media or the internet in general, you know the demand for inoffensive speech is pervasive and formidable. Any perceived insensitivity towards other races, religions, genders will typically yield a firestorm of online shaming. Even when posted words or pictures are factually proven to have been misconstrued or misinterpreted, the barrage of insults often continues as if the wave of judgment has become a force too great to be slowed down by any glimmer of logic. College campuses have begun to reflect this tendency. In both environments, one must choose their words carefully and seriously. So, it’s no surprise the art of humor has suffered immeasurably. Comedy is essentially irreverent and many comedians have opted out of college venues because they are sick of being plagued with the obtuse, careless accusations of racism, sexism, classism and all the other “isms” that have reached epidemic proportions in college culture these days. In its most basic form, comedy has always been about social observation and criticism. No matter the joke, someone is likely to get offended in some way, and that might very well be the point.
The desire to encourage others to respect the values and experiences of others is an admirable one. However, our growing failure to consider tone and intention or show any respect for freedom of speech is problematic. The radical minority leading this charge is hamhandedly doling out death sentences to free expression with the infantile claim that a single word can irreversibly traumatize a human being forever. Teaching children to refrain from hurtful words on the playground is appropriate, but as adults, we should be ready and able handle a little more criticism and controversy.
Micro-aggression is another concept that can be factored into this ideological shift in college environments. This is a categorization for particular words and phrases that may be uttered with no ill intent while conveying derogatory associations or connotations to certain groups. I can agree with the general goal of avoiding inherently offensive statements…to an extent. There are a plethora of words or statements that have such a brutal history behind them that we should arguably avoid them altogether, like using the word “gay” as an insult or saying the N-word in any context. However, the guidelines for what constitutes offensive language is becoming so broad and blurred that few of us can really distinguish what is and what isn’t insulting to someone somewhere. More and more, widely used sayings are being added to the list of microaggressions, and even if you want to be respectful, it’s tough to keep up. Telling someone to “man-up” may just be intended to mean “grow up,” but now we might be called out for implying that only men can be tough. Common fact-seeking questions have been similarly branded, including “Where were you born?” or “Do you speak another language?” We might ask out of curiosity not malice, but the interpretation can drastically differ from the intention.
At least colleges haven’t lost their fondness for protest, though at times I wish they had. An increasing number of those protests have failed to offer any semblance of rationality or admirability, especially when compared to the historic demonstrations they appear to be emulating. The sit-in that once promoted equal rights for Americans is now being used change the name of a building because it includes the word “lynch” even though it was named after an esteemed philanthropist who can’t help the fact that he was named Clyde Lynch. The absurdity doesn’t end there. Individuals may also be targeted. In 2008 at Indiana University a white student was charged with racial harassment for reading the book Notre Dame vs. the Klan that featured a photograph of the Klu Klux Clan on the cover even though the author explicitly deplored the white supremacy movement. Art won’t escape the wrath of activists either. At the prestigious Wellesley College protestors demanded that a statue of a sleepwalking man be removed as its partial nudity could “trigger memories of sexual assault for victims.” With all due respect to sexual assault victims, if post-traumatic stress symptoms are provoked by something as benign as a sculpture of a man wearing underwear, you need to pursue therapy, not a wrecking ball.
Activists of this ilk also seek to impede or alter conversations and events they deem “triggering.” At Brown University, a forum was scheduled to debate the theory of “rape culture,” which proposes that society normalizes and condones sexual abuse. After receiving criticism, the administration set up a competing event that would present the ways in which culture is complicit in sexual assault. Senior Kathie Bryon, a member of the school’s Sexual Assault Task Force, also set up an aforementioned “safe space” replete with soothing toys, blankets and puppy videos in case those who attended the debate found it too upsetting. Byron stated that debate participants may potentially contest that society condones sexual violence and that could, in turn, “invalidate people’s experiences” and could be “damaging.”
But therein lies the problem. As compassionate as gestures like this may seem, they undermine the essential purpose of an educational environment by sending the message that there is something virulent in opposing viewpoints. Yet, theories need to be challenged so they can be refined or discarded. Discovering that a belief is unfounded or flawed is better than living in ignorance. In other cases, interrogating an idea may validate your opinion. That’s why we debate, why we argue. If you can defend your opinion whole heartily after it’s subjected to scrutiny, then you know it’s truly worth defending. No argument has ever been won and no society has ever progressed by refusing to ask or answer difficult questions.
Conflict is a staple of life. Exploring our varied perceptions of the world is often contentious, but necessary. We need to understand that, especially during the transitional period between childhood and adulthood. The world isn’t always a beautiful, pleasant place. In fact, it can be downright brutal. Though retreating into our brightly-colored forts is comforting, it’s simply not conducive to becoming an informed adult or changing hard realities for the better. If we really want to create safer spaces, we may just have to venture back out of our shelters and confront some ugly truths.