Safe spaces and intellectual rigor on college campuses

22 March 2015 · Adam Fontenot

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. 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. But few to no left wing writers have urged us to do so.

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.

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