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For the past decade or so, battles over campus “safety” have been fought on the grounds of language and expression: words said in class, readings assigned, art displayed, or speakers invited whom some group of students claimed made them unsafe, even in the absence of physical threats or recognizable danger. Over the past two weeks, as police have raided college campuses and arrested students, faculty, and other protesters from Columbia to UCLA to UT-Austin to Indiana University, and as counterprotesters at UCLA launched violent attacks on students, these real dangers to the safety of students have put the battles over language in a harsh light. Students are being tear-gassed and fired upon with rubber bullets. Professors have been tackled and arrested. The scenes of dozens of armed cops in riot gear marching toward university buildings or rows of tents housing kaffiyeh-clad undergrads have been apocalyptic—especially after some of those same cops did not immediately interfere when a right-wing mob seemed to have attacked a pro-Palestinian encampment, as well as student journalists, at UCLA, resulting in a series of injuries.

Well before the cops got involved, some of the progressive and far-left students protesting the war in Gaza found that the language of “safety” was being used against them, as their ideological opponents have (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not) claimed that the demonstrations are harmful and even dangerous. And these groups gave as good as they got, alleging to be the actual ones in peril, thanks to Islamophobia, accusations of antisemitism, and opposition to the protests, which have drawn counterprotesters and sparked attempts to reveal protesters’ identities either online or, as at Columbia, on the streets, via the use of “doxxing trucks.”

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Right now, national attention is understandably on the actual violence at hand. But that violence, and all of the argument that preceded it, should be the beginning of a serious reconsideration. Well before Israel’s war in Gaza and the U.S. campus protests of it, This is harmful and it makes me unsafe was a familiar claim on college campuses. In the shadow of actual violence, the merely ideologically offensive pales, and the suggestion that even challenging ideas are inherently “unsafe” seems laughable. We should keep it that way.

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Most of the pro-Palestinian protests have been peaceful. Some have broken the law and vandalized property, but the gatherings have generally, until very recently, failed to result in bodily injury. But since the police have been brought in, protesters have been arrested with varying degrees of force, with some thrown to the ground, tackled, tear-gassed, fired upon with rubber bullets, or otherwise manhandled by law enforcement called in by the universities. And although the protests have not routinely been violent, many have felt as if they were walking right up to the edge. Jewish students in particular have faced serious threats of violence or heard their classmates argue they should be killed; some of the groups organizing the protests have cheered on murderous terrorist groups or recast even those who slaughtered innocent civilians as “resistance” fighters. All of these incidents are shocking and appalling—and they stand in sharp contrast to the appeals for intellectual and emotional safety that have increasingly characterized life on college campuses, even in postcollege progressive spaces.

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For decades, college administrators and professors have emphasized student safety, promising that students won’t just be physically safe on their campuses but will feel safe. The particulars of what that might entail are necessarily fuzzy, but essentially the message is that students will feel affirmed and that colleges have an obligation to avoid deeply offending student sensibilities, particularly along the lines of identity and religious belief.

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Accusations of wrongdoing often fly to the linguistic: acts or words that people find offensive, distasteful, or bigoted are recast as “dehumanizing” or “violent.” Emphasis shifts away from intent, free expression, or even a reasonable interpretation of events onto “harm,” a kind of emotional trump card demanding not just attention but remediation, and to “safety,” which is ostensibly under threat when students are harmed. Last year, students at Macalester College who were offended by the partial nudity in a feminist art exhibition created by an Iranian woman in support of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests, for example, characterized the work as “dehumanizing,” more than a bit of a stretch. The argument that these images, created by a Muslim Iranian feminist, are “harmful” to “Muslim women who wear the hijab” nevertheless won out: The college put up blackout curtains and warnings to prevent any “non-consensual viewing” of the art and apologized for any “harm to members of our Muslim community.” In 2014 students offended by a University of St. Thomas “hump day” event featuring a camel asserted that the “program [was] dividing people and would make for an uncomfortable and possibly unsafe environment.” Last year, an Ohio Northern University professor who made his own overwrought and frankly silly claims in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, in an op-ed titled “DEI Brings Kafka to My Law School,” was suspended over vague “complaints and concerns” and was told to leave campus “to ensure his safety, [and] the safety of others.”

