Safe spaces shouldn't be echo chambers

Safe spaces shouldn't be echo chambers
Censorship by students is a growing problem on college campuses in the US.
PHOTO: Chng Choon Hiong

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!"

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?


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.

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