In 2016, the University of Chicago’s welcome letter to the incoming freshman class of 2020 informed students that it would not support “trigger warnings” or a culture of safe spaces. The Dean of Students John Ellison declared that at the academic institution “…we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."
Both Dean Ellison and the University of Chicago are brazenly at odds with many of this country’s institutions of higher education. At The Quintessential Centrist, we believe that they are correct.
Safe spaces are an outgrowth of both the feminist and LGBTQ movements as they provided a forum for those who felt marginalized from the norms of society. The idea was to be able to speak freely and communicate effectively without suffering vilification. Unfortunately, what was intended to create a protective environment has permeated the intellectual sphere to the point where, at best, divergence of opinion is stifled and freedom of thought is met with vindictive backlash.
Conservatives are now clamoring for the same, not least because they feel increasingly isolated and are now pushing for a safe space culture where they, too, can freely express their views without risking character assassination. This is an absurd and short-sighted response. An article published in New York Magazine on January, 5 2019 delved further into this issue. The journalist cited a work from National Affairs where arguments were presented by Frederick M. Hess and Brendan Bell from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. The two scholars asserted that conservatives needed "an ivory tower of our own,” which is clearly a politically loaded turn of phrase. The insinuation is that safe spaces created by liberals are tantamount to creating idyllic and unrealistic isolation from the real world while also imposing intellectual restrictions of alternative points of view. While Hess and Bell are correct in referring to safe spaces as an “ivory tower,” fighting fire with fire won’t put out the flames of dissent.
The Quintessential Centrist rejects the concept of liberal or conservative-driven safe spaces. In our view, it defeats the notion of what free speech is intended to promote and implies that civil discourse, irrespective of political leanings, is a fundamentally unviable concept in America, a nation founded in-part on its differences. The immigrants who have made up this nation represent every race, religion and creed. Many, starting with the Pilgrims, came to this country to escape oppression -- be it of thought, religion, political leanings, gender bias, or homophobia. Interestingly, this chasm between the left and the right has been growing fervently since even before the election of President Donald Trump.
The “safe space” concept commenced its hey day in the late 1980s/early 1990s as a response to homophobia and other forms of bigotry and coincided with the political correctness movement. It has achieved some landmark victories and done much good in helping advocate for a greater understanding and appreciation of transgender people and other marginalized citizens, pushed for the legalization of gay marriage and was instrumental in securing equal opportunity employment laws. Unfortunately, the combination of the two has also succeeded in a soft censorship of intellectual thinking not aligned with far left leaning views. Furthermore, their often bombastic and bitter reaction renders the “safe space” seeking left as much as a danger to our democracy as the extreme right.
Our elite universities set the stage for this debate not by creating the safe spaces but by leaving them untethered and without restraint. Almost any point of controversy that has been mildly upsetting to the student body has been swept under the proverbial rug as if it did not exist. Indeed, British actor and author Stephen Fry has referred to this as feeding “deep infantilism.” And indeed, the set up of some of these safe spaces are more fitting of a toddler than an eighteen year old. For example, in response to worries about a campus debate between a feminist and libertarian on college rape culture, Brown University set up a safe space equipped with play doh, cookies, coloring books, soothing music, and comfortable bed linens; the idea was to offer protection from an exchange where a potentially odious libertarian view could be upsetting. Put simply, only one side of the debate was palatable. In 2018, Brown created a program catering to safe spaces for men that are not physical spaces but a forum for men titled “Unlearning Toxic Masculinity.” The idea behind these workshops is to persuade men to unlearn traditional male behavior. This is a clear case where somehow gender fluidity has entered the safe space realm. A therapist would likely be more effective.
In an article for The Washington Post, Brown President Christina Paxson articulately attempted to rationalize safe spaces asserting that the term is "used in so many different ways that it is impossible to discuss it without being precise about its meaning.” While in this context Paxson acknowledged that safe spaces were an outgrowth of the feminist and later LBGTQ movement, she attributed to it a catch all concept where the definition is amorphous and subject to socially convenient changes. In the same article, Ms. Paxson determined that “In the setting of private institutions, this is not a First Amendment issue. Private colleges and universities could restrict the expression of ideas and beliefs within their campuses, if they chose to do so.” She is correct. The 1st Amendment does not apply to private universities and other non governmental entities. Those colleges and universities are within their legal right to restrict what people can say on their campuses. That said, just because a private school is within its legal right restrict certain points of view, it's generally not a wise thing to do. And while Paxton argues that most academic institutions “choose” not to encumber freedom of speech, she virtually admits it is an option to protect those who consider their lifestyles and beliefs vulnerable. This is dangerous. A catch all definition of safe spaces combined with selective application of the First Amendment effectively allows everyone to be a self-perceived victim and every sensitive point to be given equal weight when, in fact, it should not.
Are we surprised then that many young people are ill-equipped for life after university? Common criticisms of Millennials and post Millennials (Generation Z) are their sense of entitlement, lack of work ethic and obsessive self-indulgence. This author has heard many stories of junior employees expecting lofty job promotions two years out college while colleagues fifteen years their senior - and equally as talented - have had to wait at least a decade for such responsibility. And quite often, there’s the surprised disappointment and “woe is me” mentality when one’s way is not had. We would be remiss to not point out that many young people are extremely diligent, selfless and hard working. But these examples underscore how our elite academic institutions are molly coddling their students. The title for Judith Shulevitz’s op-ed for the New York Times“In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas” perfectly sums it up. This op-ed was penned in 2015 well before President Trump was elected. The author was forward thinking in addressing the danger of ideological divisiveness precipitated by safe spaces. Interestingly, the notion of what defines scary ideas crosses the political spectrum. Academic institutions are the caretakers of ideas and evolution of intellectual thought; they serve as embryos to spawn new philosophies, inventions, medical cures and engineering feats amongst others. They have also become exorbitantly expensive baby sitters. Whether its liberals or conservatives seeking safe spaces, the stagnation if not the regression of ideas is a material threat to the United States remaining united. For without respect for basic democratic tenets with freedom of speech at the top of the list, we may as well resign ourselves to becoming a defunct nation.