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In 2018 students offended by a scheduled speaking event by a conservative antifeminist scholar penned a letter saying that inviting her to campus was an “act of aggression and violence.” Last year, at Hamline University, students offended by a painting shown in an art history class, after the professor’s warning that it depicted the Prophet Muhammad and invitation for students to voice any concerns, complained. The university president responded by not renewing the adjunct professor’s contract and apologizing for the “harm” caused students, saying, “When we harm, we should listen rather than debate the merits of or extent of that harm”; she also emphasized the necessity of Muslim students’ feeling “safe” in the classroom, suggesting that the display of a painting may compromise that ideal.

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And although the safety arguments do often come from progressives, conservatives are far from above making them—and unlike progressives, who appeal largely to institutions, many conservatives have gone straight to the legislatures and the courts. Unlike the relatively powerless students who complain to administrators, some of the most powerful conservatives in the country have used claims of danger, harm, and safety to try to ban ideas they don’t like. Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, for instance, deemed critical race theory “dangerous for our kids” in a press release boasting of her efforts to curtail discussions of race in the classroom. Other conservatives have tried to ban “teaching critical race theory”—an idea they seem not to understand and define in absurdly broad terms—in nearly every state in the nation. Former President Donald Trump even took on the issue, putting out an executive order restricting the ways federal employees and contractors could discuss race, even suggesting that talking about racism, racial inequality, and racial privilege “could directly threaten the cohesion and effectiveness” of the U.S. military. The argument that an idea backed up by hundreds of years of history and embraced by thousands of scholars could, if mentioned to soldiers, bring the country’s armed forces to its knees is histrionic beyond parody, the kind of thing that, had it been said on a college campus by a liberal, would engender at least a few days’ worth of right-wing mockery and free speech objections. (Joe Biden has since overturned that executive order.)

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Similar objections of harm and dangerousness have been made to ban the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, an effort led by pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel groups to get various institutions to cut financial ties with Israel and Israeli companies. BDS is controversial, to say the least, but one doesn’t have to agree with its aims or embrace the radical views of its leaders to see boycotting and fund pulling as a long-standing, legitimate, and nonviolent protest tactic. Many conservatives, though, haven’t just objected to BDS—they’ve tried to ban it. Sen. Tim Scott has said that it “is hateful, disgusting and fuels anti-Semitism,” while Sen. Marco Rubio called it “economic warfare”; boycotting Israel is now essentially banned in many U.S. states. Campus objections to BDS have also centered on the movement’s being “harmful,” with some students asserting that divestment campaigns make them feel unsafe. (Others have argued that BDS, and especially its outgrowth, a push for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel, is itself an attempt to shut down the exchange of ideas.)

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The list of examples goes on, and this argument is by now a tired one, with anyone paying attention probably entrenched on either side of it: Either students are acting like fragile and entitled snowflakes with a dangerous disregard for free speech and academic freedom, or the kids are doing just fine and this is a moral-panic figment of the reactionary imagination. (The powerful conservatives acting like fragile snowflakes are rarely folded into this analysis.) The reality is probably somewhere in the middle. But it’s difficult to deny that a few troubling concepts have taken hold: that words and ideas are themselves violent, even when those words are not, in fact, threatening or promoting violence; that colleges have an obligation to avoid emotional or psychic “harm” to their students; and that any accusation of harm is a grave one that must be taken seriously and may very well trump concerns like academic independence or free expression.

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Students, for the record, did not invent these ideas. Grown-ups did, and they have spent years reinforcing them—including the college administrators who are now calling the cops to physically lay hands on their own students.

