Safe spaces and the decline of American debate

Kirsten Powers has an op-ed in USA Today this week on the subject of campus “safe spaces” and trigger warnings and all the other trappings of 21st century campus life which stifle debate and ostracize free speech. In it, she looks at the ongoing work of Christina Hoff Sommers, who has been delivering lectures at college campuses on a variety of subjects, including the “campus rape culture” and how many statistics are overblown. She’s been calling on students to return to “equity feminism” rather than “gender feminism.” (The definitions of those two terms are fascinating.)

As Powers describes it, we could learn a lot from two events held by Ms Sommers at Georgetown and Oberlin which define the state of not only contemporary feminism, but the failure of these institutions to prepare students for life outside the campus.

Prior to a mid-April lecture at Georgetown University, the American Enterprise Institute scholar was deemed a “rape apologist” by campus feminists for challenging statistics that she says overstate the rate of rape on campus. “The postings were so frantic that Georgetown sent undercover security into the audience,” Sommers told me…

An Oberlin College lecture a few days later met the same fate. The Oberlin Review published an open letter, “In Response to Christina Sommers’ Talk: A Love Letter to Ourselves” two days before Sommers’ visit. Usually people wait to offer a “response” until after an event has occurred, but not so in our Brave New World. The students wrote that Sommers’ presence on campus was “harmful,” and lamented that “her talk is happening, so let’s pull together in the face of this violence.”

In case you missed that: A differing viewpoint is an act of violence.

Personally, I think Ms. Powers has done a fine job of covering this story and it doesn’t require much more from me. Instead, I would like to take a moment to address the students of Georgetown, Oberlin and all the rest of the colleges and universities around the country as we approach graduation day. If anyone would like to use portions of this in a commencement address, please feel free to do so.

To the graduating students in the class of 2015. Congratulations on your achievement. Obtaining an education and a degree is a fine accomplishment, and now many of you will be going out into the real world. But before you do, a few words of caution are in order.

There are people around you, including professors, fellow students and traveling lecturers – some of whom you may know, love and trust – who have done you a terrible disservice. They have built up an unrealistic expectation in your minds which is about to be shattered like fine crystal hitting the hard pavement of the road outside your campus. You have been herded into “safe spaces” where you were sheltered from the “dangers” of hearing things which might offend you or challenge your preconceived notions. You have been taught to expect “trigger warnings” which enable you to scurry along the campus cattle chutes and avoid unpleasant individuals. You have been embraced by a small army of protectors who sought to chase away any and all bogeymen hiding under your bed, waiting to leap out and say bad words. These people have not served you well.

That small army is small indeed, and it has no power outside your campus. You are about to enter the real world where you will compete for a job, battle for professional success and probably socialize in public settings with people from all walks of life. And when you do, you’re going to get an earful. There are individuals out there with a dizzying array of opinions on matters ranging from the professional to the political to the personal and beyond. You’re going to meet them, and you may be offended by some of them. In return, some of them will be offended by you. This is not some signal that you should run home and hide under your bed, but rather the reality of life as an adult in a free society.

Don’t be afraid. You can choose to express your opinions and attempt to sway the minds of others. Even more shocking, you can listen to those contrary voices and perhaps take the risk of learning something new. But you won’t be forced to do even that much. If you choose, you may avoid debate entirely. Put on your ear buds and go about your work. Words can’t hurt you when you don’t hear them. But there are no “safe spaces” in the public square and you are not entitled to a “trigger warning” before others speak.

But do keep in mind that your voice can be heard. If you choose not to use it, you remove yourself from the field of play. And if you allow yourself to be enslaved by one set of voices other than your own you are surely doomed to destruction.

Best of luck to you all.