How Making Colleges 'Safe Spaces' Makes Us All Less Safe
What happens when students and faculty don't face intellectual discomfort?
Posted November 17, 2015
"In an age of sound bites and indignation, college is for those who are brave enough to put at risk what they think they know in recognition of the responsibility we have to one another and to those still to come."
Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, President of Amherst College
In a 2013 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Walter M. Kinbrough, President of Dillard University, recalls, “Several years ago David Hodge, president of Miami University, described the campus as a place where intellectual collisions can occur. That's our purpose! Colleges are places where students learn and grow through intellectual collisions in and out of class, with professors, staff, and peers...”
Lawyer and Author Greg Lukianoff and Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, authors of the article, The Coddling of the American Mind, might not recognize that description of the U.S. college campus. According to their article, college students across the country seem to be engaged in an effort to avoid intellectual collisions and rid their campuses of “words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”
Only a few weeks after the publication of that article, students at Yale University erupted in a yet another proof of the article’s thesis. Lecturer Erika Christakis, whose research is generally concerned with “the things that shape young lives,” and how we “balance collective and individual responsibilities,” proposed in an email that rather than the University dictating what students could and could not wear for Halloween, she and her husband thought the students themselves might take responsibility for their Halloween costume choices, and if offended by others’ choices, take the opportunity to (wait for it…) “talk to each other.”
“Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense,” she contended, “are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
Across the country, college students’ behavior and the administrative response, however, appear to signal that campuses today are moving away from being exemplars of “a free and open society.” As Lukianoff and Haidt report, on some campuses, professors are expected to issue trigger warnings; “alerts [that] something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.”
The apparent goal is for college campuses to be “safe spaces” in which literature, ideas and words (and now Halloween costumes) that make some students uncomfortable are simply not allowed to exist. Anyone who (even accidentally) pollutes this safe space is dealt with swiftly and severely, resulting in a chilling effect on speech for students, faculty, and administrators. Lukianoff and Haidt call this vindictive protectiveness. It creates a culture in which everyone must think the same—or at least “think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”
In response to Erika Christakis’s “offensive” email, Yale students descended upon her husband, Nicholas Christakis, Master of Silliman College, commanding him to apologize and meet their demands, punctuating each student’s monologue with a round of snapping, as if participating in a poetry performance (or perhaps out of concern that applause might trigger anxiety).
Christakis, committed to listening to and reflecting upon the students’ views and articulating his own, offered them a thoughtful conversation. The students, however, rejected civil discourse as a substitute for their demands, and refused to participate; one student telling others to, “walk away, he doesn’t deserve to be listened to,” and another insisting that he, “be quiet!” She then shrieked, “It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students!” When Christakis disagreed with that job description, the student exploded in a rage of F-bombs, finally demanding, “you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that?” She put the final flourish on her soliloquy with, “You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!”
The pseudonymous professor who authored the Vox.com piece, I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me, laments in his article the shift from the ethos a few years ago when typical complaints (presumably characteristically coming from politically right-of-center students) resulted in, “... nothing. It disappeared forever; no one cared about it beyond their contractual duties to document student concerns.” In his own case, when a student filed a complaint alleging the liberal professor imposed his “communistical [sic] sympathies” on the class, the administrator in charge of the complaint rolled her eyes. “She knew the complaint was silly bullshit,” the liberal professor says. Fast-forward to today when (even) liberal students are intolerant of ideas they don’t like and words that upset them, and now have, as the liberal professor describes, “the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher's formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.”
What Brought Us Here?
Bewildered and beleaguered liberal professors don’t recognize that they might be eating some of their own cooking. Just ask Yoel Inbar from the University of Toronto and Joris Lammers from Cologne University, scholars who had the courage to examine just how tolerant social psychologists are toward professors who do not share their liberal political views.
