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Len Gutkin: Michael, last year you wrote a book called Safe Enough Spaces in which you try hard to turn the temperature down on some of the charged and polarizing debates about the political culture of college campuses now. “We should begin by destigmatizing the notion of safe spaces,” you wrote in The New York Times, “and stop talking about them as if they were part of a zero-sum ideological war.” What’s worked for you as president at Wesleyan?
Michael Roth: Campuses are a battleground in which students sometimes act out, but also older people play out their ideological and emotional disputes using the campus and students as a screen. Psychoanalysts have this phrase, “the good enough parent,” which is the parents who don’t make you psychotic. If you try too hard to keep the kid sane you’ll drive them crazy. But if you say, “To understand the law of physics go play in traffic” — that’s also not going to work. So you wanted a good enough parent. And I thought, Well everybody wants a safe enough space.
This bogeyman of safe spaces served the University of Chicago well in a branding campaign, but nobody really wants a hyper-dangerous environment in which students from underrepresented groups can be assaulted or where women cannot study in peace because the professors find it easier to get dates among undergraduates than among people their own age. We all know those are bad things.
The college campus and especially the classroom needs to be safe enough so you can be uncomfortable and deal with dangerous ideas and really fraught issues about which reasonable people disagree.
How do you turn the temperature down? My notion is very old-fashioned I’m afraid. You get people to take somebody else’s point of view, which encourages them not only to learn the art of debate, which is not unimportant, but to become active listeners.
Gutkin: Nobody would dispute the need for physical security — that a safe space to that extent is necessary. Where the area of disputation comes up is about the degree to which speech can harm. And there I think there are substantive disagreements.
Amna Khalid: How do we define what constitutes a safe space? And how do we define safety? I am completely in agreement with Michael that of course we want spaces that are physically safe — where people don’t feel harassed. But we’re in this moment where the concept of harm, and the idea that words can harm, has become part of the texture of public discourse.
And that is where we get into difficult waters. Who gets to define what is harmful? Who calls the shots on where we want to limit that harm?
I’m not going to say that words don’t harm. Of course words harm. Having been the recipient of harmful words myself, I’m well aware of it. I’m not here to deny anyone’s feelings. But what is our alternative, and what is the cost of that alternative? If we are going to adjudicate which words are harmful, then we really do begin to infringe upon academic freedom. And that is where the rub is. What is harmful to me may not be harmful to you; we are then traversing very subjective territory.
Roth: Wouldn’t that be true of harmful gestures though?
Khalid: I think it would be true of harmful gestures. On your campus, would you prevent a student from giving someone the middle finger?
Roth: From student to student? Probably not. But would I prevent a faculty member from rubbing a student’s butt? Yeah.
Khalid: But of course.
Roth: You have to adjudicate some gestures, some words, some contexts. We make these judgments all the time. There’s not a perfect formula. But the idea that psychological harm isn’t as real as physical harm? That’s like an 1860s’ idea. Psychological harm is real.
Khalid: Michael, I started by saying that I believe psychological harm is real. But it’s an area where it’s very difficult to adjudicate, and you run up against the risk of shutting down speech some of which is very vital for free exchange of ideas, which is the purpose of the academy. Psychological harm is real; we have plenty of data for that. But where exactly should an institution of higher learning start adjudicating that? That’s a very, very messy question.
Eduardo Peñalver: I’m not sure it’s an all or nothing kind of question. I was intrigued by the concept of the “safe enough space” in thinking about giving students the power to insert themselves or extract themselves from situations where they’re more likely to encounter words or ideas they they perceive as inflicting harm on them. In thinking about the different kinds of spaces that we can create where students from different backgrounds and identities can feel like they’re not going to have to defend their priors all the time. Then they can venture out and have the power to engage in the intellectual combat that’s part of the learning experience in the university. So to have different kinds of spaces, with the classroom being the place that’s the most free in terms of exposure to different ideas but also the most constrained in terms of the norms around modes of expression, like gestures and curses and that kind of thing.
If we think about an ecosystem of spaces, and wanting to make sure that students have the ability to control to some extent when they’re exposed to those things and when they’re not, that’s maybe a way to bridge the two perspectives you’re both presenting.
Robert Sellers: A fundamental point that I take from Michael is that all of this really depends on one’s point of view, on one’s perspective. History has taught us nothing if not the fact that issues of freedom and issues of safety are paramount to individuals. But individuals are more than willing to give up someone else’s freedom in order to protect their own safety. And similarly, people are willing to give up other people’s safety to protect their own freedom.
One of the things that is happening now is that voices who have traditionally not had access to higher education, have not had access to some of these spaces, has led to a very different set of notions with regards to what an idealized picture of freedom of speech means. Freedom of speech is particularly valuable if and only if you also have a strong sense of personal safety.
