‘Over the past few years, several guest speakers with controversial and objectionable beliefs have presented their ideas at Wellesley. We, the faculty in [Commission for Ethnicity, Race and Equity], defend free speech and believe it is essential to a liberal-arts education. However…’
I needn’t complete the quotation. The ominous ‘however’ is enough to let us know what’s coming next. It’s a familiar technique, reminiscent of that well-worn conversational opener, ‘I’m not racist, but…’. In this case, it is the beginning of an email from six professors at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, in which colleagues are advised to avoid inviting potentially controversial speakers to the campus for fear of causing offence. Because God forbid a university should be a forum for exploring difficult or contentious ideas.
The email encourages faculty members to make no distinction between words and physical violence. The professors discuss a ‘disturbing… pattern of harm’ in the speakers thus far invited. They describe how students have been left ‘in distress’ at having to listen to such ‘painful’ ideas. These talks have caused ‘damage’, and any who have had the courage to rebut the speakers’ arguments have experienced ‘injury’ as a result. If students really are as delicate as this assessment implies, it’s a good job the US government hasn’t reinstated conscription.
Perhaps there are some who genuinely consider emotional grievances to be every bit as damaging as physical violations, but such acute frailty is rare. In truth, most of those who demand a Safe Space from offensive ideas are being disingenuous. The conflation of words and violence is a tactic used to avoid debate and, with the febrile atmosphere currently prevailing on some university campuses, it appears to be working.
Take, for instance, the ongoing furore at the University of Toronto, where Professor Jordan Peterson’s refusal to adopt gender-neutral pronouns has led to calls for his resignation and the possibility of legal action under Ontario’s human rights code. During a recent televised debate, Nicholas Matte, a teacher at the University of Toronto’s faculty of sexual diversity studies, accused Peterson of ‘abusing students’. His actions, Matte said, were ‘tantamount to violence’. Another activist withdrew from the panel on the grounds that to even hold a debate with Peterson was ‘an act of transphobia’.