‘Infantilized’ College Students Need ‘Safe Spaces’ to Avoid Scary Free Speech

AP Photo/MSU/Megan Bean
AP Photo/MSU/Megan Bean

Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New York Times, reports that infantilized college students are indulging their need for insulation by demanding “safe spaces” where any speech that could hurt their feelings would be forbidden.

She lists examples of the demands of students that verge on the incredible; in one instance, when a student group at Brown University called the Sexual Assault Task Force discovered that a debate was to be held where one participant, a libertarian, would slam the term “rape culture,” the group protested to the administration. That prompted Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, to schedule a talk concurrent with the debate that would provide “research and facts” about “the role of culture in sexual assault.” A “safe space” was created for students upset by the debate; the space included cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and a video of puppies.

Brown is not alone; Columbia University’s student group Everyone Allied Against Homophobia slid a flier stating “I want this space to be a safe space” under the door of every dorm room on campus stipulating that the flier be affixed to the windows of the room. The group published the flier in the Columbia Daily Spectator.

One student, Adam Shapiro, protested by printing his own flier that called his room a dangerous place, then published his flier in the Columbia Daily Spectator. He wrote, “Kindness alone won’t allow us to gain more insight into truth. If the point of a safe space is therapy for people who feel victimized by traumatization, that sounds like a great mission.” He added that the fear of offending students has led to professors avoiding saying anything remotely controversial.

At Northwestern University, students marched to protest Professor Laura Kipnis pointing out what she termed the sexual paranoia pervading campus life. One organizer of the protest intoned, “we need to be setting aside spaces to talk” about “victim-blaming.”

Oxford University’s Christ Church college canceled a November debate on abortion when feminists screamed that both debaters were men. At Hampshire College, a student group that had invited Afrofunk band Shokazoba canceled the invitation because too many white musicians played in the band. At Smith College, President Kathleen McCartney apologized for failing to confront free-speech advocate Wendy Kaminer for arguing that using the term “N-word” instead of the word actually used in American history or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was wrong. Smith’s Student Government Association asserted “if Smith is unsafe for one student, it is unsafe for all students.” Kamminer responded, “It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism.”

In an essay for Inside Higher Ed, Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, called the prevailing attitude that student should not be offended “self-infantilization.” Eric Posner, from the University of Chicago Law School, wrote on Slate that today’s undergraduates are more childish than undergraduates of previous eras.

Shulevitz notes that the tendency for students to feel so easily threatened and need protection derived from the 1980s and 1990s, when feminists and legal scholars said the First Amendment was not meant to offer free speech to supposedly racist or sexist language causing pain.

Shulevitz concludes with the recent incident at the University of Chicago in which Zineb El Rhazoui, a journalist at Charlie Hebdo, who lives with death threats, spoke and was confronted by a Muslim student claiming she disliked the phrase “I am Charlie.” Rhazoui replied, “Being Charlie Hebdo means to die because of a drawing,” and added that she was under constant threat, whereupon the student claimed she was under constant threat, too.


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