Why Colleges and Universities are the last places that should be “Safe Spaces”

There has been a recent trend amongst college and university campuses to protect students from unpopular or controversial ideas. This movement has caused debates to be cancelled, speakers to be uninvited from giving talks, and popular comedians have come out and stated that performing on many campuses has become troublesome because of the sensitive attitudes college students have developed towards jokes they find to be offensive. Some students have gone as far as demanding the resignation of university presidents and faculty members because they’ve expressed ideas or opinions which groups of students have taken offence with. Whether the drive to form and enforce protective policies has come from administration, professors, or the students themselves is unclear. However, the arguments of those in favor of this type of censorship vary from a desire to prevent what they believe to be hate speech, to the idea of making such campuses safer for students whose emotional welfare may be jeopardized by being challenged by controversial ideas, to the belief that there are objective truths that have no business being questioned in a place of higher learning. This movement has spawned various terms to go along with it such as “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and “micro-aggression’s” which aim to legitimize the censorship by providing students with a way to preemptively distinguish between ideas they will agree with and ideas that may challenge their thinking.

This trend is disturbing because if it is allowed to continue, it may signal the decline of both free speech and intellectual curiosity, which are an essential aspect of both a free society and a key component of any place of learning. It seems that as time goes on universities and colleges are being asked to act parentis in loco and establish what their students can and cannot handle by dictating which ideas they are allowed to be exposed to and which ideas they are not. It appears that in more and more post-secondary institutions some ideas are no longer welcome and that there are groups of individuals who are increasingly controlling a space that used to be a marketplace of free ideas. In discussing and addressing this issue of censorship on college campuses, I will discuss how the ideas of John Stuart Mill in his work On Liberty provides us with rational arguments in favor of free speech, even speech that may be unpopular or deemed as hateful or “triggering.” I will also argue that college and university campuses should be the last place we should find intellectual “safe spaces.”

To begin, I’d like to look at John Stuart Mill’s work On Liberty, which should be essential reading for anyone who believes that there exist opinions or ideas that must be censored. Mill argues that whether an opinion is true or false should have absolutely no bearing on whether or not it should be allowed to be expressed. As he points out:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.[i]

Through the use of silence and control some post-secondary institutions are limiting exposure to opinions that are essential for academic and personal growth. As Mill argues, opinions that are restricted may in fact be true or have some elements of truth within them. By silencing those who hold such opinions we rob ourselves of a truth. Even those opinions, which harbor no truth, are useful as they lead to the discovery of the actual truth. By silencing those who hold false opinions we fail to consider aspects of the truth that are brought to light when they are questioned.

What is perhaps most worrying about the notion of small groups deciding what opinions are permitted on campuses, is that they are acting as if their beliefs are so infallible that they should not be questioned. In the words of Mill:

They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility[ii]

Just because a particular group has a definite opinion on a matter does not mean that they should be able to dictate that contrary opinions are not permitted to be examined by anyone else. One group should not be able to decide which opinions are accepted by the individuals who make up a greater whole, and in fact, groups who do attempt to control the opinions expressed in places of learning are either assuming that the students who attend the school are too stupid to discover the actual truth for themselves, or, are perhaps worried that by questioning a commonly held opinion an alternative truth may be discovered that is contrary to one which is endorsed by those who urge censorship.

Furthermore, isn’t the whole purpose of college and university about exploring different ideas, and the whole process by which we come to understand the world through critically examining different viewpoints? Why are we allowing particular groups to dogmatically control an institution whose whole purpose is to expose young people to new ideas, a place that asks them to question their previously held beliefs. Some may find the notion of questioning their beliefs troublesome, but what harm is there in doing that? If you find that your beliefs cannot withstand criticism then you have come closer to finding the truth, if you find that your beliefs can withstand criticism, than you can be more certain in their validity. In Mill’s words:

The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers-knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter-he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.[iii]

I would argue that this issue of censorship stems from the belief that ideas are not independent morally ambiguous entities, but instead, are demonstrative of an individual’s moral character. In this sense, particular ideas are considered as good or evil, instead of what they should actually be, which is a statement that either expresses the truth, or as Mill suggests, illuminates it. How can we say that an incorrect idea is bad, when ultimately what it will end up doing is express the truth through its refutation?

