Safe Spaces and Intellectual Rigor on College Campuses

22 March 2015

In today’s New York Times, Judith Shulevitz wrote an article criticizing “safe spaces” in universities, arguing that they’re too often an excuse to insulate students from ideas they don’t like. If you’re reading this post, you should read Shulevitz’s article first.

I have two main criticisms of the article, and one general point of agreement. Let’s think through the criticisms first.

First, Shulevitz conflates “safe spaces” with “insulation” against potentially upsetting speech. We don’t put trigger warnings on articles because we’re afraid of hurting oversensitive college students, we put trigger warnings on articles when there is a possibility that someone who has experienced sexual assault or other trauma will unexpectedly have to face painful memories.

It’s important to keep these distinct. Students at large may not deserve to be protected from speech they disagree with, but people who have diagnosable psychological trauma in response to certain subjects (often even when those subjects are broached positively) should be warned and given the opportunity to avoid being present. Throughout the article, Shulevitz routinely ignores this distinction. She says that “Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.” I think this is very shortsighted.

In fairness to Shulevitz, she’s not the only person making this mistake. In the article, she quotes Emma Hall (a rape survivor who helped run the safe space at Brown University) as saying “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.” One could argue that Emma Hall is insulating herself from “distressing viewpoints”; even as a survivor, she’s capable of bad motives. Shulevitz’s mistake is to frame all advocates for safe spaces as insulating themselves intellectually, but what they are actually attempting is to protect people psychologically from material to which they are sensitive because of the emotional damage of traumatic events.

My second concern with the article is its mistaking advocacy for safe spaces with complaints about the non-representation of women in debates. It incorrectly characterizes them both as examples of students avoiding intellectual criticism for emotional reasons. In fact, there are very good reasons for worrying about an all-male debate of abortion, distinct from both this tendency and the need to provide safe spaces.

Suppose that a university held a debate on “climate change,” hosting both an expert on climate change from the IPCC and a well-known blogger who doesn’t believe in climate change. Now, it’s likely that many students who care about the environment would disapprove of this debate, and they might even frame it in terms of “mental safety”. But what they’re worried about is not hearing views that oppose their own, it’s a different problem altogether.

The problem with hosting a blogger who doesn’t accept climate change is that the blogger has no relevant scientific credentials. In hosting a debate, the university implicitly indicates that both speakers are relevant experts and should be heard and judged merely on the merits of what they say. Of course this is completely untrue: we have no reason to believe that the blogger is an expert on climate change. We shouldn’t weigh what an expert and non-expert have to say equally.

Furthermore, as non-experts, we’re not fully capable of accurately comparing the two speakers purely on the merits of their words. In practice, coming to accept (or reject) climate change occurs when one learns about climate change. Unless one is capable of weighing the relevant facts, one can only trust experts in the field. This means that the whole idea of a debate is a bit silly, and distracts us from what ultimately determines our beliefs. If the debate is a farce between the uninformed, and the audience is unable to distinguish between the two, there’s good reason to worry that the result is mentally unhealthy.

Now, with abortion, emotions are a key aspect of the problem. It’s not possible to say, externally, exactly what a woman faces when carrying an unwanted potential child. Moreover, it’s impossible to say in general what it’s like to walk around with two X chromosomes when one doesn’t have them. But this makes a debate about abortion between men (however intellectually honest they may be) inherently problematic. They are (in the language of the climate change example) not experts in a central aspect of the “debate” on abortion. However empathetic they may be, some emotions are sui generis and male debaters are not qualified to speak about them.

There is a legitimate worry, therefore, that a debate about abortion between two men is a farce. We have reason to fear that an audience will be swayed by non-factual elements of the debate, rather than by certain relevant facts that the speakers don’t themselves know.

I could take the time to complain about several similar examples in the article (the dismissal of Muslim concerns about Charlie Hebdo comes to mind), but I will leave that out of this post. Also, I should preface the succeeding thoughts with the note that I’m white with a Y chromosome, and have never experienced prejudice against either. Thus, it’s possible that I am currently blind to areas in which some people legitimately need to be protected from certain words or modes of discourse.

I think that Shulevitz is right to worry about over-sensitivity, and she accurately pegs college as a time when we should especially be challenged by ideas that upset us. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a debate between Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy (and it’s rather funny to suggest that Valenti — a feminist herself — would be part of something problematic). Likewise, it seems nonsensical to suggest that we censor Huckleberry Finn. Students don’t deserve protection from words or ideas, and in fact “protecting them” actually hurts their development.