These claims of feeling unsafe have proliferated on college campuses since Hamas launched a murderous attack against Israeli civilians, and especially after far too many leftist groups and individuals on campus and off responded by justifying terroristic acts and even cheering them on. Once Israel launched its brutal war of reprisal and pro-Palestinian students responded with protests, the safety-related claims escalated. Some Jewish students said they felt unsafe because of the pro-Palestinian protests, at which many students advocated for the destruction of Israel and some students as well as outsiders veered into the nakedly antisemitic, but which have largely been nonviolent. In response, many of the pro-Palestinian protesters and their defenders have accused Jewish students of “weaponizing” antisemitism, even positing that doing so violates their safety. States and politicians have attempted to shut down pro-Palestinian student groups because of their views—an unconstitutional and outrageous move—and one that students also said made them feel unsafe. (Some universities have suspended these groups for repeatedly breaking the rules, as well as for what they characterized as threats, intimidation, and safety issues.)

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Jewish students have reported legitimate safety concerns, including being harassed, threatened, intimidated, and assaulted on campus and near it. Stories proliferate of students who have been spat on, cursed at, called various slurs, or had their kippahs knocked off, among threats of serious violence, including rape and murder, from fellow students. And some of the protests do seem to be infringing on students’ right to an education and equal access to university resources, even if they are not physically threatening. Students have been blocked from accessing community spaces unless they sign on to the protesters’ ideological requirements. Some schools—Columbia most prominent among them—have canceled classes or switched to hybrid in-person and online learning, a strategy that was justified during a global pandemic but is now difficult to see as anything but impeding the full educational rights of students who deserve the gold standard of learning in class and in person. Some professors have reportedly held classes and office hours in or next to the encampments, a wildly inappropriate move that is vastly unfair to students who either oppose the protests or simply want to learn without being pulled into a complex geopolitical debate. Some students are suing.

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But many students, Jewish and non-, have also said that their safety is compromised by ideas they find ugly, bigoted, or unacceptable. The line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism can be blurry, but there is little question that some claims of danger and un-safety have been greatly overstated. Still, as George Packer wrote in the Atlantic of the students making safety claims, “Who could blame them? They were doing what their leaders and teachers had instructed them was the right, the only, way to respond to a hurt.” And he’s correct: Conflating even deep upset or offense with a threat to one’s safety is a strategy that has worked for many other groups of students to get their ideological way because the institutions they attend have for too long pushed a kind of catastrophizing narrative about the harm, violence, and hazards of ugly or even just bad or controversial ideas. Some students may be using these safety concerns cynically, to gain the upper hand in what are now full-blown and multidimensional campus feuds. But many students seem to actually believe that being deeply hurt, even feeling betrayed or socially unwelcome, is a safety threat.

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Because these protests have divided the left, and because concerns about antisemitism are legitimate even if not every accusation of it is, this has been more challenging terrain for progressives to navigate. Some who previously cast concerns about campus safety as reactionary hand-wringing are now either noting the potential perils or simply disputing the current safety complaints without situating them in the broader trajectory of campus and progressive discourse and ideology. (Safety claims that are more about emotional hurt than physical danger, after all, are not limited to college students—they’ve cropped up in progressive spaces online, in workplaces, and in advocacy organizations.) Many conservatives who have long mocked or derided students for their sensitivity and claims of harm are now cynically using these same strategies for very different ends: to undermine student expression, to more aggressively crack down on protesters whose views they simply don’t like, to weaken public trust in higher education, and to stick it to the liberal elites they resent (or believe their base resents and wants to see publicly humiliated). And, arguably even worse, many of the same campus leaders who emphasized, encouraged, or at least had long caved to overstated safety claims have actually compromised many students’ physical safety by calling the police, even in situations where the protests were not violent or threatening.

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It seems incredibly unfair, after decades of overreach and overprotection, to tell the Jewish students who feel hurt, alienated, or unwelcome by these protests, “Too bad.” And it is unfair; it is currently imposing a larger burden on a minority group of students than has been imposed on many other marginalized groups in the past. But it’s also unjust to perpetuate a strategy that has long undermined free expression and academic freedom, and that has done many students, who are no doubt much more intellectually and emotionally robust than they get credit for, a profound disservice. And the actual violence that has now played out at some protests makes clear that there is indeed a difference between emotional harms and physical ones.

