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How political correctness rules in America’s student ‘safe spaces’

A student backlash against hearing words and ideas that oppose their own, citing emotional “trauma”, is changing the culture of the American campus

by Ruth Sherlock     •     Telegraph

Harvard Law School Photo: Alamy

Far from the bra-burning, devil-may-care attitudes at universities in the Sixties and Seventies, today’s generation of American students increasingly appears to yearn for a campus ruled by dogmatic political correctness, in which faculty members assume the role of parents more than purveyors of academic rigour.

The lexicon of college has changed: students now speak about “micro-aggressions”, “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”.

The notion of the “safe space” first emerged to describe a place of refuge for people exposed to racial prejudice or sexism. But the phrase has changed meaning to the point where now it often implies protection from “exposure to ideas that make one uncomfortable”, according to Nadine Strossen, a prominent law professor and former head of the American Civil Liberties Union.

At Brown University – like Harvard, one of the eight elite Ivy League universities – the New York Times reported students set up a “safe space” that offered calming music, cookies, Play-Doh and a video of frolicking puppies to help students cope with a discussion on how colleges should handle sexual assault.

A Harvard student described in the university newspaper attending a “safe space” complete with “massage circles” that was designed to help students have open conversations.

This hesitancy to engage in the dialogue of debate – and, in its most extreme form, the sense that hearing opposing opinions can cause damage to the psyche – has seeped from the campus to the classroom.

About two years ago, Prof Suk said her Harvard students began reacting “noticeably differently” to lectures on sexual assault that make up part of her criminal law class. “There would be some element of nervousness about approaching the discussion that was more pronounced than before,” she said.

And there were curious questions from the students: “’Why did you choose to show this film’ or ‘Why did you choose to assign this reading without giving us a warning of what they contained?’” Prof Suk said.

The introduction of “trigger warnings” may have been designed to protect people who have suffered serious trauma, but critics fear they are now a means to prevent the free discussion in class that is an essential part of academic learning. “The language of trauma, which started as a term to describe extreme events, started to be used much more loosely,” Prof Suk said. “So trauma is now colloquially used to mean lots of different things including non-extreme, even everyday events.”

In this new environment, lecturers in some English departments have started to warn of the potentially traumatic effects of reading material.

Literary classics are now considered potentially “unsafe” for students to read. Reading lists at some universities are being adapted to come with warnings printed beside certain titles: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (Trigger: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence) and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Trigger: suicidal tendencies).

In some colleges, professors have been known to tell students that if a book makes them feel unsafe, they are allowed to skim it, or skip it altogether, a Harvard Law professor told this newspaper.

Lecturers unhappy with this state of affairs blame the US department of education for allowing student angst to morph into a tyranny that has many professors running scared.

The department of education’s office of civil rights, the OCR, recently enforced professional misconduct policies designed to deal with issues such as the sexual harassment of students on campus. But that policy, said Anita Levy, senior programme officer at the American Association of University Professors, is being misapplied in some cases to cover charges that are not clearly related.

The policy has led to a sharp increase in dismissals, and in some cases students have the power to bring about the sacking of professors who have committed the most minor of offences. A professor of English and film studies at San Bernardino Valley College in California was punished for requiring his class to write essays defining pornography, according to Ms Strossen.

This summer, Louisiana State University sacked a professor of early childhood education because she swore and used humour about sex when she was teaching about sexuality, often to capture her students’ attention.

The policies caused such anger that 28 Harvard Law School professors signed a petition criticising the department of education’s measures as unfair to professors. Sexual harassment should be dealt with, they said, but this policy vilified staff and put them on the chopping block. That in turn spawned a backlash from some students, who accused the teachers of trying to halt progress.

Jerry Seinfeld says that political correctness is hurting comedy
US comic Jerry Seinfeld Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images
In this new hyper-politically correct environment, comedians have pulled out of performing on what used to be the lucrative campus circuit. Jerry Seinfeld, one of the country’s most popular comics, said in a radio interview that he had been warned by colleagues to avoid universities because “they are too PC”. These days, comedy must be barb-free and squeaky clean for student ears.

Faculty members have sought to comprehend the desires of this generation of pupils, whose behaviours and beliefs differ so markedly from those of previous generations. “I don’t think this is for us to say, ‘Oh, just toughen up’,” said another Harvard law professor who asked not to be named for fear of a backlash from students.

“I think it’s for us to figure out what we are talking about here.”

One possible explanation is that American society is producing mollycoddled children who, when they arrive at university, have not yet developed a sense of defiant independence.

Today’s university students, according to the professor, are the “9/11 generation”.

“There are real reasons why people in college and university today would feel anxious,” the professor said. “This is a generation whose childhoods were transformed by 9/11; this is a generation whose adulthoods were transformed by the economic crisis; this is the generation for whom the unpaid internship was invented.

“We live in a security-saturated era, and so it doesn’t surprise me that they would speak in the language of security, which they translate as safety.”

Prof Suk agreed that in an age in which America has felt itself under attack, parents might react by giving their children a “bigger sense of security”. While her generation was able to play relatively independently, today’s students would not have been allowed out alone on the streets.

But advocates of the “safe spaces” phenomenon say this is not the expression of hypersensitive, mollycoddled youth, but rather the development of a movement that is advancing the goals of racial and sexual emancipation.

“People say, ‘In my day we were tough’,” said one female Harvard student, who asked not to be named. “Well no: your generation was racist and sexist. We are changing things – this is what progress looks like.”

The student angrily criticised those citing “cuddly toy” safe rooms and oversensitive proscriptions of certain terms. These are the extreme, “frivolous” examples, she said, and distract from the main purpose of the project, which is to change culture in a way that better accepts ethnic minorities and people with different sexual orientations.

A gay person or a black person, she said, is always “working overtime” to justify themselves in a predominantly white environment.

“It’s tough because there are people, usually straight, white and from privilege, who benefit from open debate on these issues. But that means the minority is constantly being questioned on subjects that hurt,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”

Many of the “trigger” issues pushed by students are met with sarcastic eye-rolling from outsiders, but for those involved they hold a deeper significance that speaks of social justice.

For instance, a group of students has begun a campaign to persuade Harvard Law School to change its seal, arguing that the current crest belonged to a family of slave owners, the Royall family, who “burned 77 slaves alive, tortured folks, and became the largest slave owners in the state of the Massachusetts”, said one student who asked not to be named.

“I am in the bicentennial class. It would be quite a powerful sign if on the 200th anniversary of the law school we decide to change the seal to something that is representative of the ideals that this institution now stands for, as opposed to its slave owner past.”

But faculty members maintain that while students are right to push social boundaries, this is not the way to do so. Far from advancing social justice, they are limiting freedom of speech, they say.

“I do have concerns about the broader appetite for debate – that speech is being limited by making speech unsafe to listen to,” the Harvard law professor said.

Ms Strossen said: “There is a fundamental mistake in the function here. Robust freedom of speech is a prerequisite for equality.”

Ms Strossen, the Harvard law professor who asked not to be named and Prof Suk all said they had refused to bow to the demands for trigger warnings in their classes.

“I tell my students the entire course is one painful, horrifying episode of human misery after the other,” the professor said. It is impossible to know which part of the class might trigger trauma. “Is it going to be divorce? Is it going to be a child born without an intact nervous system? Is it going to be getting falsely accused of a crime? Is it going to be having a war break out in your neighbourhood?”

If students want a rounded education that best prepares them for the world, these lecturers believe, then they must leave their need for “safe spaces” and “triggers” at the door.