Last week, the University of Chicago released a statement to its incoming freshmen informing them that they would not be granted “safe spaces” on their college campus where their ideologies would be free of questioning. “Trigger warnings,” the advance notices before discussing a topic that it might be emotionally upsetting to some people, were also condemned by the school in its letter. Naturally, the reaction from the public has been somewhat mixed, with most of the rhetoric on the internet seeming to go against UChicago’s decision. But if you think that I am one of those people, let me offer you a trigger warning now in case you want to stop reading; I think it is about damn time.
One thing that this election cycle has made all too obvious is that this country has been overrun by oversensitivity and the fear to offend. Long before the term “political correctness” became the calling card of Donald Trump’s campaign, I and many like-minded observers had become concerned with how much self-censorship was being gradually foisted upon the American people under the guise of basic decency. Over the past several years the problem has spiraled out of control as the country has become increasingly Balkanized, with the far left attempting to dictate a strict set of views that are culturally acceptable to hold. Dangerously stigmatizing labels such as “racist,” “sexist,” and “homophobe” (take your pick of the supposed phobia) are applied left and right to people undeserving of them, just because they hold a dissenting opinion from the majority. Bill Maher is called an anti-Muslim bigot because he holds negative views about the Islamic faith, with his detractors seemingly ignoring his obvious and public contempt for all religions. Trump is labeled a racist for standing against illegal immigration in all its forms, even though the last time I checked “immigrant” was not a race. Nowhere has the problem been worse than on college campuses, where controversial speakers being canceled and ridiculous measures being taken to avoid “microaggressions” seem to be occurring ever more frequently.
Though the media’s definition of a “microaggression,” which was originally coined to define the institutionalized derogatory remarks and actions towards African-Americans in everyday life, but has since been coopted to refer to almost any comment towards a person that may be personally viewed as insulting or harmful, is borderline ridiculous to me, I can admit that the discussion and study of one is a worthy pursuit at an academic institution. Far more offensive to me is the attempt to stifle intellectual thought and the fraternizing of differing opinions by the creation of so-called “safe spaces,” which are by their very definition contrary to the ideas embodied by institutes of higher education. Safe space rhetoric reached its height of absurdity last year with the infamous video of the Yale student screaming at the master of her residential college for his views on whether students should be so easily offended by Halloween costumes. “It is not about creating an intellectual space!” she insisted, “It’s about creating a home here!” We are living in a world where a college professor is lambasted for insisting on fostering an environment of tolerance and critical thinking. As I witnessed the tide of public opinion continue to move against those who would stand up to political correctness run amok, I began to grow somewhat concerned as a holder of many so-called “offensive” beliefs. Imagine my delight then when I read that the University of Chicago, one of the premier academic institutions in our country, was finally taking a stand against these social justice warriors.
In telling their students that the school will not cater to each and every student’s desire to feel comfortable, UChicago is teaching an invaluable lesson: you don’t get to be comfortable all the time. Believe it or not, the real world puts people in all sorts of situations where they are forced to interact and yes, cooperate with people who think differently. And not only that, but this reality is actually a healthy and positive one, a catalyst for innovative ideas and compromise that engenders progress.
Imagine if you would what the world would like if there was no difference of opinion, if one ideology would have the potential to dominate the masses through groupthink without anyone willing or able to question it. As it so happens, we have a plethora of historical examples to choose from, all in the form of authoritarian dictatorships. I’m not suggesting that the overly sensitive anti-free speech movement in this country is evil or capable of committing any sort of horrible atrocity, but their wish to silence the voices of those who disagree with them is just as reminiscent of fascism as anything that Donald Trump is generating in his Republican base. Now contrast the failed and unjust regimes of dictators to the great civilizations that have been created in the name of democracy, a form of governance that needs its citizens to debate and compromise in order to succeed. Unimaginable wealth, knowledge, and opportunity have been created from such a system and running away from what makes us who we are is not the proper course for the future.
At this point it seems important to note that like almost all ideas gone awry, political correctness began with good intentions. Certainly it is not too much to ask of moral and civil individuals to do their best not to offend or aggravate others, just as a matter of common courtesy. But this does not translate into a right not to be offended, and I would argue that it is just as much the responsibility of the offended party to shrug off what has been said as it is for the offender to not say it in the first place. If all these “triggered” people could just try to not care so much that there are others in the world who think differently than themselves, they would ultimately be much happier and more productive. This was a lesson we were all supposed to learn when we were five years old, when our parents told us that we couldn’t get everything we wanted because the universe did not revolve around us.
Instead of freaking out, let me offer an alternative solution, one that requires the recognition that safe spaces do not accomplish anything. If you have a criticism with someone’s sincerely held belief, the proper thing to do is not to silence them with prejudice but to have a reasoned as to why you disagree with them. When both sides come into a debate with facts and logic to back up their arguments, as well as an open mind to the views of their opponent, a meaningful conversation can be had. One side might even be persuaded over to the viewpoint of the other. And if one side finds that they can’t quite support the thing they believe, then maybe they should reconsider believing it. Ultimately, this is all the University of Chicago is asking of its students. The school is not coming out in support of racism, bigotry, or hatred. It just wants to properly prepare its students for a future in which its graduates will hopefully have a better understanding of what those words actually mean, and be able to explain why they are so harmful. Here’s to hoping that in the coming years, more universities — and more people — will follow suit.