George W. Dent, Jr. is Professor of Law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
Are women and minorities weaker and less resilient than white males? I would have hoped that the answer “no” would be beyond dispute. However, on campuses across the country women and minorities are demanding that school administrations grant them special protections and “safe spaces.” Stripped of the jargon, what they claim is that they are too weak to endure college life without such help.
These proclamations of weakness even trouble some on the left. Recently Todd Gitlin, a veteran of the New (i.e., old) Left, said of the protesters: “The victims too often present themselves as weak, in need of protection. Administrators are held, like helicopter parents, wholly responsible.” Gitlin asks “Why do so many students see themselves as so vulnerable?” He answers that “There’s a generalized anxiety when one has always been supervised, as this generation has.” Gitlin explains why protesters are so quick to use the language of anxiety, but he doesn’t explain why campus protesters believe it only afflicts women and minorities, or why their anxiety is so great at a time when there is less discrimination against them than ever before. Nor does he examine what are the effects of saying that only women and minorities are too weak to stand on their own feet.
I am skeptical of what really should be called the Weakness Movement. Students at schools like Yale, one of the most exclusive colleges in the world, tell us that they are traumatized by certain ethnic Halloween costumes—but isn’t the whole point of Halloween costumes nowadays to be transgressive? And no one objects to certain ethnic costumes (or school mascots)—Vikings, Pilgrims, Padres, Fighting Irish, and so on—which are considered not only tolerable but positive acknowledgments of the relevant group. They are also traumatized by racial epithets—but at Yale they have no compunction about cursing out professors to their faces with obscene language. Those who complain of microaggressions on campus are not bothered by repeated racial epithets on urban radio. Women are supposed to suffer from sex discrimination—but they now enroll in and graduate from American colleges at much higher rates than men. As for “safe spaces,” there are many neighborhoods in this country that are dangerous, but few of them are on college campuses, which generally are among the safest places for everyone, including women and minorities. Do they need specially created “safe spaces” always and everywhere?
But safety doesn’t really seem to be the point of the call for “safe spaces” anyway. In many cases, students use the call for “safety” to demand that colleges discipline or silence who disagrees with them—and administrators often comply. At Wesleyan College the student government slashed funding for a student newspaper because it published an opinion piece criticizing the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The Weakness Movement’s members don’t just seek protection from scurrilous epithets, but from any idea they find disagreeable. Yet isn’t exposure to new ideas, including ideas that challenge our received notions and may cause us discomfort, what higher education is all about? The Weakness Movement wants to be protected from education itself.
I am a heterosexual white male, so I am told that I cannot possibly understand women and minorities, but must simply accept any demand that their self-appointed representatives tell me is necessary to soothe their timid souls. I don’t shut up on demand, so the Weakness Movement will have to endure a harsh word from me about the prevailing campus theology, which teaches that women and minorities on campus are Fainting Nellies who will be devastated by an ambiguous comment made by someone who means well but speaks clumsily, or even by an epithet uttered by some jerk. That theology is nonsense. It is false and insulting to claim that women and minorities are helpless infants who need special protection.
The theology also damages women and minorities themselves. On the one hand, it distracts attention from the serious inequalities that remain in the workaday life of America. The Weakness Movement can succeed quite nicely in ousting school administrators and establishing “safe spaces,” but this will do absolutely nothing to improve America outside the ivory tower. Even worse, if women and minorities keep proclaiming their weakness, Americans of every sex and color will start to believe them. Most jobs require ordinary strength and resilience of mind, even in the face of offensive clients, customers, competitors, suppliers, and government regulators. Human beings, after all, include a lot of jerks: if you can’t keep an even keel when you’re dealing with jerks, you aren’t qualified for any job having to do with human beings. Do women and minorities really want employers to think them unqualified for any jobs? The Weakness Movement will harm women and minorities in the workplace, by giving employers the false impression that women and minorities are too delicate to be worth a paycheck.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that those who proclaim their weakness damage only themselves. The mood on campus now is something like the hysteria of the Salem witch trials. There is an honest belief that all the oppression the students imagine they suffer is caused by modern witches in league with an up-to-date devil—and that they can banish suffering and oppression if enough witches are burned. So, as at Salem, mass hysteria rages ever more violently. Already there are innocent victims, like the professor at the University of Missouri who was forced to resign because he refused to cancel a class and an exam. We don’t yet know how many more there will be—and unfortunately, it’s hard to see an end to this hysteria. Criticism of the Weakness Movement is automatically ignored, if not punished. The president of the University of Missouri has resigned. At Yale, the Weakness Movement has already won from the administration the promise of more funds to recruit “diverse faculty” and to gold-plate Yale’s “cultural centers.” Anything less than craven surrender to the movement’s demands can be fatal to one’s career. Nationwide, it looks as if the Weakness Movement will succeed in engorging yet further the ever-swelling diversity bureaucracy, as it demands more programs, more centers, and more administrators, all dedicated to providing special protections and safe spaces, and all interested in discovering new witches to burn. They have to keep the fires of hysteria burning to justify their jobs.
Trustees, alumni, and state lawmakers could demand sanity, but they seem mostly ignorant or uninterested. The hysteria will not end until they do pay attention—until they treat these students as adults and tell them that they will not be rewarded for temper tantrums.
 Todd Gitlin, “A Crisis of Confidence in Campus,” New York Times, November 22, 2015.
 For similar skepticism, see Randall Kennedy, “Black Tape at Harvard Law,” New York Times, November 27, 2015.
 See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/free-speech-is-flunking-out-on-college-campuses/2015/10/22/124e7cd2-78f5-11e5-b9c1-f03c48c96ac2_story.html.
 “When you are marginalized and always unsafe, your skin thins, leaving your blood and bone exposed. . . . Those who mock the idea of safe space are most likely the same people who are able to take safety for granted.” Roxane Gay, The Seduction of Safety, N.Y. Times, Nov. 13, 2015.
 See http://www.campusreform.org/?ID=6971.
 Peter Salovey, “Toward Better Yale,” November 17, 2015, http://president.yale.edu/toward-better-yale.
Image Credit: Evan-Amos, cropped.