Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Illiberal intolerance and safe spaces

The reactions of some Yale students to a faculty member’s e-mail about Halloween costumes is sad and frightening: rather than reading carefully enough to engage what the faculty member said (and what she said her Yale-colleague husband said), students shout and denounce. The subject line of the e-mail, “Dressing Yourselves,“ makes a point about the difference between children and young adults: the latter have the freedom to choose their clothes (or costumes) and the ability to dress themselves, and then talk, if necessary, about what they’re wearing and why. The response of the student in this video clip — “You are disgusting!” and “You should step down!” — reveals a deeply illiberal intolerance: if I think you’re wrong, you must go away. “It is not about creating an intellectual space,” she says. She’s certainly right about that.

The Missouri scenario is more complicated, with a president whose credentials and performance were deeply lacking. But there too, the organized response to his inaction dismays me: the president must resign, but only after he acknowledges his white privilege and provides “a verbal commitment” to fulfilling students’ demands. What does that commitment amount to once he has resigned?

So too with the treatment of journalists: a Missouri faculty member who seeks to remove a journalist by calling out “I need some muscle over here” represents a deeply illiberal intolerance, however progressive she might believe herself to be. At Yale, it’s about “comfort” (to quote the student in the clip); at Missouri, it’s about a “safe space.” “You don’t have a right to take our photo,” says a member of the most photographed generation in history. My comfort, right or wrong.

The dream of the “safe space” suggests to me a womblike existence upon which nothing untoward is supposed to intrude. It might be understandable that students in a dangerous, uncertain world would aspire to inhabit such a space. But if they think that college is meant to provide that space, they need to do some growing up.

comments: 8

sean said...

I thought that Conor Friedersdorf's article in the Atlantic was spot-on. A few choice quotations:

"According to The Washington Post, “several students in Silliman said they cannot bear to live in the college anymore.” These are young people who live in safe, heated buildings with two Steinway grand pianos, an indoor basketball court, a courtyard with hammocks and picnic tables, a computer lab, a dance studio, a gym, a movie theater, a film-editing lab, billiard tables, an art gallery, and four music practice rooms. But they can’t bear this setting that millions of people would risk their lives to inhabit because one woman wrote an email that hurt their feelings?"

"Another Silliman resident declared in a campus publication, “I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns.” One feels for these students. But if an email about Halloween costumes has them skipping class and suffering breakdowns, either they need help from mental-health professionals or they’ve been grievously ill-served by debilitating ideological notions they’ve acquired about what ought to cause them pain."

Michael Leddy said...

Here’s a link to the piece Sean mentioned.

All I’ve looked at are a handful of news reports and primary sources (the e-mail, videos) — I’ve been wanting to avoid having to think about both Missouri and Yale. I am happy to see that Friedersdorf too (writing about Yale) is thinking about intolerance. He knows much more about the world of elite education (NYU, Pomona) than I do.

It’d be interesting to sit down with some of these students and listen to them talk about why they feel as they do. I would be interested in listening to their explanations and their responses to questions.

Michael Leddy said...

I notice that CF is described as “right-leaning.” Quite the opposite of me. I think people on the right and left (and in the middle) should be dismayed by illiberal intolerance.

Slywy said...

I wish someone could explain why this email is outrageous. (It's late and I didn't read the whole thing, but nothing jumped out at me.)

Frex said...

I remember with chagrin being an intolerant young person like these students, all the while thinking I was an *innocent* champion of liberality.

Eventually I realized that the quest for a safe space ["womyn only", among other things, in my time/world] meant shutting down discussion,
and I decided that was worse than feeling unsafe.
And also I realized that safety is an illusion: you bring your own danger with you.

What I needed (need) from education was (is) to learn how to take/handle risks.
You know, like, how to stop, drop, and roll when you catch on fire, not how to find somewhere there are no fires [nowhere]. :)

Now when I hear "safe space", I think of my favorite lines from Captain Kirk:

"Risk! Risk is our business. That's what this starship is all about. That's why we're aboard her."

Anyway--thanks for writing about this.

Slywy said...

I'm told young people believe they need to be protected from anything that may be hurtful. On this day when we honor those who voluntarily or involuntarily went off to war, many young (some very young, like the drummers of the Civil War), many not to return, others to return physically and emotionally maimed, I can only shake my head in disbelief at the inability (or refusal) to embrace maturity.

Slywy said...

Well said, Frex. Love the Kirk quote.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I love the Captain Kirk line too, even if I’m reading it for the first time.