Dangerous thoughts on university safe zones
You thought that war was hell; that trudging through mud in the trenches for months on end, and then going over the top into the teeth of enemy fire, was the worst sort of physical and psychological torture a human could endure. Think again.
On today’s university campuses, safe zones can hardly cope, apparently, with the sufferers of a burgeoning epidemic of academic post-traumatic stress disorder: the self-identified non-binary-gendered students permanently scarred by Professor Jordan Peterson’s refusal to address them by their chosen pronoun (assuming they haven’t had Peterson fired yet); the young feminist casualties staggering back from a guest lecture by Ann Coulter or Camille Paglia (assuming it hasn’t been cancelled or shouted down); innocent passersby exposed to the horrific displays of the campus pro-life club (assuming that the campus pro-life club hasn’t been de-certified); Hillary acolytes in shock and suicidal despair over the election of the fascist Donald (assuming the results haven’t been overturned); literature majors specializing in Gender and Queer Theory who need occupational therapy after reading the soul-destroying misogynist words of Hamlet, “Frailty, thy name is woman”, or learning that Dante consigned sodomites to one of the lower circles of hell (assuming these works haven’t yet been banned as hate literature).
To heal the emotional wounds of students exposed to such provocations, the administrators at Yale, Brown, and several other Ivy League colleges have furnished their safe zones with therapy puppies, colouring books, Play Doh, teddy bears, and security blankets. Why not pacifiers?, you might ask. A college education is surely now the most expensive form of infant day care ever offered.
And to complete the infantilization of the academic mind, college professors have also implemented “trigger warnings.” At a California university, for example, in a class on the history of economics, a trigger warning is affixed to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, whose “invisible hand and ethos of cut-throat competition may be disturbing to our students who have been taught to value co-operation and compassion for the weak, oppressed, the marginalized, and the other.” In a “sociology of religion” course at a Massachusetts college, the verse from Genesis, “So God created man in his own image … male and female created he them” is flagged with the (internally contradictory) disclaimer: “Students who regard God as Female, as well as those of non-binary gender, might find this text deeply offensive. They may be assured that, in class discussion, the crimes of patriarchy and heterosexual hegemonism will be addressed.” Given the emotional fragility of today’s students, I’m not sure that the word “trigger” should even be mentioned in their presence.
In 1987, the late Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind, his devastating critique of the intellectual and ideological conformity that then reigned on American campuses. In the 30 years since, the mind of the typical college professor and student has been padlocked, dead-bolted, sealed against threatening winds by the caulking guns of political correctness, shuddered against the light and shade of argument, and gone permanently on vacation. Today, the academic mind is so impervious to anything but progressive ideology that not even a team of world-champion oyster shuckers could pry it open.
How did we “progress” so quickly from the idea of the university as a bastion in which freedom of thought and speech were given sanctuary from the violence of repressive political or religious orthodoxies, to its symmetrical opposite: a bastion of political and ideological orthodoxy, from which non-conforming thought and speech are ostracized as dangerous and “offensive”?
It is bracing to remember that in the 12th century, when the oldest European universities were being founded, the regnant pedagogical method was the so-called “Sic et Non”; faculty members and students, that is, would stand up before the class to propose and defend often controversial philosophical and theological opinions, before other faculty members or students would affirm their antitheses.
Now, in the Middle Ages, Christian doctrine was a rather more sensitive subject than even transgendered bathrooms, self-identified pronouns, or cultural appropriations are today, so that when one interlocutor argued for the truth of the Transubstantiation of the Eternal Word under the species of ordinary bread and wine, and another denied it as a rational impossibility, a great many people on campus were bound to be offended. Come to think of it, affirming and negating the same proposition is the perfect recipe for offending everyone.
In the 15th century, at the University of Florence, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola proposed the presentation of his 900 “conclusions”, which he drew from the occult pagan doctrines of Zoroastrianism, Orphism, Hermeticism, late-antique mystery religion, the Cabala, and Chaldaean magic, thus mightily offending orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims, not to mention Aristotelian rationalists, scientific empiricists, Epicureans, and atheists, all at the same time. The event wasn’t cancelled by the administration because they couldn’t guarantee the safety of those who attended; no one threatened to shout Pico down; and the student union didn’t rescind funding for the U of F’s Pro-Paganism Club. In the matter of academic freedom, the Middle Ages were rather more enlightened, and the modern more medieval, than we care to think. Today, the Inquisitors have set up shop within the walls of the academy, and the ideologically heterodox have been forced to seek refuge as far away as possible.
Of course, it is an open secret on campus that safe zones and trigger warnings have hardly been instituted for the protection of “vulnerable” and “marginalized” minorities, so much as for the intimidation of the rest of the officially non-protected student population, who don’t at the moment enjoy the privileges of victimhood. The latter understand from them that any offense to the ideological sensibilities of the “vulnerable and marginalized,” any dissent, that is, from progressive orthodoxy or the canonical historical narrative of white European Christian patriarchal oppression, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, etc, is not to be tolerated in the classroom. The inevitable result is that students and faculty sensibly decline to say, read, or refer to anything vaguely critical of feminists, homosexuals, transsexuals, bisexuals, blacks, browns, Hispanics, Native Americans (i.e., everyone but male Europeans, who are encouraged to confess and ask forgiveness for enjoying “white privilege”), “equity,” “diversity,” multiculturalism, affirmative action, socialism, the welfare state, unrestricted abortion, moral relativism, deconstructionism, or any of the other client groups, faddish theories, or malodorous sacro-sanctities of the Church of Progress.
Safe zones and trigger warnings have thus done for a vast array of topics (discussion of which had always been the university’s raison d’etre) what the fatwa and truck bomb have only partially succeeded in doing for the Prophet Mohammed.
You may be surprised to hear that I am a great supporter of the idea of safe zones … for conservatives. For liberals, the university is already a gigantic safe zone, an impregnable fortress of progressive ideological conformity. In a recent survey, it was revealed that there are on average 22 registered Democrats on the faculties of American campuses for every 1 registered Republican (on Ivy Leagues campuses, the number is 150 to 1). That means that in the recent election, Hillary Clinton got a slightly higher percentage of the professoriate vote than North Korea’s Dear Leader can typically count on from his adoring electorate. The chances, therefore, that a progressive-thinking university student might be ambushed by a non-conforming conservative idea in one of his classes are thus roughly equivalent to the chances of his reefer being enkindled by lightning, or his running into one of the members of the American Nazi Party who are supposed to be prowling the streets of post-Trumpian AmeriKKKa.
So, here’s a revolutionary new idea. Keep the safe zones but re-assign them for conservatives. Have a little compassion for those gap-toothed rubes from fly-over country who are told in class every day that the white race is the cancer on the body politic (racism, anyone?); spare a teddy bear for the males whose gender is diabolized as a miasmal swamp of rapine and oppression (sexism, anyone?); throw a security blanket over a lonely Christian whose religion is regularly abominated as bigoted and intellectually benighted (intolerance, anyone?).
On second thought, keep the teddy bears. Just lay in a few back copies of Military Armaments Monthly, and a liberal supply of Glenlivet.
Harley Price has taught courses on religion, philosophy, literature, and history at the University of Toronto, U of T’s School of Continuing Studies, and Tyndale University College. He blogs at Priceton.org.