“Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched”

Intellectual Safe Spaces are Really Danger Zones

The strong reaction to Dean Ellison’s recent letter to incoming first years informing them that the university will not “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’” nor “support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” tells me that we’ve reached a crescendo in expectations around political correctness, and it deeply concerns me that universities having to be sensitive to students’ feelings and life experiences are beginning to frustrate the important purpose that universities are supposed to serve.1

Some have argued that there’s more to Dean Ellison’s message than meets the eye, that it’s a move to mask the fundamental issues students claim should be at the forefront, namely greater transparency with regard to the private police force, support for students (e.g., mental health), and basic accountability toward student interests.2 Another former student (class of ’09) argues, “The publicized outcries of politically demanding students and the drastic administrative actions that can result from them are not the cause, but rather the symptom, of a corporate university system more concerned about ratings, money, and reputation than the effective conduct of student education.”3

The corporatization of universities and colleges across the country is a very real and alarming issue that deserves greater scrutiny. And, while there’s probably some validity to these arguments, as an alumna, I believe that something even bigger is at play, which is that universities such as Chicago are struggling to preserve the intellectual freedom that has allowed students to recognize differences in thought, experience and opinion and to transcend them.

The demand for safe spaces recognizes that these differences exist; however, safe spaces do not allow or push for a transcendence in thought, which requires examining and understanding the roots of discord. Only when that point is reached can any individual develop the kind of discernment necessary to be able to reach true objectivity, that is to see a problem, any problem, for what it really is.

In a speech to freshmen back in August, Yale President Peter Salovey also warned of the “false narratives” that so many people, both young and old, cling to in order to make sense of their worlds.4 Universities do not exist to support any kind of narrative but to dispel them in order for students to reach that kernel of truth that resides at the core of any thought or experience. The truth is that there are many ways to view one’s reality. We live in a very subjective world that tends to adhere to the prevailing belief of the time, which we may conveniently choose to adopt if it suits our personal cause. When we study history, we untangle these perspectives and can see the event — whether it’s colonialism, slavery, or war — and objectively examine the motivations and consequences. Of course, it’s much more difficult to be objective when we are standing so close to the precipice with regard to what’s going on around us today.

As a writer, I reject the idea that any restrictions should be placed on my words. People may not like my use of the word “cunt” because it makes them uncomfortable, but I use it precisely because it does so. I want to challenge the status quo of Romance writing just as I want to challenge people’s narrow ideas about love and relationship, which I believe are limiting us as a society.

Making readers uncomfortable is exactly the point. It’s the only real way in which they can achieve any kind of breakthrough by being forced to self-examine and self-assess, to seek and understand the reason something doesn’t feel right to them. Only then are they either able to dismiss the idea as no longer their truth or to strengthen their own truth because they can resolutely affirm that it is truly what they think and feel.

The University of Chicago understands it’s performing a disservice if its students do not manage to transcend their discomfort. I can certainly appreciate a demand for safe space where one feels physically threatened. However, the reality is that many of those who are doing the intellectual bullying and the threatening are doing so because they themselves are unable to make sense of the constantly shifting world of ideas and thought as their own personal beliefs and the narratives they ascribe to are crumbling around them. It’s much too difficult and challenging for many of them to even synthesize and see the truth, so they hide behind their hateful words and threats to find comfort from a world they fear is leaving them behind.

As I’ve written before, the way to deal with a bully isn’t to ostracize him or her, but to embrace the person who is unable to intellectualize or conceptualize their own fear, which blinds them from the truth. (To be clear, embracing the person does not mean embracing his or her ideas.)

If we keep demarcating safe spaces, we risk missing the opportunity to challenge these bullies and to force them to be accountable for their thoughts and words. By stifling dialogue, interaction, and debate, we contribute to a more polarized society.

As the pendulum continues to swing more to the sensitive and politically-correct end of the spectrum, I caution against criticizing an institution like The University of Chicago that wants to stand above the fray regarding safe spaces. It doesn’t take more than looking at news outlets (talk about false and often one-sided narratives) to see the many ways in which our society is allowing a hostile environment to exist with regard to self-expression.

Condemning individual statements and words isn’t the problem. It’s when the goal of such expression is to harm and destroy that we enter a danger zone. Yet few are making these distinctions because they are too busy reacting.

And these reactions are distracting us from seeing the truth, which is that we are only scratching at the surface of what can be an incredible breakthrough if we stop demanding safe spaces and ask ourselves what are we doing wrong as a society that we feel we need them. That, I believe, is what we must address first, instead of continually flinging half-hearted solutions toward the symptoms. Like I learned at Chicago, deeply rooted beneath our human existence is a truth, and we must be able to wade through our questions, doubts, and fears in order to reach it. Only once we do can we truly be free. It is that freedom of thought that will release us from the cycle of reactivity and violence that’s beginning to grip and choke our nation.

Vivian Winslow is the pen name for Elizabeth A. Hayes. She is the author of The Gilded Flower Trilogies and the Wildflowers Series, contemporary, inclusive romance fiction with a strong female narrative. In addition to writing, Elizabeth is a spirtual teacher and healer.

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1 For a copy of the letter, see http://www.uchicagonyc.org/article.html?aid=863.

2 Sophie Downes, “Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and Free Speech, Too,” The New York Times, September 10, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/opinion/trigger-warnings-safe-spaces-and-free-speech-too.html).

3 Maximillian Alvarez, “Cashing in on the Culture Wars,” The Baffler, September 9, 2016 (http://thebaffler.com/blog/cashing-in-on-culture-wars-alvarez).

4 Scott Jaschik, “The Chicago Letter and Its Aftermath,” Inside Higher Ed, August 29, 2016 (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/29/u-chicago-letter-new-students-safe-spaces-sets-intense-debate).