One of the challenges is that we’re dealing with communities that look very different than they have historically looked, and some of the things that we’ve automatically taken for granted as core values aren’t as core given the fact that people are situated in different places and different spaces.
Khalid: I appreciate you fleshing that out, showing where the rub is. “Freedom of speech” — we should perhaps finesse that a little bit. I’m not in favor of anyone being able to mouth off whatever they want on a campus. It’s freedom of speech for the purpose of pursuing knowledge — “academic freedom” is perhaps a better way to think about it. Where the rub comes in is when someone wants to present what may be perceived as an offensive point of view but in the service of trying to understand something better. And that’s where the mission of higher ed becomes relevant — we are in the business of expanding the purview of what constitutes knowledge.
And to that end, I welcome the fact that there are diverse voices on campus. I couldn’t emphasize enough how important that is. But that diversity is valued precisely so we can hear different points of view — and some of them will be offensive. It behooves us as people in the academy to create a space where we can have a conversation about even offensive ideas in such a way that we can get past the offense. Academic freedom is vital to help us deal with precisely the kind of contentious and difficult ideas that some people might want to shut down because they can cause harm or offense.
Peñalver: What we perceive as unsafe or harmful is in part going to depend on the kind of experiences we’ve had. The more experience we’ve had with intellectual disagreement, maybe the less threatened we are with the fact of disagreement or by the expression of points of view we disagree with.
Roth: One of the things that’s so important is to build resilience in this regard — so that people are able to develop the resilience to explore things that they might not have wanted to explore before.
We had a big controversy at Wesleyan about a note I sent to the board and the student body, “Black Lives Matter and So Does Free Speech,” when we had a controversy over an article in a newspaper here. Jelani Cobb wrote a piece in The New Yorker about how free speech is often a cover for racism. I didn’t know him at the time, but I phoned him up and asked him if he would come to Wesleyan to talk about that. Or I invited Judith Butler to give a talk that was canceled in New York because she’s associated with BDS, boycotts against Israel. I’m against that boycott but I think she should talk. That I think did more on our campus than any kind of arguing over free speech — it was the display or the living out of this example of active disagreement about ideas that matter.
Gutkin: Eduardo, you recently reviewed for us the Columbia linguist John McWhorter’s new book, about what he calls “Woke Racism.” McWhorter, you write, “falls far short of persuasively defining its nature and extent.” McWhorter makes a lot of campus incidents that, depending on your ideological commitments, might seem either importantly symptomatic of something having gone deeply wrong, or like stuff that’s been blown out of all proportion. I’m thinking of things like a professor being disciplined for saying the N-word out loud while reading James Baldwin to his class — something Randall Kennedy wrote about for us. What’s your sense of the importance, or the unimportance, of some of these anecdotes around campus incidents that get picked up in the media?
Peñalver: What disappoints me in his book is that he does focus narrowly on these anecdotes. Two things can be true at once: that there are problems around robust debate on campus that we as educators really ought to care about, because we’re trying to train future leaders and we need people who are comfortable debating and advocating for their point of view, and that means being able to put yourselves in the shoes of people you disagree with. The fact that we talk about the same anecdotes over and over again suggests that they’re limited in number, but there have been mistakes that administrators have made in responding to student demands.
But the very same people who six months ago were moaning about safe spaces and the lack of freedom of expression on campus are enacting laws to prohibit debate! In Florida there’s a law that would prohibit making people feel uncomfortable. What is that if not a call for a state-enforced safe space? And it won’t be for people of color.
Khalid: We now have right-wing people using precisely that discourse, the discourse of safe spaces, to shut down conversation. We know it’s disingenuous. And this is exactly the trouble that I have with that kind of discourse — it can be used for multiple ends. There’s no end to how you can frame safety. Tomorrow people are going to say that Black Lives Matter activists on campus are making us uncomfortable — we feel unsafe, we feel psychologically harmed. It is being deployed and weaponized.
I think you’re quite right to point out that the numbers are limited. But these numbers create an atmosphere in which people feel that they cannot speak up. There’s a lot of self-censorship that happens. Even if it’s just one case, it’s not that data point that matters; it’s the effect that it has on the wider environment about the exchange of ideas that I think is worrisome.
