Dear Class of 2020: Don’t Hide from Ideas that Scare You
In a letter addressed to the University of Chicago’s incoming freshmen yesterday, university officials stated their stance against using trigger warnings and safe spaces to shield students from unpopular, possibly offensive topics. University officials indicated their concern while favoring a school environment that encourages learning about others’ perspectives through open communication.
As a college student, I applaud the University’s decision.
Although I realize the intent of these warnings and intellectual safe spaces, I have also witnessed the detrimental consequences these “safety measures” can have. In an environment overly sheltered from outsider ideas, people can become hypersensitive, taking offense at ideas not meant to be offensive and losing track of the idea’s main focus.
“In an environment overly sheltered from outsider ideas, people can become hypersensitive, taking offense at ideas not meant to be offensive and losing track of the idea’s main focus.”
I will use an example from my own college experiences to delineate my point. On March 22, Larry Moneta, Duke Vice President for Student Affairs, sent a mass email to students expressing his condolences to those affected by the Brussels terrorist attack that happened earlier that morning. In his email, he also reaches out to the Duke Muslim community, expressing his sympathies and offering students ways to receive emotional support.
When I read his email, I was happy to see that Moneta was taking stronger measures to make Duke feel more like “home” to those who felt less safe amid recent terrorist attacks. There were others, however, who did not share my positive reaction. Just over three hours after he sent his email, Moneta sent another mass email apologizing for “neglect[ing] to acknowledge the tragic bombings that took place in Turkey” the previous week. It was evident that he had received complaints from at least several students upset about how Moneta acknowledged the tragedy in Brussels but not Turkey.
I could not help feeling surprised by the negative reception. Although I understood why students would have preferred a supportive email following both attacks, I was shocked at the thought that students could have been offended by Moneta’s actions. In a sheltered college environment, this message of support was, for some, an example of injustice. In the midst of the backlash, some lost focus of what should have been the main takeaway from his original email: that the Duke student body would support anyone affected by tragedy.
Moneta could have avoided all controversy if he mentioned both incidents. He could also have avoided all controversy if he failed to mention both incidents. However, he acknowledged one and forgot the other, and this caused students to lose focus of his well-intentioned message and be upset by his actions.
I am glad to see that Moneta took the time to write his first email and discuss a sensitive topic. As for the controversy it caused, I attribute the negative reception at least partly due to the hypersensitive university environment—a school environment designed to shield students from ideas they may disagree with, an environment in which some perspectives are not given a voice. In this environment, it seems impossible to satisfy everyone. In this environment, even the most positive of ideas can be misconstrued as offensive.
“In this environment, even the most positive of ideas can be misconstrued as offensive.”
People must realize that it is only through an assessment of both a message and its owner’s intentions that people can accurately make their own judgments. Moneta had the best of intentions. He wanted everyone in the student body to feel welcome despite recent events meant to divide people. The backlash he received did not take enough of his intention into account.
The University of Chicago’s decision to favor more open dialogue at the expense of trigger warnings and safe spaces is one to be followed. Success in any interaction depends on communication: being open rather than closed off, desiring to understand others rather than assuming they have nothing worthwhile to listen to. It was strengthened communication that resolved the email controversy, for Moneta sent another follow-up email to further clarify his intentions.
People should not need to feel afraid to express their own ideas. They should refuse to be censored, and they should refuse to censor themselves. What we all need is a safe space for ideas.
“What we all need is a safe space for ideas.”
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