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The Market For Safety Schools

Have you ever hated the way someone thought and acted so much you wished they left your entire school?

In a recent blog post, free speech activist Ken White fleshed out a concept that has been forming in the academic world for at least a decade now: that schools should be segregated by degrees of freedom of speech.

He points to the fact that many schools have already passed restrictive speech and behaviour codes, and some, such as the University of California, are on the verge of declaring an official right to be free of expressions of intolerance.

White’s idea would have schools openly implementing their cultures of harshness or leniency for potentially-offensive works as dedicated school-wide policies.

Schools that wished to brand themselves as safe spaces would display a special logo on their materials to let students know he offers a snowflake while those that were going to uphold the principles of free speech would do likewise (A bloody battle axe? A picture of Voltaire?).

Once students had a clear choice and a clear idea of what they were getting into before selecting their school, we would simply sit back and allow market forces to show how receptive people are to the respective ideas.

I think this is a particularly good idea because it will give people access to the educational experience they want, while letting us more easily compare the results of both attitudes toward education. I’m deep in the camp that believes freedom of speech should be an inalienable right (‘Murica?), and this would be a wonderful proof of concept.

I’ve seen too many stories of anthills made into mountains by over-sensitive, naïve people to stand on the side of supposed liberalism on this issue. Yes, correct offensive, ignorant speech – but don’t ban it.

Sometimes things that seem offensive to our shared values at first glance prove insightful upon further reflection we’ll never know unless we are free to discuss things openly.

Besides, even if some speech is ultimately useless, preventing people from speaking their mind is an awful way of changing their mind. If you write off what some people think, then you must prepare for the day when what you think is written off as well, and that’s the sort of behaviour that leads to dehumanizing practices.

Only by allowing all perspectives to come together can we hope to act ethically with one another – and in this way, I agree with the efforts of democratic liberalism, and disagree with a popular aspect of social justice.

As passionate as I am about the right to free and open discussions, the other side of the debate feels just as passionately about the right to learn in an environment free of offense. If a student is forced to read a story which covers concepts that may offend them, it is considered an injustice.

The power that student has to take action against the perspective their professor wanted to show them is greater than ever before; with a sharply-worded email to the head of department, the lecturer can expect to be called into their director’s office and reprimanded.

A half dozen of these complaints easy enough to accrue if you are trying to challenge perspectives and stimulate debate on tough issues and they may not receive an offer to teach again in the next year.

Some would see this as a just result, reasoning that students should have a right to learn in safe environment, and that professors should adapt their curriculum so that all feel equally comfortable.

Others, myself included, would ask whether reading a story is so offensive that it causes true harm to your person, or whether such feelings of unease mightn’t be expected side-effects of the essential academic endeavour of applying critical thought to controversial subjects.

As it is today, such are battles being fought across the infosphere about whether our current levels of political-correctness are too high, not strong enough, or even whether such a label is merely an illusion created to slander the progressive movement. These battles take a toll on the supposedly constructive environment of the university.

It’s not fair to punish the faculty and students for the growing pains within the system. There should be a way for schools to move progressive ideals forward without disrupting the ability of professors to teach in the manner that they think will best stimulate learning.

When profs feel compelled to share their thoughts anonymously for fear of losing their jobs (see Vox.com’s June 3, 2015 article, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me” for a widely shared example of this phenomenon), something has gone wrong with the process.

So let’s divvy up our schools assign some to accommodate the students who want the full-meal deal of free speech and open debate, and some to the students who would rather learn in a safer, more sanitized space, where ugly topics are avoided, and only ‘correct’ speech is permitted.

Market demand should find a proper balance between the two camps quickly enough and we will finally know the truth about whether the majority of our generation is as opposed to free speech as the think-piece writers would have us believe.

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