Universities have a legal and moral obligation to protect student safety, to prevent and penalize many forms of discrimination, and to ensure that all students can fully access the education to which they are entitled. Right now, too many schools are failing on these very basic measures. But these institutions also have a moral and educational obligation to make classrooms and campuses intellectually challenging and at times intellectually and emotionally unsafe places, and not bow to vague claims of “harm”—or even deep, sincere, and sympathetic statements of hurt, betrayal, offense, or anger—couched in the language of safety.

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Colleges Have Spent Decades Trying to Help Students Feel “Safe.” Recent Events Show That That’s Not Working.

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03.05.2024
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For the past decade or so, battles over campus “safety” have been fought on the grounds of language and expression: words said in class, readings assigned, art displayed, or speakers invited whom some group of students claimed made them unsafe, even in the absence of physical threats or recognizable danger. Over the past two weeks, as police have raided college campuses and arrested students, faculty, and other protesters from Columbia to UCLA to UT-Austin to Indiana University, and as counterprotesters at UCLA launched violent attacks on students, these real dangers to the safety of students have put the battles over language in a harsh light. Students are being tear-gassed and fired upon with rubber bullets. Professors have been tackled and arrested. The scenes of dozens of armed cops in riot gear marching toward university buildings or rows of tents housing kaffiyeh-clad undergrads have been apocalyptic—especially after some of those same cops did not immediately interfere when a right-wing mob seemed to have attacked a pro-Palestinian encampment, as well as student journalists, at UCLA, resulting in a series of injuries.

Well before the cops got involved, some of the progressive and far-left students protesting the war in Gaza found that the language of “safety” was being used against them, as their ideological opponents have (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not) claimed that the demonstrations are harmful and even dangerous. And these groups gave as good as they got, alleging to be the actual ones in peril, thanks to Islamophobia, accusations of antisemitism, and opposition to the protests, which have drawn counterprotesters and sparked attempts to reveal protesters’ identities either online or, as at Columbia, on the streets, via the use of “doxxing trucks.”

Advertisement

Right now, national attention is understandably on the actual violence at hand. But that violence, and all of the argument that preceded it, should be the beginning of a serious reconsideration. Well before Israel’s war in Gaza and the U.S. campus protests of it, This is harmful and it makes me unsafe was a familiar claim on college campuses. In the shadow of actual violence, the merely ideologically offensive pales, and the suggestion that even challenging ideas are inherently “unsafe” seems laughable. We should keep it that way.

Advertisement

Advertisement

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Most of the pro-Palestinian protests have been peaceful. Some have broken the law and vandalized property, but the gatherings have generally, until very recently, failed to result in bodily injury. But since the police have been brought in, protesters have been arrested with varying degrees of force, with some thrown to the ground, tackled, tear-gassed, fired upon with rubber bullets, or otherwise manhandled by law enforcement called in by the universities. And although the protests have not routinely been violent, many have felt as if they were walking right up to the edge. Jewish students in particular have faced serious threats of violence or heard their classmates argue they should be killed; some of the groups organizing the protests have cheered on murderous terrorist groups or recast even those who slaughtered innocent civilians as “resistance” fighters. All of these incidents are shocking and appalling—and they stand in sharp contrast to the appeals for intellectual and emotional safety that have increasingly characterized life on college campuses, even in postcollege progressive spaces.

Advertisement

For decades, college administrators and professors have emphasized student safety, promising that students won’t just be physically safe on their campuses but will feel safe. The particulars of what that might entail are necessarily fuzzy, but essentially the message is that students will feel affirmed and that colleges have an obligation to avoid deeply offending student sensibilities, particularly along the lines of identity and religious belief.

Advertisement

Accusations of wrongdoing often fly to the linguistic: acts or words that people find offensive, distasteful, or bigoted are recast as “dehumanizing” or “violent.” Emphasis shifts away from intent, free expression, or even a reasonable interpretation of events onto “harm,” a kind of emotional trump card demanding not just attention but........

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