The New York Times has a series of articles examining the causes of why an entire generation “has become less tolerant of free speech” noting the growing list of subjects or persons that are now banned on campuses to prevent people from freaking out.
High-profile speakers — Christine Lagarde, Condoleezza Rice — have been disinvited from or otherwise pushed out of commencement addresses, thanks to students who didn’t want to hear what they had to say. Comedians have sworn off performing at colleges because they say students can’t take a joke.
Even President Obama has decried illiberal tendencies in liberal arts settings, fretting that college students are “coddled and protected from different points of view.”
These threats to free speech peaked this week at Wesleyan University, a top-flight school in Middletown, Conn., where the student government voted to cut funding for the 150-year-old campus newspaper after it published a conservative op-ed.
In defense of this trend, a recent graduate from Brown explained that certain points of view were intolerable to people and they saw no reason to endure it. Therefore, a rising generation that simply wanted a “more inclusive and just world” has decided to exclude certain people and topics the way filters block unwanted signals.
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. Through these discussions, they are becoming a generation of leaders ready to create more inclusive and just world.
Such “safe spaces” shouldn’t be disparaged as echo chambers she argues, but rather regarded as a form of air conditioning where the mental content can be maintained in a desired state. Surely no one can object to air conditioned rooms? Why not thought conditioned campuses? What they neglect to consider in the argument is the cost of air conditioning. All controlled environments cost money and quit working the moment power goes out.
The safe spaces they crave don’t exist in in the ambient environment. To maintain a “nuclear free” or “gun free” zone someone has to do the distasteful work of maintaining it. Probably some guard, soldier or policeman with a gun. Cafeterias and dorms have to be supplied with meat, fossil fuels and dirty pharmaceuticals; the wrong people have to be shown the door by the academic equivalent of a bouncer. All this takes labor and costs money.
Without constant energy inputs, the safe space would assume the ambient condition of the world. That world can be quite savage and doesn’t come with “trigger warnings”. Consider the sad fate of white, working class Americans now in middle age who are discovering the world they hoped to live in no longer exists. Washington Post writes:
A large segment of white middle-aged Americans has suffered a startling rise in its death rate since 1999, according to a review of statistics published Monday that shows a sharp reversal in decades of progress toward longer lives.
The mortality rate for white men and women ages 45-54 with less than a college education increased markedly between 1999 and 2013, most likely because of problems with legal and illegal drugs, alcohol and suicide, the researchers concluded. Before then, death rates for that group dropped steadily, and at a faster pace.
An increase in the mortality rate for any large demographic group in an advanced nation has been virtually unheard of in recent decades, with the exception of Russian men after the collapse of the Soviet Union. …
“This is the first indicator that the plane has crashed,” said Jonathan Skinner, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College, who reviewed the study and co-authored a commentary that appears with it. “I don’t know what’s going on, but the plane has definitely crashed.
How did they fall to such a low estate?
But why mention them? Like other distasteful subjects the fate of Jack and Dianne’s generation can be filtered out, left at the quadrangle gate with Shakespeare, history, God and other unsavory subjects. No need to notice it or even pick it up, let alone major in the subject.
The danger is that even what they are not taught about can affect them. Perhaps they would prefer a trigger warning to hide this possibility. But millennials obsessed with salving their feelings should remember that the universe as a whole doesn’t give a damn about their feelings and bad things can still occur. Reality routinely runs roughshod over dreams, worlds and generations without so much as a by your leave.
In the past, when schools still regarded it their job to prepare the young for a world of danger and disappointment, mentors were expected to teach their students how to look unflinchingly at the facts. In those days educated men were distinguished by their ability to gaze full upon the truth armed with a free speech, which as Eugene Volokh reminds, opened our eyes to the pleasant and unpleasant alike.
Today, we don’t want to know. We don’t even want to know what we don’t know. In all the wide world the only trigger warning that is forbidden is the one which alerts us to our own ignorance.
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