Once upon a time (not that long ago), the west’s colleges and universities were its centers of political dissent and incubators of cultural change.
From dress and speech codes to musical trends to the defining issues of the day, students — often with the support and encouragement of more “liberal” faculty — fashioned their own new civic religion out of the catch-phrase “subvert the dominant paradigm.”
The politically active among today’s generation of college students seem hell-bent on turning that religion inside out, maintaining its outward image, form and tactics while working diligently to negate its substance.
From “trigger warnings” ahead of controversial readings or class discussions to “safe spaces” within which potentially traumatizing elements are banned altogether, the goal is conversion of campuses into hothouses, with students as delicate flowers ensconced within and protected from any hint of challenge to their cherished preconceptions.
We’ve been here before. Be it Thomas Bowdler’s “family-friendly” butcherings of Shakespeare, Anthony Comstock’s crusade against delivery of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials via the US postal system, or Tipper Gore’s demand for “Parental Advisory” labels on music, the neo-Puritan impulse cuts across our history as response to anything new, anything different, anything challenging.
Such movements are inherently conservative, and the 21st century campus version is no exception. Conservatism isn’t about the particular content of any set of ideas. It’s about protecting the established, enshrining that which exists now and protecting it from challenge or change at all costs.
If there’s a defining difference in this creeping (and creepy) new campus conservatism with its trigger warnings, safe spaces, and demands that scary, challenging speakers be un-invited to address students, it’s not the speed with which new social norms (particularly those relating to sexual mores, sexual orientation and gender identification) are adopted, but the speed with which the new norms are deemed sacred, no longer up for debate or discussion.
This is the conservatism of China’s Cultural Revolution; western college activists are its Red Guards. They are not the crowd storming the Bastille. They are the crowd cheering around the guillotine. Their demand that society accept the social changes of the last few decades as set in stone and immune to challenge is fundamentally reactionary.
Trigger warnings, safe spaces and campus speaker censorship tend neither toward advancement of good ideas nor protection from bad ideas. Free thought and free expression, however, do serve those ends. Students: Rebel!
Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.