The Paradox of Multiculturalism: Part II

Joshua Daniel Phillips

In “The Paradox of Multiculturalism: Part I” I discussed how the term “multiculturalism” is used uncritically by multiculturalists to promote the acceptance of all cultures’ values. The paradox of this term is that some cultures have incompatible values with other cultures and therefore, people cannot accept both sets of values.

Now I want to draw attention to two paradoxical values currently being promoted on some university campuses: “academic freedom” and “emotional safety.” In this regard, the term “emotional safety” is used to justify censoring ideas that people say would distress them to hear.

In a handbook on classroom culture, University of Hawaii instructors Anne Freese and Amber Strong quoted a student who said, “We found that a student must feel safe in the classroom environment. This safety consisted not only physical safety, but emotional safety. This emotional safety comes from a feeling that the student’s ideas and questions can be given without judgement or criticism” (p. 110).

But what if a student’s ideas lack sufficient evidence? “Without judgement or criticism” is hardly academic. To be clear, I do not promote the blatant disregard for students’ wellbeing. An individual student should never be forced into any classroom, discussion, or campus program that makes him feel unsafe. My preference is that these situations be handled on a case-by-case basis with the individual student. However, several recent events show that some universities are proactively censoring legitimate academic inquiry. They are shielding all students from controversial debates instead of just those individual students for whom the topic might cause legitimate distress. This blanket precautionary action stifles academic freedom and robs students of robust debate.

The culture of “emotional safety” is often wrapped in well-meaning terms: e.g. “safe spaces,” “tolerance,” “inclusion,” and “abolishing hate speech.” But the culture of “emotional safety” is becoming an excuse to censor any idea that might offend. Therefore, it is critical to distinguish between emotional danger and real danger. For example, I could argue that some scholars’ vehement critiques of Western modernity are “emotionally dangerous” because they threatened my sense of self as an American. However, that would hardly be reason enough for me to demand these ideas be censored on the basis of “emotional safety” or under the guise of censoring “hate speech.” “Emotionally dangerous” ideas pose no real threat of danger and confronting offensive ideas is actually a healthy part of one’s academic journey.       

Yet, parallel cases are causing protests and demanding censorship. For instance, students and faculty at several universities have tried to censor Ayaan Hirsi Ali because she challenges certain traditions within the culture of Islam and her invitations to campuses are “a blatant and callous disregard by the administration of not only the Muslim students, but of any student who has experienced pure hate speech.” Likewise, students and faculty have tried to “make [Christina Hoff Sommers] irrelevant” by encouraging students to boycott her speech because she challenges widely circulated rape statistics and the prevalence of rape culture. They also claim that Sommers’ ideas threaten the emotional safety of the students because “bringing her to a college campus laden with trauma and sexualized violence and full of victims/survivors… reinforce[s] this climate of denial/blame/shame that ultimately has real life consequences on the well-being of people who have experienced sexualized violence.” Protesters at St. John Fisher College tried to censor Rudy Giuliani because he made an objectionable connection between black culture and crime statistics as well as comments about President Obama that made some “feel a little bit unease.” And finally, perhaps the most egregious example from this spring was George Washington University’s attempt to ban the religious swastika because it resembled the Nazi swastika.

While I have come to expect demands for censorship from students (I was an undergraduate once and thought I knew what ought to be allowed), I am consistently shocked when faculty and administrators support these anti-intellectual demands. It is not that faculty should be immune from offense, but that censorship is deeply counter-intuitive to the longstanding traditions of a liberal education. By affirming a culture that supports censorship (or editing a debate in any form), universities only perpetuate ignorance. Students may walk out of college never having to confront a swastika, but they also leave without learning about the origin and evolution of the swastika. A more contemporarily relevant example is that America has been engaged in two wars for more than a decade and is currently figuring out how to deal with the rise of ISIS, yet universities are withdrawing speaking invitations to an internationally known and respected critic of Islam. This isn’t to say that Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s comments are above critique, but her views should be part of the debate. Hearing her views adds to students’ understandings of the complexities and diversity within Islam.

Wouldn’t it be more productive to encourage a campus culture that values open debates and academic curiosity where students can learn about controversial ideas? After all, how can we come to recognize bad ideas if we cannot examine them? We must trust our students enough to make their own assessments after listening to all sides of the debate. If Christina Hoff Sommers makes a bad argument against mainstream feminism, then we must trust our students to recognize the fallacies. But to “protect” our students from a speaker’s ideas instead of encouraging our students to listen to a speaker and decide for themselves is anti-intellectualism to the extreme.

When I began my career in higher education, my expectation was that any attempts at censorship would be swiftly shot down by an academic culture that encouraged debate. Vigorous debate on racism, patriarchy, religion, economics, and politics should be supported on every university campus without exception. While I might be personally offended by certain academic theories or claims, I welcome open, honest, and transparent debates under the assumption that my ideas might be wrong. And this is exactly what I expect of my students.

Unfortunately, this academic philosophy is not shared by everyone on university campuses. Today universities are inundated with “safe space” language in an attempt to protect all students from perceived distress. In this environment, universities lose their ability to fully educate students about certain issues. They simply cannot affirm academic freedom while protecting students from controversial ideas.

By all means, protest, disagree, and bring forward alternative ideas. But don’t censor, shout down, or discipline a scholar for promoting an academic idea that offends. Students should be wary of any multiculturalist, diversity officer, faculty member, or administrator who uses the phrase “we support academic freedom, except…” After all, if students are not in college to learn about new ideas, why are they there?

The question universities must answer is “what type of academic culture do we want create?” Universities can create a culture of academic freedom where debate is encouraged and all ideas are allowed to stand or fall on their own merits. Or universities can create a culture that errs on the side of caution in an effort to protect the sensibilities of the students. They cannot do both.   

Image: Rod Anderson

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