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Inside The Free Speech Debate On College Campuses

People exit a main entrance of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)
People exit a main entrance of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)

Are colleges — the designated centers for the universe of ideas — home now to a culture of fragility? Has rigorous debate been traded for safe spaces and trigger warnings?

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are the co-authors of a new book titled "The Coddling of the American Mind," and in it they argue an excessive college "safety culture" is setting students up for failure.

Tuesday On Point, they took listeners through their reasons why.

"I was used to people making arguments for censorship on campus based on offensiveness, based on bigotry, based on all of these kind of standard arguments," Lukianoff told On Point. "But the new arguments around 2013, 2014 were medicalized."

In other words, Lukianoff saw students reject and protest certain speakers visiting campuses because they argued that the speakers' presences would be traumatic.

One such example came from Brown University in 2014. Wendy McElroy, a libertarian, was invited to speak on campus in a debate about campus sexual assault with Jessica Valenti, founder of feministing.com. The school's Sexual Assault Task Force raised the concern that McElroy's positions on campus "rape culture" might invalidate some students' experiences.

In turn, the university set up another talk to take place at the same time as the debate — a discussion of "the role of culture in sexual assault" — and students set up a safe space (which featured cookies, coloring books, Play-Doh and more) for people to visit if they felt triggered by the debate.

"I wanted to talk to Jon about how I thought this could become sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and also that it went against everything that I knew about psychology," Lukianoff said. "And also, of course, it poses a problem for free speech if you're treating dissenting speakers as if they're actually toxic to the environment of a campus."

Some of our listeners took to social media to defend just that treatment of certain speakers — that there are real, material consequences to the proliferation of certain ideas, in the historical context of systemic inequality, and that insulation from those ideas is not an act of silencing, but an act of protection.

Lukianoff and Haidt, however, don't deny that students of traditionally marginalized or disenfranchised identities will experience indignities and even acts of aggression on college campuses. Nor, Haidt says, would they suggest the answer is "just suck it up and forget it."

Instead, they say, they want to consider not just the morality of this question, but also the psychology surrounding it.

"What I'm trying to do here, what Greg and I are trying to do, is say, 'Let's try to actually solve the problem. What would it take to actually create a climate in which everyone feels welcome to speak?' And, so, we all agree — and I agree with most of our critics — that it's important to train people to be less offensive. Especially if you have a very international student body. People have to know what kinds of jokes are not OK, how do you talk about gender and sex. You need to reduce the amount of offensiveness.

"But if, at the same time, you lower the bar for what counts as offensive to the point where, if someone simply says, 'You know what, I personally think that the best person for the job should get the job' — if you lower the bar so far that innocent statements that have no malice whatsoever and are not aggressive in any way, that those now count as offensive and harmful, then you're running in place. You've done all this work, and you've achieved nothing. Your black students, your students of various identity groups, they feel exactly as marginalized as they did 20 or 30 years ago."

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Again, some listeners pointed to systemic inequality — the question of whose voices have been historically heard, amplified and accepted, and whose have not — as the basis for re-establishing what is considered offensive or harmful.

The debate, as always, continues on Twitter and in other digital spaces with our listeners:

Headshot of Alex Schroeder

Alex Schroeder Digital Producer, On Point
Alex Schroeder is a digital producer for On Point.

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