Matt Kinnaman: 'Safe spaces' pose a genuine danger


LEE >> This column is unsafe, and would not be allowed on many college campuses. Why? Because many students now protest the very existence of divergent viewpoints, and administrators go along. The examples are numerous, and in 2015 they swept across the American academic landscape under the banner of the "safe spaces" movement.

These "safe spaces" are meant to provide protection from confrontation, especially the risk of confrontation with ideas, thoughts, conversations, or any experiences whatsoever that might be uncomfortable or unwelcome. In this new "safe" territory, rational intellectual exploration is off limits. Its risks are unacceptable.

An intellectual space

This arrangement itself creates a confrontation: If higher education is no longer about intellectual exploration, then what's it all about? As one Yale student recently screamed: "It is not about creating an intellectual space... Do you understand that?"

But the college campus has always been, first and foremost, an intellectual space. Engaging with ideas across an array of literary traditions, religious belief systems, sociological and anthropological theories, and cultural mores is essential to a true liberal education.

Getting an education necessarily involves confronting many uncomfortable and unwelcome ideas and opinions. We used to call these "learning opportunities." On today's campus, they're called "microaggressions," they require "trigger warnings," and in "safe spaces" unsettling ideas are prohibited. Freedom of speech, RIP.

Freedom of speech is only the first casualty of the "safe spaces" movement, because free speech does not die alone. It is accompanied by the death of intellectual growth, followed by the demise of individual opportunity. Opportunity — including the opportunity to think creatively — only flourishes in an environment of risk, and it is watered by an appetite for adventure. This has forever been the path to achievement, and it's a path that cannot be navigated from "safe spaces."

Alexis de Tocqueville described this wonderful spirit of exploration and adventure, woven into the early American experience: "Born often under another sky, placed in the middle of an always moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent which draws all about him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything; he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it, more he loves it; for the instability, instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him."

As de Tocqueville's points out, a life of true freedom and achievement is inseparable from uncertainty and surprise, risk and adventure, tumult and change. It is not safe. It is unpredictable, and at its best, full of discovery, exhilaration and energy. The American academic tradition has historically embraced this spirit, and Western thought has nurtured this understanding for centuries in its great universities, unafraid to confront danger in the life of the mind, and in the activities beyond the mind.

One of Western thought's most prolific progenitors, Saint Paul, spoke of this as he spread a brand new school of individually empowering theology into Europe in the first century, promoting a philosophy of freedom that would help shape the next two millennia of political and social progress, a pursuit that definitely wasn't safe.

"We are hard-pressed on every side," he wrote, "but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed..."

Across the ensuing centuries, the Western world was reshaped, through innovation and progress in every arena of human activity and learning, most notably in the achievement of the free, constitutional republic that took the name the United State of America. None of this progress, individual or collective, originated in a safe space.

To insist on intellectual "safety" is to lower ourselves into a world of stasis and decay, a boring and boorish place, closed off not only from free speech and thought, but also from personal growth.

A dead pursuit

From the quantum state of particles to the macro experiences of life, we are surrounded by uncertainties and unknowns, momentum and change, instability and surprises. It's the only way to live. If higher education is not about intellectual risk and adventure, it is a dead pursuit, and it will leave deadened minds in its wake.

As Arthur Brooks wrote in The New York Times recently, it's now up to us to "cultivate a nation of strong individuals motivated by hope and opportunity, not one dominated by victimhood. But we have a long way to go."

Yes, we have a long way to go, and we'll never get there by huddling in "safe spaces."

Matt Kinnaman works in the education publishing industry and is an occasional contributor to The Eagle.


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