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The Dangers of Student Intolerance

The function of academia is not to protect people from offensive ideas, rather it the opposite. To bring together a collection of people who think differently, and afford young, developing adults the space to discuss, disagree, and be offended.

Article published by on 01/01/2016

By Brian T. Murphy; Photo: Associated Press.

“They [college students] just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist;’ ‘That’s sexist;’ ‘That’s prejudice,’ they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”


- Comedian Jerry Seinfeld on why he seldom performs comedy shows on college campuses


Displays of ignorance are not hard to find in college: predominantly white fraternities hosting hip-hop parties with blackface attendees, sorority girls dressing up as sexy Indians in mass produced costumes that aim to resemble traditional Native American clothing, open denial of a system of mass incarceration that imprisons vastly differing percentages of blacks and whites. For the most part, these are rightfully met with equally rivaled discussion, protest, and repercussion. But recently, subtler actions such as sending an email, publishing an opinion article, or giving an invited public lecture have exposed a growing culture of student intolerance toward opposing opinions, highlighting an alarming emotional fragility among some young minds in academic settings. This culture is changing the very forum that has traditionally been a bastion for disagreement and debate, and on increasing occasions the right to listen and be offended has been decapitated under the pretense of a protective blanket of supposed liberal tolerance.


To be clear: student activism on college campuses that is devoted to attaining racial equality, gender equality, and inclusion of underrepresented minority groups, has been an incredible driving force of progress and has empowered citizens to break down traditional racial and patriarchal structures through political, social, and cultural engagement. These groups are the soul of grassroots activism. They are among the most effective instruments of social change and have been catalysts for some of the most significant cultural shifts in our nation’s history. These students are largely uncredited American heroes.


However, recently there is a growing number of student activists – convinced that their position is beyond the scope of public criticism – who lack basic skills in civic engagement and exhibit disconcerting narcissism and hypersensitivity in the face of even timid conversational opposition. These tactics have manifested themselves in several forms: shutting down public lectures by shouting and pulling fire alarms, mass removal of newspapers that publish dissenting opinions, mob-run witch hunts of teachers who voice an opinion contrary to their own, and immediate reliance on “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” and “that’s offensive” as tools to shut down dialogue. This shift in attitude and tactics has resulted in a cadre of young, well-intentioned students who are attempting to redefine the very way that ideas are debated, as they silence dissenting opinions or forms of expression that they claim to be intolerant of others – ironically an intolerant act itself.


Many examples of student protest exist that forego the exchange of ideas and escalate directly to emotional outrage and an outright rejection of dialog. Epitomizing this phenomenon at Yale this past October, lecturer Erika Christakis sent out an email response to a University’s call for students to avoid “culturally unaware and insensitive costumes” on Halloween. Among other eloquent points for students to consider, Christakis wrote:


…if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.


Christakis concludes her softly toned and “provocative” message to students:


What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment? In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that. Happy Halloween.


The email, a piece that prompted students to be mindful at giving away their right to decide for themselves what is appropriate attire on a holiday whose point it is to dress up as something you are not, prompted wild responses such as these from students and led to the voluntary resignation of Christakis, despite the University’s plea for her to remain and teach. In the end, the students were victorious in tearing down a thoughtful teacher whose mistake it was to hold an opinion and pose a question that actually defended the students’ right to express themselves.


While the underlying motive of the students was to protect those identities who are subject to often denigrating stereotypes in popular culture, they failed to follow this road to its philosophical end. If making someone uncomfortable through writing or speech is not tolerated within the “safe space” of a college campus (whether it be a marginalized population or not), then forcing Christakis out must simply be the beginning of a crusade to rid this space of other parallel intolerances. The most obvious, and arguably the most egregious offense toward the autonomy of fellow students is the extent to which one is able to express certain religious beliefs.


Assuming that tolerance and sensitivity toward fellow students form the bedrock of this space, then what should be the fate of the holy books of Christians and Muslims, texts that regularly spawn hundreds of differing opinions and practices, some of which openly call for the subjugation of women and condemnation of gays? Should we ban the Quran from college campuses for its deliberate and hostile dehumanization of non-believers as “infidels,” or the Bible for demanding the servitude of women and claiming that “homosexual offenders” should be put to death and will not “inherit the kingdom of God”? In fact, there are millions of people in the US, and some who occupy seats in Yale classrooms that actively support legislation to restrict the right of homosexuals.


These passages are the embodiment of hate speech. Yet the books that contain them continue to thrive on campuses, while a teacher who writes an email that talks about Halloween costumes is subject to demonstrations, op-eds, and student vitriol that claims that she is the antithesis to a safe learning environment. The near absence of protest at universities against discrimination fueled by the Bible and other religious texts is indicative of an intellectual dishonesty that permeates this selectively applied philosophy. An offensive Halloween costume may add to already compounded feelings of alienation in a student, but this is far less severe than parts of books that preach inequity and threaten deadly force against specific groups, and lie as the inspiration that drives legislative agendas seeking to repress the rights of entire student populations.


Co-existing with ignorant and often offensive ideas is the very challenge that results from living in a society that broadly protects speech. To most, preventing a student from telling an ethnically insensitive joke feels right, just as defending the right of neo-Nazis to demonstrate feels perverse. Being consistent about free speech will take its supporters to very dark corners of the mind that are often contrary to the beliefs it nurtures. But that is the point. Laws that protect everyone's right to express their beliefs inherently are not supposed to make everyone happy. With an incredibly wide spectrum of conflicting opinions in a country that is home to vast white privilege and systemic racial oppression, to competing religious beliefs, and to a devastating gap between rich and poor, that safe dialectical utopia rarely exists. It can not exist.


The function of academia is not to protect people from offensive ideas, rather it the opposite. To bring together a collection of people who think differently, and afford young, developing adults the space to discuss, disagree, and be offended. When contradicting ideas collide on a college campus, some are thought provoking, some are universally accommodating, while others are simply stupid and offensive. Each one of these cases bears an equal right to be argued, heard, and subsequently supported, ignored, or ridiculed.


No one – not the police, elected officials, and especially a university – can guarantee a student’s safety, let alone a mythical culturally sensitive “safe zone” that is free from offensive language and insult. Intolerance should be fought, for it is the enemy of pluralism and multiculturalism. But intolerant beliefs can not be purged through silencing those who have them. They are defeated through vigorous debate and use of multiple forums, albeit public lectures, pop-culture television shows, or awkward and sometimes heated exchanges of ideas on campus, that convince the undecided to embrace the virtues love and mutual respect against the crutches of fear and intolerance.


A student’s voice that persuades popular opinion is among the most powerful weapons against bigotry and oppression, and conceding this is antithetical to the countless activists that fought to protect it in the first place. Having one’s point of view challenged is a precious opportunity, and is paramount to both the strengthening and restructuring of those beliefs. Remember, the idea of racial integration in schools was once highly offensive. The idea that two men can love each other and start a family was, and is still offensive to some. Ideas live, die and evolve on the experimental chopping block of free expression.


Forced college safe spaces are an illusory victory of tolerance. They do not battle oppressive ideas; they drive them underground. They relieve potential offenders of the responsibility of publicly defending their words of bigotry, and of the opportunity to have their ideas confronted with rational argument and real student experiences.  

If the student activists that fight to infringe speech in hopes of protecting marginalized populations were able to cleanse college campuses of beliefs that they deemed inappropriate to their sensibilities, they would be among the many ostracized for holding disagreeable opinions that offended others, and would leave behind a college as empty as the philosophy that drives them. In the departure of conflicting ideas from this arena, one sobering truth would remain: the only true safe space on a college campus would be one with no one in it.

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