The Corner

Groupthink and Puppies

Last fall, Brown University hosted a debate in which it seemed likely that the term ‘rape culture’ might be criticized.

To prepare for this, the university (Judith Shulevitz reports in the New York Times) arranged for a simultaneous, competing talk to provide “research and facts” about “the role of culture in sexual assault.”


 Meanwhile, student volunteers put up posters advertising that a “safe space” would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting.

The safe space….was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.

Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.

Play-Doh and puppies aside, the most striking thing about that extract are the two words ‘discomfiting’ and ‘distressing’. We have become wearily familiar with the way that claims that speech is ‘offensive’ can be used to shut debate down. It’s an idea that represents the triumph of emotion over reason, and of bullying over freedom, and it seems to be going from strength to strength, its momentum evident even in the way that language has changed.  Think about how often you hear people say that they are ‘offended’ by something without giving the slightest sign of having taken any real offense. What they actually meant was that they disagreed with what was said.

Then again, pleading offense is so much easier than making an argument.

What now appears to be happening is an attempt to restrict speech still further by, in a sense, raising the emotional stakes: The forbidden speech is not just ‘offensive’, it can now be deemed to be trauma-inducing too.


Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material….

But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.

Shulevitz quotes a Columbia student who pushed back against some of this:

“If the point of a safe space is therapy for people who feel victimized by traumatization, that sounds like a great mission.” But a safe-space mentality has begun infiltrating classrooms, he said, making both professors and students loath to say anything that might hurt someone’s feelings. “I don’t see how you can have a therapeutic space that’s also an intellectual space…”

You cannot.

And that, of course, is partly the idea, but this is also the result of something else, as Shulevitz highlights:

Only a few of the students want stronger anti-hate-speech codes. Mostly they ask for things like mandatory training sessions and stricter enforcement of existing rules. Still, it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like. This new bureaucracy may be exacerbating students’ “self-infantilization,” as Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, suggested in an essay for Inside Higher Ed.

But why are students so eager to self-infantilize? Their parents should probably share the blame. Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote on Slate last month that although universities cosset students more than they used to, that’s what they have to do, because today’s undergraduates are more puerile than their predecessors. “Perhaps overprogrammed children engineered to the specifications of college admissions offices no longer experience the risks and challenges that breed maturity,” he wrote. But “if college students are children, then they should be protected like children.”

That’s to put too much attention on the university admissions process. The infantilization process is, of course, far wider than that. Consider, say, the rules that restrict the access of nineteen-year olds to tobacco, alcohol or even e-cigarettes, and then think of something else, the way that ‘for the children’ is increasingly used to subject adult society to the constraints of the nursery, a place for puppies and Play-doh and not too much in the way of dissent.

Shut up, citizen: For the children, of course. 


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