Trigger warning: This column will include discussion of ideas that may conflict with your own.
Those accustomed to reading or listening only to liberal commentators may not be aware of “trigger warnings” and “safe zones” on college campuses.
It seems that mostly conservative sites and writers are concerned with the increasingly draconian suppression of free speech on college campuses. But then, it is mostly conservative writers and speakers who are treated as though they’re bringing the Ebola virus rather than contrarian ideas to the sensitive ears of what we may as well name the “Swaddled Generation.”
A trigger warning is usually conveyed on a sign carried or posted near the auditorium where a speech is to be given, alerting students to the possibility that the speaker may express an idea that could trigger an emotional response. A discussion about campus rape statistics, for example, might cause a rape victim to suffer.
This was the case recently at Georgetown University when Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Who Stole Feminism?, was greeted by sign-carriers warning: “Anti-Feminism,” with the room number of a “safe space.”
Students elsewhere have taken their trigger-phobia a step further, urging professors to add warnings to syllabuses alerting swaddlers to the possibility that a course might prompt uncomfortable thoughts. At Rutgers University, a student proposed flagging F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as potentially upsetting owing to “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”
Protections against unpleasant thoughts can only be arranged by managing unpleasant speech. Thus, anyone who dares question any of the communally collected “understandings” of proper thought, presumably embraced during share-time and group hugs, won’t be celebrated as a curious mind but condemned as a “hater.”
Now there’s a winning debate argument. If you’re 5.
Such playground rhetoric is, nevertheless, effective, first by intimidating and ultimately by silencing. Hence the title of Kirsten Powers’ new book, The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech. Powers, a columnist, self-proclaimed liberal and Fox News contributor, has opened one extra-large can of whompum with this book, which is filled with examples of free speech suppression, especially on college campuses and by the liberal media.
It is one thing for conservatives to condemn the narrow mindset of some liberals. Less easy to ignore is when a fellow liberal does it. There’s nothing quite like discovering that the affections of one’s “friends” were conditional upon one’s concurrence.
Too often in debates about free speech, we get hung up on exaggerated examples or scenarios, such as the recent Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest, which was provocation for its own sake, or pornography, the purpose of which does not pertain to the loftiest of human realms.
What Powers and others are confronting is far more subtle and sinister — the suppression of ideas. Colleges and universities often boast of their diversity in terms of race, gender or sexual orientation, but too often they fail to encourage diversity of thought.
This can be correctly seen as cowardice, manifested in the disinvitation of that relatively rare species, the conservative commencement speaker, who this year is outnumbered by liberals six to one at the top 100 universities, according to one study. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last year withdrew as commencement speaker at Rutgers after faculty protested. And Brandeis University canceled its plan to honor Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a fierce critic of Islam and a women’s advocate, at its commencement following protests.
Into this dark, narrow tunnel, a tiny light has begun to seep. This month, Purdue University followed the University of Chicago’s lead in January by issuing a statement of principles of free expression. Both “guarantee the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn. … It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
Praising Chicago’s example, Purdue President Mitch Daniels laid out the stakes in a telephone interview: “If universities want to embarrass themselves with their behavior, allowing people to be shouted down or disinvited, that’s their problem. But if they’re spawning a bunch of little authoritarians with an inverted view of our basic freedoms, that’s everybody’s problem.”
Let’s hope other colleges and universities follow suit — and soon. Otherwise, someone will be forced to write the obvious next book, Dictators in Diapers. Would that it were instead: “The Unswaddling: How Universities Fought Back to Restore Free Speech.”
© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group