In her latest op-ed in the New York Times, Judith Shulevitz identifies a recent trend in colleges towards sanitizing intellectual spaces (or as she more bluntly puts it, “hiding from scary ideas”). Shulevitz is one in a rising number of voices fighting back against what they perceive to be the excessive political correctness that has the university and, more broadly, spaces for thought. The pushback can range from articles such as hers to snarky inquiries as to whether one’s actions constituted a “microaggression,” but whatever the form of critique, the message rings clear — all those who talk about things like safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggressions are clearly much too sensitive for their own good, and perhaps they’re not quite ready for the real world but would they be so kind as to not ruin it for everyone else?
To be fair, the criticism is not invalid. If the charge is that the push for policing languages and spaces is reactionary, this cannot be denied. Is it unsustainable? Like most reactionary things, almost certainly. The problem is that pointing this out is missing the point almost entirely. While it must feel quite satisfying to scoff at a bunch of students while proclaiming that the past generations were made of hardier stuff, little else is accomplished with this line of inquiry. Instead the question we must ask is this: what are students reacting to? Why would people who otherwise would balk at the idea of handing over any kind of control to bureaucracy feel compelled to involve them here?
Often, a roll call is carried out of elite schools supposedly “indulging” this sort of behavior — Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, etc., implicitly despairing at what has become of these excellent institutions. However, if we are being fair, what those names should really tell us is that these are students who are undoubtedly intelligent enough to recognize the contradictions in their principles and the severe consequences that their demands entail. And yet they persist — unless we are comfortable declaring the generation mad, we should consider more likely explanation — they are choosing this imperfect, reactionary stance because the alternative is worse.
This would seem impossible the way Shulevitz and others frame the situation — in the fight between free speech, the necessary condition for the flourishing of thought, and censorship, how can the latter ever be preferable? The problem is, free speech is not quite available to us the way it is made out to be. True free speech would mean that everyone had an equal opportunity to express themselves without fear or push back, no matter who they were. The reality is that this just isn’t what we have. Women are routinely ignored or spoken over in classroom discussions. Rape victims are often bullied by friends of the assaulter if they dare to speak about their experience. I’ve personally been asked not to comment on a debate because “my country hadn’t won any world wars.” Any situation where someone is judged based on who they are and not what they have to say is not simply a microaggression — it is an assault on free speech.
The truth is, students aren’t scared of the big mean ideas. They’re weary of constantly fighting just to have a level starting point for their own thoughts to be considered from. And while it’s easy to dismiss them as spoiled or attention-seeking and easier to accommodate them with a barely concealed eye-roll, if we really are defenders of free speech, we must carefully consider what it will take to achieve this ideal instead of indulging a misplaced nostalgia for a past that didn’t really have it. Historically, rational discourse was limited to a select few. This doesn’t mean that rational discourse including all is inherently impossible, but rather that if we are to have it, it can’t be by recreating the past. We must go the distance and do whatever it takes to work towards an environment where people aren’t silenced based on who they are. This doesn’t have to mean censorship, but rather a commitment to upholding the basic dignity of those around us.