When you imbue an idea with a moral characteristic, what you ultimately do is try to silence not the idea itself, but the individual who expresses it. In this sense, bad people only express bad ideas. This is counterintuitive to the pursuit of truth because by ascribing moral characteristics to ideas you don’t address or defeat the ideas themselves, you merely silence them. When you chastise someone for believing an idea which is false by attacking it from a moral standpoint, at best, what you do is indicate to the person who holds it that this particular idea needs to be kept quiet if they want to avoid ridicule, but ultimately, can still be held onto. At worst, you offend the holder of this idea by making them feel like they are morally repugnant because their opinion is offensive, and so they cling to this falsely held idea even stronger and express it with even more enthusiasm.

If instead of attributing a moral character to an idea, you allow such ideas to be expressed freely, without moral judgment, then you allow the truth to become known. This is because ideas that are not ascribed a moral characteristic must stand on their own merits. As human beings we love to be on the winning side and thought of as good people. I do not believe that any individual does something that they believe to be wrong or evil purposely. Whenever a person acts, even if the act itself is considered wrong, they do so because they believe that in their circumstances such an act is justified. They believe that they are doing the right thing in their situation. Therefore, when we ascribe these moral characteristics to ideas we appeal to this human desire to be thought of as right and as a good person. No longer are those who happen to be opposed to our ideas trying to enlighten us, instead, they are viewed as attacking our moral character and implying that we are foolish, ignorant, or morally repugnant. In other words, when we ascribe moral qualities to ideas, we embed them into our image of ourselves, and therefore, have all the more reason to cling to and defend them.

As an example of this, let’s imagine a man who believes in equality amongst the sexes, but expresses doubts towards the notion of an hourly gender pay gap.[1] It’s not that he doesn’t believe men and women should be paid equally for their work, it’s that he questions the validity of the studies that suggest that women earn less an hour then men for doing the same work. I do not believe that it is unreasonable to say that such a man in today’s world can expect to be harshly critiqued, not criticized, for expressing such a concern by some who disagree with his opinion.

Now, although there is nothing wrong with the opinion being itself being criticized, I believe that many of the attacks will not be aimed at the opinion, but rather, at the individual man who holds this belief. He may be called a misogynist and accused of contributing towards the problems that modern women face. It may be pointed out that he is a cis-gendered white male and so his opinion on such a matter should not be taken seriously because he has inherently benefited from privilege and patriarchy his whole life. Many of the criticisms will aim at shaming him into silence and making him feel that he is a bad person for holding an objectionable opinion. Also, it may be indicated to him that his opinion is not a product of healthy skepticism, but rather, a result of the pigment of his skin, the genitalia between his legs, and his sexual preferences. Even those attacks that are specifically aimed at the opinion itself, rather than the man who expresses it, will be loaded with moral sentiments. It will be said that such opinions are evil and that we are better off without such beliefs being expressed. Some of the individuals who hear this man’s opinion may feel “triggered” and feel the need to retreat to a “safe space.”

Importantly, at no time in this example has the argument that there is not a gender pay gap when it comes to hourly earnings been refuted on the basis of facts or statistics. It has simply been pushed aside and in its place the critics have questioned the moral quality of the individual who holds this opinion and have attacked him for who he is. Such tactics fail to do anything but attempt to silence both the opinion and the individual to expresses it. The opinion itself, which lacks the ability to feel shamed, continues to exist and its validity remains a matter of dispute, it has merely been pushed into the background. If there is a discrepancy in the hourly earnings of males and females then people like the man in our example should be presented with hard evidence from reputable academic sources that prove beyond a doubt that his opinion is in error. If such hard evidence exists then there is no justifiable reason to make a personal attack upon him, for doing so will only create hatred and resentment. By attacking his character through assigning this particular idea he holds with a moral characteristic we risk entrenching him within this opinion. Because his character has been attacked along with his idea he may steadfastly cling to it no matter what reasonable evidence suggests because the fall of this idea would then suggest to him that his critics might be right about his moral character. The goal of educating people should be to enlighten them and raise their awareness, not to criticize them to gain some kind of imagined moral high ground. There should be no room for ego in academia.

