Universities, Safe-Spaces, and the Partisan Divide

Art piece on display at Nuit Blanche Toronto 2011 named Barricades
Art piece on display at Nuit Blanche Toronto 2011 named Barricades

When I was in seventh grade I had an educational experience which forever changed my outlook on the formation and defense of my political opinions. The class was American History. The exercise, a mock trial of a civil case concerning the segregation of a public school before Brown v. The Board of Education. I believe the specific case was Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1952). My teacher, a black woman, assigned me, a black boy, to argue for the defense. Naturally at that age I was shocked and confused. When I voiced my concerns to her she told me frankly that I didn't need to agree with segregation in order to fulfill my role in the trial. With that, I set about the assignment with the added enthusiasm afforded by the competition of mock court. My team and I decided we should approach the case by affirming the legislative rather than the judiciary as the branch of government responsible for determining the legality of segregation. When put to a vote we ultimately lost the case, though I firmly believe to this day that my team presented a far sounder argument. Despite this, I realized that my teacher's decision to have me on the defense was a deliberate one intended to teach me a lasting lesson. What the exercise ultimately taught me was the value of examining both sides of any argument. I believe that this practice is not merely beneficial but crucial to the development of critical thinkers. I fear, however, that the ability to assume the mindset of the other side of the ideological spectrum has been repudiated by students and educators alike at the college level.

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf writes of the mounting attacks to free speech on college campuses throughout the country. Among his examples are the increased student support for speech codes, attempts to enact such codes and instances in which professors have had their jobs jeopardized or terminated because of their written statements. Additionally, he lists several instances in which college students opposed, at times successfully, the invitations of various visiting speakers. This reveals deeply troubling attitudes on the part of some students and administrations. That students are opposed to the visitation of speakers with whom they have ideological disagreements is a problem. Not only are these students opposed to hearing other points of view, they have gone so far as to deny their fellow students the opportunity to hear prominent voices in academia, politics and the arts. Friedersdorf notes that these efforts have been directed at speakers from both the right and the left. What is perhaps more disturbing is the willingness of certain universities to yield to the demands of students who seek to insulate themselves and their classmates intellectually.

I believe a cause of these problems is the inordinate exultation of the so called "safe-space." The safe-space is a concept I agree with entirely in concept but less so in practice. I firmly believe that students at any university should be able to feel that they are a valued part of the student body and not be subjected to hate speech or excessive insensitivity. This is what the notion of a safe-space means to me. A problem arises, however, when in an effort to prevent any and all offenses universities infringe upon students' constitutional right of free speech and their academic right to free discourse. It is when these lengths are taken by an administration that you have instances like those described by Friedersdorf. I believe that university administrations have the power and therefore the crucial responsibility of guiding the trajectory of their student bodies. By accommodating those students who seek to encumber free academic discourse, administrators are doing their student populations a grave disservice. Instead of protecting students from thought that runs counter to their own intellectual framework, universities should insist that students explore viewpoints with which they disagree. By doing so I believe, perhaps optimistically, that our institutions can help alleviate the stubborn partisanship which afflicts the politics of this country.

It is easy to disparage those whose viewpoints differ from your own. In the age of social media this practice is quantifiably rewarded in the form of likes, retweets, shares etc. Posts intended to garner the approval of likeminded friends boil complex issues down to perhaps a sentence or two. Political memes, while admittedly amusing, forsake all of the complexity of an issue in order to prompt laughter and shares. The fact of the matter is that two equally intelligent people, equipped with equally valid facts and figures, can come to two disparate political opinions. The difficulty lies in actively considering the merits of the other side rather than infantilizing one's ideological opponents and resorting to ad hominem attacks. This requires first and foremost the ability to listen. What standards are colleges setting for their students, the very people who will inherit our political institutions, if they acquiesce to their demands for censorship? Colleges instead should be at the forefront of teaching critical thought and ideological tolerance. Through this, colleges can engender the mutual understanding that is necessary for compromise.

People will likely continue to enter polarizing discussions with their minds made up but it is crucial for colleges to at least allow such discussions to take place. By going further and encouraging students to embrace discomfort I believe they can help strengthen our democracy. However, should administrators persist in their current practices of pandering to students, I fear we will witness the opposite effect.