The idea for their study was sparked when Jonathan Haidt accused his colleagues of creating a tribal moral community in which, “we have sacred values other than truth, we have taboos that constrain our thinking; we have almost no moral/political diversity; and we have created a hostile climate for [people] who don’t share those sacred values,” even arguing that the lack of political and ideological diversity among social psychologists (at what some estimate to be roughly 14 Liberals to 1 Conservative, versus a national ratio of roughly 1.5 Conservatives to each Liberal) constituted evidence of either overt discrimination or a hostile climate, or both.
Inbar and Lammers set out to discover whether Haidt was right. They surveyed the members of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, asking them how they identified politically, whether they believed there to be a hostile climate toward conservative thinkers, and how willing they were to discriminate against scholars who did not share their political views. As Haidt predicted, Inbar and Lammers found that conservative psychologists believed a hostile climate existed, and the more conservative the scholars reported themselves to be, the more they had personally experienced a hostile climate. The more liberal they were, on the other hand, the less they believed a hostile climate existed, many believing that conservatives just don't go into social science because their views are fundamentally incompatible with the kind of thinking necessary to do social science, or that once one becomes a social scientist, one would inevitably become a liberal. “I don't think it is necessarily the case that our field makes it difficult to be conservative because of a bias,” one respondent suggested, “but our field makes it difficult to be conservative because of the evidence that our field provides.”
Despite their disbelief that conservatives faced a hostile climate, many politically liberal respondents admitted that they did not want to work with conservative scholars, and would actively discriminate against their conservative colleagues. In fact, “the more liberal respondents were, the more they said they would discriminate.” And these professors were most willing to discriminate for the purpose of ensuring that politically conservative professors were not hired in their departments.
The lack of awareness of their own unjust discrimination is evident in the unapologetic justifications liberal psychologists offered Inbar and Lammers for their self-reported unwillingness to include conservative scholars as their colleagues. Below are just a few representative comments:
“… in hiring decisions, all else being equal, you would want a colleague who could fit well into the culture of the department. Certainly, it doesn't make a lot of sense to hire someone - again, all else being equal - who had beliefs and opinions that were contrary to the culture of the department.”
“…if I have to interact with a faculty member, socially and academically, I would choose someone who is more like myself…”
“My main concern with a conservative social psychologist is whether or not they believe evidence.”
“…being a conservative in social psychology often means being scientifically wrong about a number of things.”
“I don't consider my critical attitude toward conservative political beliefs to be an inappropriate political bias, because in many cases those beliefs are predicated on demonstrably wrong propositions… and I don't think there's anything wrong with taking an aggressive partisan stance…”
“… if you are female or gay or smoke pot, it is impossible to feel fully safe around social conservatives. You are in danger around them. So of course you would prefer the more liberal candidate.”
“I don't see how a department of Psychology could accommodate such a viewpoint (if it was openly expressed)… We are very forgiving and accommodating in a way that the conservatives (at least in the U.S.) tend not to be.”
I must admit that I had to re-read some of the statements a few times before I recognized the outright prejudice and unwillingness to tolerate different views—because I share some of the same biases. As one respondent offered, “it's harder to introspect and investigate our own biases.” (This was followed by, “Would I vote against having a colleague who rejects same-sex marriage and a woman's right to choose? You bet.”) Vindictive protectiveness begins at home, it seems. Liberal social psychologists ensure their conservative colleagues, if hired, think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.
Homogeneity breeds extremism, intolerance, and the certainty of the validity of one's positions. Perhaps it should be unsurprising then, that without conservative colleagues, liberal professors are, themselves, unwilling to consider (or even contend with) views that fundamentally contradict their own. This might explain at least some of students' unwillingness to do the same.
As a result of the ideologically inbred culture in which both students and faculty either fail to see or simply defend their own prejudices and intolerance, they feel justified in rejecting as campus speakers eminent figures such as Condoleeza Rice, the first black female secretary of state, and Christine Lagarde, the first woman to become head of the International Monetary Fund (and the first woman to become finance minister of a G8 economy) merely because they do not share their political perspectives. As dissenting voices on college campuses are silenced, it seems the tests for ideological correctness are pushed perpetually farther to the left.