This is why such controversial opinions are essential, as going back to Mill, without opposing opinions, how is the validity of gender pay gap studies to be confirmed or denied unless it is questioned. By dissenting with such attitudes hasn’t the man in our example provided a platform for the belief to be looked at critically and ultimately verified, or likewise, shown to be in error? Shouldn’t everyone who is critical be encouraged to continue to ask questions and hold opinions that may differ from popular belief in order to challenge it and provide a springboard for the truth to become known? Have we not learned from stories like that of Galileo who held beliefs that were contrary to popular opinion and thus faced condemnation for believing in things which challenged the excepted truths of the era?

There is not a single idea that exists today that should be exempt from critical discourse. Even the most commonly held verifiable beliefs should be open to criticism without worry of rebuke to those who hold them. What harm is there in doing so? We either continue to verify the truth of such claims or we come to realize an error we have made and a new truth becomes known, which should then further be criticized in order to test its validity. One may respond that in such a world the truth may be ever changing and certainty may never be known. How can we believe in anything if everything is under dispute? Mill responds by turning this notion on its head, if we can’t dispute everything then how can we believe in anything? As he points out:

There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.[iv]

Going back to the matter of college campuses, don’t we endanger the future generations by sending them the message that popular opinion must always be regarded as the truth and any dissenters must be silenced and shamed? How can we expect the truth to shine through without the mirror of critical opposition? When we turn the world of academia into a popularity contest don’t we create champions who win disputes by appealing to sophistry instead of rational well-reasoned arguments?

Unfortunately, university and college campuses seem to be blending the concept of a physically “safe space” with an intellectually “safe space.” I don’t believe there is anyone out there who doesn’t believe that a college or university campus should be safe space from threats and physical violence. However, and importantly, I believe that intellectually a college or university campus must be the opposite of a “safe space.” In a purely intellectual sense, those around you should constantly assault and “trigger” your preconceived ideas and notions when you step onto campus and that should be why you’re there. You should have to defend your ideas against your fellow students and teachers and be willing to change or adjust them when faced with appropriate criticism.

A college or university campus is not your home, don’t confuse residence with an apartment complex or house, the fact that you may sleep on campus is incidental, the purpose of the campus is to act as a intellectual arena where all ideas and concepts are being challenged regularly. The community that attends a post-secondary institution should be supportive towards its member’s rights to feel safe from physical harm and also its member’s rights to freedom of expression, not towards creating a group of people with a single ideology that is dogmatically reinforced. I believe that if you go through your post-secondary education and you haven’t been intellectually offended or “triggered” at some point then your academic institution has failed you. College or university is not a place that should reaffirm your preexisting beliefs, it is not a religious institution, there are times when attending lecture will be uncomfortable because you will be exposed to ideas that will offend you, and worse still, some of these ideas may expose errors in your commonly held beliefs.

If that is not what you want out of your post-secondary education then you should look to surround yourself with similar like minded people who will allow you to live in an intellectual bubble free from criticism of your beliefs. However, you should realize that by doing so you adopt the methodology of cults and hate groups who have decided that they hold objective truths that they do not want to be questioned by outsiders. You should not seek to change the purpose of college or university institutions from a place of freedom of expression and ideas, to a center of reaffirmation of popular belief. Although I wholeheartedly disagree with those students, professors, and administrators who believe that universities should become intellectual “safe spaces”, I respect their right to hold such an opinion and I refuse to become emotionally entrenched in my belief, I acknowledge that I may be wrong. I want to provoke a dialog about this question and hear convincing arguments from those who disagree with me. I just hope it’s not too late and there are still those on the other side who are still open to rational critical discourse.

 

[1] I chose this example because it is a current topic of debate between some feminists and skeptics. However any contentious issue could be inserted in its place. I also do not mean to make that claim that all feminists argue on the basis of ascribing moral characteristics to ideas, I am aware that there are feminists who have well reasoned rational arguments for their ideas.

 

[i] Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 18. Print.

[ii] Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 19. Print.

[iii] Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 22. Print.

[iv] Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.” The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 21. Print.