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Speaking Of America

Safe spaces shouldn't be echo chambers

Censorship by students is a growing problem on college campuses in the US

WASHINGTON • The video clip starts with Mr Nicholas Christakis, the master of Siliman College in Yale University, standing in a square at the school surrounded by a group of students.

"Other people have rights, too, not just you," he says to someone off screen. A voice instantly shoots back, urging the crowd to ignore the don. "Walk away, walk away, he doesn't deserve to be listened to," a student says. But the encounter is only heating up.

Mr Christakis turns to a different student but his attempt to interject seems to set her off.

"Be quiet!" she screams.

And when he persists with his point, she unleashes a tirade: "You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master, you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It's about creating a home here. You are not doing that!"


ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

The video of the confrontation - one apparently triggered by an e-mail arguing that Yale students did not need to be protected from offensive Halloween costumes by the school - has since taken a life of its own.

In two weeks, the 11/2-minute clip kicked up a firestorm of debate over what some see as a worrying trend of sanitising intellectual discourse and restricting academic freedom on campus.

And for her trouble, the shrieking student in the clip has found herself becoming the poster child for the "strawberry generation".

But who is right and who is wrong here? Are students indeed being overly sensitive or are others simply glossing over genuine offence? Is academic freedom really at risk?

A GROWING CAMPUS BUBBLE

To be fair, Yale isn't the only university currently grappling with this debate.

Ms Mary Spellman, the dean of Claremont McKenna College (CMC), an exclusive Californian liberal arts school, recently caved in to demands from students that she step down.

Her transgression was a response to an article in which a student of colour raised concerns about feeling uncomfortable in the college.

In response to one student,

Ms Spellman said the college had a lot of work to do to resolve these issues and stressed that the school was working to "better serve students, especially those who don't fit our CMC mould".

It was a supportive if poorly worded message, and Ms Spellman admitted as much as she apologised.

But the mob demanded she resign anyway and she gave them what they wanted.

Go back further and the list of offences grows longer and, in some instances, more incredible.

According to free speech advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire), between 2009 and last year, 39 convocation speeches were cancelled due to student protests. In the two decades before that, there were just 21.

For instance, International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde withdrew as commencement speaker for Smith College in Massachusetts last year after 500 students signed a petition asking the school to reconsider their choice because they objected to the policies of the IMF.

Then there are the quibbles over what subject material can be taught. In an op-ed in the New Yorker last December, Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk wrote that she found increasing pressure from students not to teach rape law because of its potential to cause distress.

She said that about a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple schools have told her they are excluding rape law from their courses because it was "not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students".

There have also been protests over "uncomfortable" assigned readings on topics as diverse as gay rights and African-American issues.

The movement - which was described by Fire founder Greg Lukianoff in Atlantic magazine as "the coddling of the American mind" - appears to cut across demographics.

In fact, one of the more absurd instances involved Asian-American students at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

In May, members of the school's Asian American Student Association created an exhibit highlighting "micro-aggressions" Asian students had to endure. Micro-aggressions are comments and insults that casually discriminate - albeit often unintentionally - any marginalised group; things like: "Chinese people will eat anything" and "Aren't you supposed to be good at maths?"

Yet, after the students put up posters of micro-aggressions on a campus building, other Asian-American students thought the art project in itself was a micro-aggression. The association was thus pressured to apologise.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

Theories as to why this is happening abound, although the phenomenon may well be too young to have been properly studied.

One explanation put forward is that the need to sanitise debate in universities is born out of the impulse of modern-day parents to sanitise all other parts of growing up.

Then there is the reality that university student populations are more diverse today than they ever were before and, thus, have never had to deal with the same number of integration problems.

I am also partial to the idea that the Internet filter bubble is a major contributor.

In the age of Facebook and Google algorithms that try and tailor what we see according to our historical preferences, we now so rarely have to confront a view we disagree with. And even when we do encounter conflict online, the common resolution is to simply say: "If you don't like it, go somewhere else."

I would be surprised if all that isn't starting to hurt our ability to work out differences when we inevitably encounter them.

The issue has become big enough that President Barack Obama has addressed it twice in the last few months.

Both times, he stressed that universities must expose students to uncomfortable views.

"The purpose of college is not just to transmit skills," he said during a town hall meeting in Iowa in September. "It's also to widen your horizons; to make you a better citizen; to help you to evaluate information, to help you make your way through the world; to help you be more creative. The way to do that is to create a space where a lot of ideas are presented and collide - where people are having arguments and people are testing each other's theories... "

Mr Obama then repeated those points this week in an interview in which he stressed that "a display of your strength is simply shutting other people up".

VALIDATE OR SHUT UP?

Perhaps what is most worrying in all these cases isn't so much how easily young people today get offended. (I realise, after all, that it is human nature for one generation to regard the next one as more fragile than itself.)

The scary bit is the vindictiveness with which students reacted to a view they did not like. There did not appear to be any attempt to understand the other party, nor was there any room for the old "agree to disagree" compromise.

The student whose rant Mr Christakis had to endure saw no need to return the favour. She said her piece and then stormed off. Those who opposed IMF policies had no interest in hearing Ms Lagarde defend them. They just wanted to silence her.

In one example after another, the students either wanted their view validated through an apology, or for a view they found offensive to be snuffed out altogether.

It was not enough for just an offended group to stop listening, no one else could listen either.

That may be how to react to hate speech, but it seems to me the criteria by which we judge hate speech have become too broad. I don't want to suggest for a moment that this sort of behaviour is reflective of all or even a majority of students in today's colleges. But if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, it is no longer a minor issue.

No one is pretending that there aren't legitimate grievances in university.

Even in the Yale situation, a ready explanation for the overreaction is that some deeper race issues had been projected onto the more frivolous costume argument.

But the mechanism for dealing with such things in a university has to be to address it openly when it comes up, and not try to shut it down.

At a time when society all round the world is more polarised than ever before, learning to disagree agreeably is critical.

A safe space doesn't have to be an echo chamber.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2015, with the headline 'Safe spaces shouldn't be echo chambers'. Print Edition | Subscribe