President Obama criticized progressive campus culture during a speech Monday saying he is not a fan of the safe spaces/call-out culture being fashioned by his own base.
At a town hall event in Iowa yesterday, President Obama offered his unsolicited opinion of this new culture being developed on campus. “I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. And, you know, I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either,” Obama said.
Obama labeled this a form of coddling saying, “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.” This brought a round of applause.
“I think that you should be able to — you should invite — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em,” Obama encouraged the crowd. He added, “But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because my–I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not, that’s not the way we learn either.”
Obama’s statement is a direct rebuke to so-called call-out culture, which has been gaining traction on some college campuses over the last 3-4 years. As Obama suggested, call-out culture encourages students to see opposing points of view as potential threats to their well being. So, for instance, some groups have led campaigns to disinvite or shut down conservative guest speakers on campus. In lieu of that, students have set up “safe spaces” for those who are overwhelmed by being confronted with thoughts or ideas they find problematic or hurtful.
Call-out culture has become a major topic of conversation and controversy in 2015. Earlier this year, several university professors wrote pieces describing an environment in which professors now live in fear of offending one of their progressive students and losing their jobs over it.
It’s not possible to know which pieces on this topic President Obama has been reading, but one possible hint might be his use of the word “coddling.” In its September issue, the Atlantic published a piece titled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that the embrace of “emotional reasoning” in which hurt feelings are in themselves proof someone else has wronged or violated you, is infantilizing adults on campus. Students are actually being encouraged to magnify and respond to every small slight, real or imagined. The authors write that this is, “a formula for a constant state of outrage.”
As Haidt and Lukianoff argue, this problem is at least partly being driven by changes in how the Department of Education treats allegations of sexual harassment. As of 2013, such harassment no longer has to meet a “reasonable person” test, it merely needs to be unwelcome. And because universities fear being sued or losing access to federal money, many “are now applying that standard—defining unwelcome speech as harassment—not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well.”
President Obama deserves credit for standing up to the PC/call-out culture his own base is creating on campuses across the country, but he could do more than one off the cuff mention. Haidt and Lukianoff write that Congress needs to define harassment in a way that frees universities from the fear of lawsuits. That’s something the President could push for if he were willing to improve and expand upon the statements he made yesterday.