Universities have long been the places where young people can develop in an open, intelligent, and rigorous environment. I agree with Shulevitz that it’s very important to protect this environment from political correctness and “self-infantilization”. However, in doing so, it’s crucial that we actually be rigorous; when talking about contentious issues, we need to ensure that the speakers are relevant experts. Likewise, to keep debate open, we need to make sure that everyone, especially those with direct experience, are welcome. If that means speaking more kindly — or even creating explicitly “unsafe” spaces when necessary — so be it.

Contentment and Systematic Oppression

19 January 2015

A recent article posted on, the official site of John Piper’s ministry, purported to give a Christian response to racism in the United States on the occasion of Martin Luther King day. The post summarized four things the author wished his son to remember as a black man in the United States. As it turns out, none of them were particularly Christian.

I’ll respond to each of the points in turn.

Repent or perish

In this section, the author argues that the black response to racial violence should be one of repentance and examination of their wrongdoings. This supposedly follows from Luke 13:1-3.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Of course, the purpose of the statement is revealed in the words “do you think…?” Jesus does not tell them to abandon grief and anger felt on behalf of others to consider their own lot. Actually, there’s no evidence his Galilean subjects felt any grief or anger. Rather, they were using the suffering of others to claim that they were morally better. It’s this self-righteous tendency that Jesus condemns.

If the black community’s response to racism involved inner division and taunting of those most affected, applying Jesus’s words might be reasonable. However, the exact opposite is the case. The black response to racism has largely been outrage, and rightly so. Jesus’s words should be reserved for those who use the tragedies of others to condemn.

From the article:

When black people like us are murdered because of racism, it should humble us to examine ourselves, to remember that we deserve wrath at the hands of the thrice hold [sic?] God.

Too much has already been said about the coldhearted, unempathetic response of evangelicals to suffering for me to do more than note its presence here, and unhappily move on. I would have skipped it entirely, but the words “we deserve wrath at the hands of … God” deserves special notice and condemnation.

I think it reveals a particularly nasty theology to attribute “wrath” (in the sense the evangelicals mean it) to God. This problem is close to the heart of their empathy problem: if God himself wants these people to suffer a million times worse than they are suffering now, who am I to alleviate their suffering or seek to right injustice? I have written much elsewhere about this, and so I will drop it here to avoid the deep theological water that laps at my toes.

Your identity is found in Christ

Here, the author appears to be condemning using a person’s color as an identity, as opposed to the Christian / non-Christian distinction. Here we must watch for a subtle push against “black identity”. It’s important to realize that the privileged white hand that classes all people of color together may be arbitrary, but it is powerful regardless. Because black people are oppressed as a group, it is important that they be able to respond as a group.

Similarly, gay people frequently “identify” very strongly as gay because they as a group are oppressed. It’s important that they be able to fight for their rights, and to take pride in their identity, simply because many believe that being gay should be shamed.

That’s why we recognize Black History Month — not because black people are better than white people and deserve their own month, but because by default the other eleven months of the year are all too often White History month.

God is sovereign

Again, not too much to say here. It’s the usual evangelical response to the classic dilemma between God’s omniscience, sovereignty, and goodness. I don’t think it’s logically consistent — at all.

I do want to highlight several sentences in particular:

We don’t question God’s sovereign acts, we trust him and his promises. We know he is involved in the details for the good of his people.

How can a view like this lead to anything other than complacence in the face of violence and oppression? The author may claim (in the very next paragraph, no less) that it does not, but I can’t see why. If, furthermore, the author really believes that the “deaths of countless young unarmed black men” is one of “God’s sovereign acts”, then he has made God the author of evil.

Believe and say “Good is the hand of the Lord”

Here again the author advocates “contentment” in the face of injustice. What problem is that supposed to solve? He quotes Jeremiah Burroughs:

“To acknowledge that it is just that I am afflicted is possible in one who is truly contented. I may be convinced that God deals justly in this matter, He is righteous and just and it is right that I should submit to what He has done.”

What nonsense. In the very last paragraph of the preceding section, the author has already emphasized the importance of fighting injustice. And yet here he says, in the name of contentment, that the affliction is “just.” Which is it? And how are oppressed groups to respond to their oppression?

As MLK himself would have said, non-violence and inaction are very difference things. Responding with anger to injustice is right. It is not the place of those who are not oppressed to reject that anger and demand that they be content.

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