When Victimhood Culture Impedes Academic Freedom for Students

April 2018

“I think it’s important for universities to be safe spaces; where they protect faculty and students, and particularly students of colours and minorities.”

My friend and I – attending a Saturday night public lecture at Wilfrid Laurier University entitled “Mobility Justice and Urban Equity” – exchanged a knowing glance upon hearing this statement. The guest speaker, a professor from Drexel University, was following a trajectory I had come to expect from humanities professors: give an indigenous land acknowledgment and make a brief remark about how important land acknowledgments are; discuss an issue related to diversity, inclusivity, equity, access, and embodiment; and end with some sort of comment about how universities must be safe spaces that protect marginalized communities.

I cannot pinpoint exactly when the creed that “universities must be safe spaces” became the motto and philosophy of arts faculties in universities across the country – it seems to have crept in gradually. If I think back to my first semester of university, in 2012, I can’t recall hearing the term “safe space.” Now, in 2018, during the second semester of my master’s degree, the view that universities must protect and shield students from certain people and perspectives is held by most of the professors I know in my department. This view is troubling, as universities cannot claim to be pursuing the objective discovery of truth if some topics are simply off limits. Moreover, one of the worst things about university-style speech control is that it often yields predictable, boring conversations and shuts down interesting ones. Students must be able to freely bounce their thoughts off their classmates, so they can develop a repertoire of ideas. Otherwise, their opportunity for self-development is squandered and they remain intellectually stagnant. When we aren’t regularly exposed to viewpoints we disagree with, we may even find it difficult to put our disagreement into words. This results in poor argumentative abilities and the resort to name-calling, as well as reliance on terms such as “Nazi,” “Islamophobe,” and “transphobe.” Certain things are described as “problematic,” because that term signals that something bothers someone, but they can’t coherently explain why. In light of a campus climate that fosters victimhood culture, it is a worthy thing to ask ourselves: do students have academic freedom? If so, is safe space culture not impeding what should be an expectation of a mature and intellectual classroom and campus environment?

The Economist Intelligence Unit, in their report Democracy Index 2017: Freedom of Speech Under Attack,claim “Freedom of expression is under threat from those who claim the right not to be offended,” further explaining that “The idea that some speech harms the listener has led to the creation of ‘safe spaces’ on university campuses in the US and the UK [and Canada] into which students who do not wish to be exposed to words and ideas they do not like can retreat.” Two trends work together simultaneously: not only should classrooms be safe spaces, but safe spaces should be available as alternative spaces in instances where students need to escape some sort of looming on-campus or off-campus presence. Wilfrid Laurier University, for example, was among the many universities where a student group organized a “Healing Space” on President Donald Trump’s inauguration day on January 20 2016, despite the fact we reside in a different country. At a speaking engagement in January at Mount Saint Vincent University, in Halifax, the Students’ Union offered a safe space for students during the time I would be present on campus. In late March, my student-oriented club – the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry – invited far-right personality Faith Goldy to speak on campus, and the Diversity and Equity Office offered a “drop-in space” (note the euphemism) for the time Goldy would be on campus. As a commentator on Twitter aptly advised, perhaps these fragile students should just take a nap during these scary speaking events, and by the time they wake up, it’ll all be over.

If we are to invoke the notion of academic freedom for students, we must consider how the student victimhood culture will extend its tentacles outside the classroom. Already, Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt trace victimhood culture back to childhood: “By trying to keep children safe from all risks, obstacles, hurt feelings, and fears, our culture has taken away the opportunities they need to become successful adults. In treating them as fragile – emotionally, socially, and physically – society actually makes them so.” In March, the University of Ottawa Students for Free Speech club sponsored a talk by Professor Janice Fiamengo, who was to present on the topic of whether universities are genuinely pursuing the truth. The venue for this talk was the Ottawa Public Library – yet the talk was still shut down by a protestor who pulled the fire alarm. The no-platforming mentality is common among leftist radicals on campus – but now the no-platform philosophy is moving off campus. There will soon be nowhere to go for people who want to host or attend panels and talks on current controversial topics where a fire alarm can’t be pulled to abruptly end the event.

Though I do not care for fearmongering, my prediction is that the typical humanities classroom in the near future will be bland and unidimensional in its discussions, as students will be too hesitant to express a thought that may get them reported to on-campus diversity authorities. I fear, if the victimhood mentality is allowed to fester, that we are in for a cultural decline, where citizens are either unable or unwilling to engage with people ideologically different from them.

“This is NOT a safe space!” a transgender activist declared as she stormed out of the Q&A session I was doing at Mount Saint Vincent University in late January. No, it wasn’t, and that’s what made the discussion at that Q&A session robust, productive, and engaging.