What Swarthmore Could Learn From Jerry Falwell’s University

If a slur lands in the forest, should everybody hear it? On safe spaces, microaggressions, catastrophizing and the slippery slope of policing offensive language.

Parrish Hall via Swarthmore. "Jerry Falwell portrait" by Liberty University - Liberty University. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Parrish Hall via Swarthmore. “Jerry Falwell portrait” by Liberty University. Licensed under Creative Commons.

In late August, just a few days before classes began at Swarthmore College, a member of the class of 2016 — to spare her future Google angst, let’s call her “the Victim” — took a walk in the Crum Woods, a quiet bit of forest near campus. There, scrawled on a log, she glimpsed what the Phoenix, an independent newspaper at the college, described in an article published on September 3rd as “an offensive slur.” The Victim notified Public Safety at the school, which obliterated the graffiti. Alas, the damage was already done.

The Victim was disturbed by what she’d seen. “It was just a really weird feeling,” she told the Phoenix, “and I just left, and I went home because I was just like, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore.’” She spoke to several deans at the college about her experience and also informed members of the Swarthmore African American Student Society (SASS) (of whom, the Phoenix informs us, she is not one), “to prevent others from having to endure this painful experience” — which of course they wouldn’t, presumably, since the offending scrawl had been removed, except that the Victim posted photos of the log on the SASS Facebook page.

In the wake of the Victim’s find, SASS members discussed “the nature of vandalism on the college’s campus and the implications of such offensive language within the college community,” although they were somewhat flummoxed about what action to take. According to the co-president of SASS, “I wasn’t sure what to do because while my ordinary reaction would have been to try to prosecute the person who committed the offense, we have no idea who did it.” SASS’s social coordinator told the Phoenix that she differentiated between area locals — residents of what Swatties call “the Ville” — and members of the college community: “I hold Swarthmore students to a certain level just because we attend such an elite school and talk about big social problems, but someone in the Ville I don’t know. Anyone could live in the Ville.”


Scott Ampitheater. Photo | Swarthmore College

Scott Ampitheater. Photo | Swarthmore College

The Phoenix took care to interview the school’s director of public safety, who, it says, “explained that the campus’s integration with public space made it susceptible to the pathologies of the world beyond the college’s spatial limits.” The dean of academic affairs noted that though all agree the graffiti might have been in the woods for years or even decades, it “certainly was hurtful to the person who found it in the present, and it was hurtful to the community.” For sure, the Victim is suffering; she hasn’t returned to the woods since her traumatic encounter with a word, telling the Phoenix that the Crum used to be “my escape place. I liked to just go there to get away from things and be alone in the woods, but when that happened that sort of ruined my nice, happy place.”

While all of this was going on, Syrian exiles were pouring into Europe, women in the Congo were being raped in massive numbers, California was burning, Donald Trump was surging, and China’s economy was imploding. But enough about them. What about me?!?

In the September issue of the Atlantic magazine, Greg Lukianoff, president of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (or FIRE), and moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt write about the implications for college students of “The Coddling of the American Mind,” of which Swarthmore’s Crum Woods trauma is a prime example. They recount the alarming rise of college campaigns against “microaggressions” and student demands for “trigger warnings” on literature such as The Great Gatsby and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They discuss a growing trend among comedians to avoid college campuses because of the over-sensitivity of students who “can’t take a joke.” Lukianoff and Haidt explore the political and psychological forces that are driving campuses to become “safe spaces” in which students aren’t threatened or challenged by “words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.” These forces include higher education’s embrace of the concept of “emotional reasoning” — that whatever you feel is true.

The result has been a rise in what the authors term “vindictive protectiveness”:

There have always been some people who believe they have a right not to be offended. Yet throughout American history — from the Victorian era to the free-speech activism of the 1960s and ’70s — radicals have pushed boundaries and mocked prevailing sensibilities. Sometime in the 1980s, however, college campuses began to focus on preventing offensive speech, especially speech that might be hurtful to women or minority groups. The sentiment underpinning this goal was laudable, but it quickly produced some absurd results.

Lukianoff and Haidt document a long string of such absurdities, stretching from the University of Pennsylvania’s infamous “water-buffalo incident” in 1993 to the University of St. Thomas’s recent cancellation of a planned “Hump Day” event at which students were to pet a camel, because of student protests about its insensitivity to those from the Middle East. Judith Shulevitz wrote earlier this year in the New York Times about a student at Brown University who felt so threatened by the prospect of an on-campus debate about sexual assault that she created a “safe space” for herself and her potentially traumatized peers: a room “equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.” The trauma they faced was being present on a campus at which something they found disturbing might be discussed.