Gutkin: I want to turn back for a moment to McWhorter’s book. He has referred to what he sees happening on campuses as a kind of religious movement, a religious frenzy — a kind of fanaticism. Eduardo, whereas many of McWhorter’s critics attacked this characterization of religiosity — they said it was incendiary and inaccurate, that it misunderstood both the campus movements and the nature of religion — you took it seriously, but reversed the valence. You wrote: “Although McWhorter intends the ‘religion’ label to be a badge of shame — how can you debate religious fanatics? — the resemblance of certain aspects of progressive politics to ideas drawn from religion is not accidental. Deep historical ties connect the progressive agenda with the Christian tradition.” And you go on, “Discussions within liberation theology of ‘structural sin’ — with its focus on both racial and economic inequity — bear more than a passing resemblance to contemporary descriptions of systemic racism.” What does it mean to accept, or to at least postulate, that there is something religious about contemporary campus movements?
Peñalver: I think what you see in the politics of the secular left is a real hunger for foundations, and some of the intellectual tool-kit that you see in critical theory generally doesn’t provide a lot of vehicles for making strong affirmative-justice claims.
So in a lot of social-justice discourse on the left, you see the assertion of those strong claims but without having brought in the intellectual foundations that historically have their roots in religious thought. So I was just pointing out that there is this whole intellectual tradition that really invented the term “social justice” — through the vehicle of Catholic social thought but also the social gospel and the Black church during the civil-rights movement in the United States.
The piece of it that I want to move toward in responding to McWhorter’s trenchant criticisms is that those religious traditions also come with another set of ideas around not just sin but redemption, not just offense but forgiveness and the need to be generous and to be charitable with each other and the understanding that we’re all sinners. We all have our flaws. None of us are perfect. So it brings along some of the remedy that I think is missing from our contemporary secular politics on the left — and on the right, for that matter.
Khalid: I think you’re quite right, but perhaps a more accurate comparison would be not with religion but with fundamentalism of a particular sort. Yes, all religious traditions have a tradition of redemption. But there’s a way in which fundamentalist interpretations have become less forgiving, and perhaps erode that space. I’d posit that his analysis holds true to the fundamentalist version of religious expression.
Sellers: In the current zeitgeist, it’s even more difficult. Because both as a society and as individuals, the stress that we have been under makes it much more difficult to be able to do the kinds of intellectual exercises that Michael started out with — the ability to perspective-take, to active-listen. We don’t have the cognitive or the emotional or even the spiritual capacity to be able to give grace to other sides and other perspectives, which gets us to a place where the distinctions between intellectual debate and physical attack get much more blurred than they would have been in times and places when we would have had more cognitive and spiritual capacity. We are more likely to attribute negative intentions to accidental harms in ways that we haven’t in the past. All of this makes the current moment particularly fraught.
Roth: And it’s amplified by the changing nature of expression and how expression is disseminated. There’s a return to a sort of free-market approach to free speech, the libertarian approach. That free-market approach is not effective in an arena of manufactured pollution that is forced into the public sphere, just as the free-market approach to economics is not going to work when you have significant industrial pollution. You need regulation. You need intelligent curation. That’s where colleges and universities can play a really interesting role — they can create artificial arenas of perspective-taking.
You need thoughtful approaches that allow for dissension, disagreement, resilience building — and for self-censorship! I don’t know what’s so bad about self-censorship. Queer people, Black people, and Jews have been doing this. I had to sit here and listen to you guys talk about salvation and sinners and that every religion has a sense of — That’s not true! As a Jew — I can’t believe I’m saying that; usually I self-censor. And now white middle-class people have begun to self-censor. Not so bad!
Khalid: I disagree!
Roth: About middle-class people, or about Jews?
Khalid: I fundamentally disagree with the entire premise. I concur with you that people for so long have been self-censoring who should not have been. But the solution is not to say,"Well, now someone else has to self-censor.” I think that is trivializing the issue of the importance of academic freedom for free inquiry. I will go to bat for that.
Roth: I agree, I don’t want to encourage too much self-censorship, but if you don’t believe in evolution and you’re in an evolutionary biology class, you’re probably not going to talk about it very much.
Khalid: I also kind of bristle sometimes when I see these questions, “Do you self-censor?” We all self-censor. I think there needs to be a distinction. But there’s self-censorship which is basic politeness, and then there’s self-censorship which is out of fear of putting something out there that could advance the conversation. And that is the self-censorship I think is deeply dangerous.
Sellers: There are things that we all agree on, and then there’s a gray space where we start disagreeing. I don’t think anyone here would disagree that universities should be a place where people can be able to have ideas that are of some intellectual value that may be divergent from each other and might even be problematic. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s anyone on this panel who would disagree that speech that is attacking, that is demeaning, that is intentionally designed to inflict harm, doesn’t have a place. The challenge is that there’s a lot of gray space in between. And part of what determines whether some speech should or shouldn’t be regulated has to do with what you believe the intent actually is — and that’s very difficult to determine.