The ongoing debate over political correctness on college campuses gets at the deepest paradox of old-school liberalism: it asks us to find a way to live with people with whom we disagree about how to live with people. Navigating this paradox, if it’s even possible, requires one to live by two codes at once: one’s own beliefs about right and wrong, and then a purportedly neutral set of norms meant to help us manage disagreements arising from our first set of beliefs. The ideal of free speech falls into this latter category, which in liberal debate carries more weight than the first. It’s small-minded and arrogant to criticize your opponent for merely disagreeing with you, but if she’s the one being small minded and arrogant, then fire away.
The result, of course, is that activists on both sides of campus confrontations attempt to claim the mantle of liberal tolerance by portraying their opponents as parochial and repressive. This has led to more than a little hypocrisy from people whose intolerance of intolerance just happens to leave little room for an opponent’s argument. The University of Chicago’s recent letter to incoming freshmen falls into exactly this trap.
In case you missed it, the letter’s most controversial passage reads as follows:
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
It’s one thing to pledge not to disinvite speakers who might say controversial, even offensive things — a stance I support, because any potentially offended student can simply not attend the lecture in question, or can peacefully protest the speaker. It’s another thing to take an institutional stand against safe spaces. Never mind the fact that the University of Chicago had previously committed itself to creating safe spaces for LGBTQ students: Taking an institutional stand against safe spaces runs counter to the very freedom of expression and association that the university purports to promote. Just as students have a right to say what they want, students have a right to gather with others who share their views and avoid the clamor of confrontation. As Judith Shulevitz put it in an otherwise critical op-ed last year: “As long as all parties consent to such restrictions, these little islands of self-restraint seem like a perfectly fine idea.”
Taking a stance against safe spaces also runs counter to the liberal principle that individuals can be trusted with their own interests. Schools need to trust their students to seek out a college experience that’s right for them; it would be illiberal for schools to regulate student conduct on the premise that students don’t know what’s best for them. There is, of course, another countervailing principle here: that professors and administrators, being wiser than their students, should impart that wisdom to their young charges. Different schools balance these two principles in varying proportions: Brown has no required undergraduate courses, while Columbia’s core curriculum defines much of the undergraduate academic experience there. But it seems like overreach for a school to extend its guiding hand into students’ extracurricular activities — especially when students, having already gotten into to the University of Chicago, seem well capable of managing their own affairs.
The university’s stance against safe spaces indulges in a certain cynicism about student protesters. An underlying premise of the whole argument is that no one actually needs safe spaces or trigger warnings, and that students fighting for such policies are either over-sensitive or using them as political weapons. The controversy over such things does seem to exceed the scope of the issues themselves — whenever a campus dispute like this arises, professors point out that few among them have ever felt compelled to use trigger warnings in classes — but even so, administrators should acknowledge that many students at their schools have had harder lives than they did. If students say they are hurt by racism, homophobia, or sexism, on what grounds can administrators disagree?
One should also ask why the university chose to deliver its message as it did. In the wake of student protests, many schools have witnessed a drop in alumni donations, and perhaps such a concern motivated the school to take a clear, public and controversial stance on some of the issues that have rocked campuses over the past few years. The school could have quietly adopted a set of free-speech policies, as many other schools have done, and then applied those principles in response to actual controversies. Instead, the Chicago administration opted for an overtly political move, placing the administration squarely in the donors’ camp and likely making for an awkward and tense beginning to the school year. The university has committed the same sin as many student activists: claiming to promote universal normative principles, it has done so in a way that politicizes the issue and encourages conflict. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the university saw its own student protest movement this year. In letting their political instincts get the best of them, the school’s administrators might have created a problem rather than solving one.