It would be one thing if “safe spaces” were making students feel safe. They’re not. In fact, young people today are in the midst of a mental health crisis, with 33 percent reporting that they’re so depressed that they find it hard to function, 55 percent feeling “overwhelming anxiety,” 87 percent overwhelmed by their responsibilities, and nine percent having seriously contemplated suicide over the past year. Our local Ivy League, Penn, has endured a bewildering string of student suicides. It would appear that the harder schools work to become safe harbors for our children, the less safe they seem.

Why should this be? Lukianoff and Haidt point to what they call “catastrophizing,” defined as “a kind of magnification that turns commonplace negative events into nightmarish monsters.” That certainly seems to be what occurred with the Victim at Swarthmore, who, upon encountering a word she didn’t like, went running, Chicken Little-like, all over campus to share her fear. What, the authors ask, is the purpose of imbuing students with such exquisitely frail sensibilities? Shouldn’t the goal of higher education be to toughen students up mentally? “Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter,” the authors write, “colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control.”

But why pick on Swarthmore? The coddling is widespread, though it does seem true that the more you pay in tuition, the greater the insanity. Yale University is currently embroiled in a brouhaha over its longstanding practice of having students call residential professors in its on-campus housing “Master,” after one such professor, Stephen Davis, decried the practice:

I think there should be no context in our society or in our university in which an African-American student, professor, or staff member — or any person, for that matter — should be asked to call anyone “master.” And there should be no context where male-gendered titles should be normalized as markers of authority.

In the National Review, one of Master Davis’s former students, Rich Lizardo, points out a small inconsistency in such logic:

[E]ach of the five degrees Professor Davis holds reflects the “patriarchal” system he now derides: a bachelor of arts degree from Princeton; a master of divinity degree from Duke; and a master of arts degree, a master of philosophy degree, and a doctor of philosophy degree from Yale. His underlying logic would suggest that these degrees are oppressive relics of a sexist and — in the case of the master degrees — racist past. Should we get rid of these titles as well?

There are, at long last, glimmerings that the intricate house of cards erected by well-meaning social justice activists on college campuses is teetering. American campuses’ newfound sensitivity can be blamed in part on a 2013 decision by President Obama’s Department of Education to broaden the definition of what counts as “sexual harassment” under Title IX from the prior Supreme Court standard of language or behavior that is “objectively offensive” to that which is merely “unwelcome.” No longer must a “reasonable person” agree that the aggrieved should have been aggrieved; if the aggrieved’s aggrieved, the law has been breached. What you feel is true. And there’s your slippery slope.

This week, President Obama, in a town-hall meeting in Iowa, took a step back from that slope when he told a student who asked about college funding:

I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that, either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ’em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” That’s not the way we learn, either.

Even more encouragingly, this week, Democratic — or, rather, Socialist — presidential candidate Bernie Sanders appeared before Liberty University’s Convocation — “the world’s largest regular gathering of Christian young people,” according to the college’s student newspaper — to give a speech. If Liberty University doesn’t, ahem, ring a bell, it’s the school founded by Jerry Falwell, a conservative Christian televangelist best known for his opposition to homosexuality. The Liberty University student code of conduct bans, among other things, lewd lyrics, anti-Christian messages, sexual content, nudity, pornography, procuring or facilitating an abortion, dancing, gambling, vaping, sex outside of marriage, and women’s dresses that ride higher than two inches above the knee.

You might expect such coddle-swathed young Christians to be panicked at the prospect of a speech by a guy who’s practically the Prince of Darkness — a Jewish Socialist Democrat who’s pro-abortion rights and pro-gay marriage. Talk about your unsafe space! Yet the Liberty students listened, politely, to what Sanders had to say about those topics as well as income inequality, his work to build a better nation, and the value of dissent:

I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse. It is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue. It is important to see where, if possible — and I do believe it is possible — we can find common ground.

No puppies were petted in lieu of attendance at the Sanders speech. To the contrary, attendance was compulsory. Somehow, those present survived. The coddled kids at Swarthmore and Yale and St. Thomas’s should take a lesson from these true believers. Say what you will about the Christian Right — it turns out they know how to let freedom ring.

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