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The NYT ran an op-ed over the weekend called “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas.” In essence, it details all the ways that colleges and college students have been contorting their intellectual environments to make their campuses “safe” for people who find offensive ideas to be “dangerous.” To me, it appears painfully obvious that a movement toward letting the most offended members obtain a heckler’s veto on speech is a terrible idea. As the author puts it:
Still, it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals … This new bureaucracy may be exacerbating students’ “self-infantilization[.]”
From my view, you are an adult once you go to college. You may not have the full complement of responsibilities that attend adulthood, but you are a man or a woman, and should start to be integrated into the world as such. This means that you cannot bend the world to your will, and that you accept that some people have ideas that you find offensive. But to equate “offensive” with being “unsafe” — on the grounds that they both make one feel bad — is a dangerous false equivalence.
It offends me when people describe my life as a complete accident of genetics and history in which I have little or no agency; I feel like it undermines important things about who I am. It offends me when people presume things about me because I am a Republican, or a white male; I think it’s unfair that contemporary progressive intellectuals have somehow obtained the power to license what is deemed morally acceptable and what is not. It offends me when people with different ideas about parenting might think I’m doing a bad job with my kids. There are a whole lot of people out there with quite a lot of very strong opinions about what is good and what is damaging for kids, and I am certain that even people close to me will view my decisions askance at times.
But while these ideas might irritate or offend me, they don’t make me feel unsafe. In fact what would make me feel unsafe is if we never had an opportunity to discuss them. Free speech rights are not there because of an accident. We have them because our wise founders could look back at history and found that full, open, and even offensive conversation, as polarizing as it can be, remains one of the best prophylactics against tyranny.
What would be a problem is if I never heard the opinions of anti-Republican bigots who might discriminate against me or — were this a different society — try to have me locked up for being unorthodox. It would be dangerous if libertarians or SoCons were just put onto watch lists, and political discussion was not something we cherish. What would be a problem was if parenting regimes were governed by an officially correct manual, and deviations, undiscussed, were to be reported to authorities for corrective measures, creating a centrally-authorized script against which we have to live and make sure everyone conforms to it. Now that’s a dangerous idea.
Colleges are supposed to be taking new adults and turning them into useful members of society. A useful member of society should have both an open mind and a thick skin. Allowing the most sensitive of students — those who shrink away on contact with offensive or even painful ideas — to control what is heard and unheard hurts everyone. As the op-ed recounts:
One scholar … was particularly insistent that college students not be subjected to “the violence of the word” because many of them “are away from home for the first time and at a vulnerable stage of psychological development.” If they’re targeted and the university does nothing to help them, they will be “left to their own resources in coping with the damage wrought.”
Perhaps schools should look into providing de-sensitivity training for students who show themselves unusually prone to offense.