The problem free speech advocates foresee from the implementation of trigger warnings is likely to result, too, from political and ideological homogeneity: Higher education is made emotionally safer by being less intellectually dangerous. Yet, it is exactly through risking what we think we know by scrutinizing our taken for granted assumptions, evaluating our received knowledge, and questioning our unexamined beliefs, that we ourselves become less dangerous. And we—students, faculty, and citizens in a pluralistic, free and open society—are unable to do that kind of critical thinking and self-examination without the intellectual collision provided by thinking partners whose views differ from our own.
Reimagining Pastor Martin Niemöller’s troubling passage:
First they refused to hire Pro-Life faculty, and I did not speak out
Because I was not Pro-Life.
Then they refused to hire Conservatives, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Conservative.
Then they came for the Moderates, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Moderate.
Then they came for the faculty who upset the students, and I did not speak out
Because I did not upset them.
Then they came for me
And there was no one left to speak for me.
And no one had taught the students how to live in a free and open society with people who disagree with them.
Philosopher, Jacques Maritain, writing in 1957, warned, “The problem of truth and human fellowship is… particularly important for this country, where men and women coming from a great diversity of national stocks and religious or philosophical creeds have to live together. If each one of them endeavored to impose his own convictions and the truth in which he believes on all his co-citizens, would not living together become impossible?”
“There is real and genuine tolerance,” Maritain claimed, “only when a man is firmly and absolutely convinced of a truth, or of what he holds to be a truth, and when he at the same time recognizes the right of those who deny this truth to exist, and to contradict him, and to speak their own mind, not because they are free from truth but because they seek truth in their own way, and because he respects in them human nature and human dignity…”
Where Do We Go From Here?
A week after Halloween, Yale students protested a forum on free speech at which Nicholas Christakis welcomed Greg Lukianoff. (Yes, Yale students protested a forum on free speech.) What followed, as reported in the Washington Post, “would seem to confirm much of Lukianoff and Haidt’s thesis.”
Tensions escalated, and according to the Yale Daily News, protestors spat on several attendees as they left. One attendee who was spat on reported that he was called a racist. Another attendee, a minority student, reported that several fellow minority students have labeled him a “traitor.” Both students wish to remain anonymous, fearing “backlash” from speaking out.
Remarkably, it is in this environment in which Erika and Nicholas Christakis had the courage to imagine that Yale students can learn to face and eventually embrace the discomfort of interacting with people whose ideas and views are so different from their own as to be upsetting or even offensive, and through these experiences, perhaps not only learn to handle themselves with dignity and grace, but make their world a better place—not by censoring, but by listening; not by shouting, but by speaking with civility; and not by labeling people, or dismissing them, or reviling them, but by treating them with dignity and an understanding of our shared humanity. It is heartening to know that the Christakises are educating some of the brightest (if not yet quite mature) young minds in the country.
The promise of a liberal arts education is to provide challenging, unpredictable, and even uncomfortable intellectual and interpersonal encounters in order to produce the capacity for critical thinking, open-mindedness, and critical self-examination in graduates who are less dogmatic and prejudiced than when they arrived; more conscious of and able to transcend their biases and in-group identifications; more capable of dealing with complexity, diversity, and change; better equipped to relate with compassion to people from a diverse spectrum of viewpoints and backgrounds; and more able to accept responsibility for the practical and ethical consequences of their ideas, words, and actions. Rather than being intellectually safe spaces in which all offense is banned, liberal arts colleges could be spaces in which it is safe for students and faculty to contend with, consider, and engage with people and ideas with whom they fundamentally disagree. This is the kind of education that sustains a free and open society and allows us to embrace the full breadth of our human family.
When higher education becomes more intellectually “safe,” the world becomes a more dangerous place.