The Truth is Rarely Safe

Emory University allows students to write messages in chalk on its sidewalks. At Baylor where I teach, as at most places, chalking (as it is called) is most often used as an invitation to an event (e.g., “Catholic Student Association talk @6:30 on 2/1”). Sometimes it is used to exercise political speech, as it was on the campus of Emory a week ago, when someone chalked in large letters several phrases including “Trump 2016,” “Vote Trump,” and “Accept the inevitable.”

Apparently, 40 to 50 Emory students were so emotionally scarred by the sight of the chalked inscription that they publicly protested against the graffiti’s very existence. Because of Mr. Trump’s harsh positions on immigration, especially on Muslim immigration, many of the students claimed that the chalked inscriptions were intended to be divisive, and thus contrary to the welcoming inclusiveness to which Emory aspires.

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According to a Washington Post account, the protesting students shouted, “You are not listening! Come speak to us, we are in pain!” The student newspaper, The Emory Wheel, reports one student saying that her “first reaction to the chalking was one of fear.” But she notes, “I told myself that it was a prank, and that the responsible individual was probably laughing in their room. I told myself that Emory would do something about it.”

Although I certainly share the students’ rejection of Mr. Trump’s politics – as I have noted on this page and elsewhere – their displays of emotional outrage, and the language they have used to propagate them, are deleterious to the primary purpose of a university: the pursuit of truth. Even more importantly, such displays ignore a simple Christian and human insight: truth, in this world, is hardly “safe.”

For the appeal to offense changes the question that should be assessed by members of the academic community – the grounds of the wrongness or rightness of Mr. Trump’s views and the quality of his character. Instead, claiming “offense” exacerbates an aspect of our common nature that often impedes our ability to think clearly and carefully when untethered from our rational faculties: our concupiscible and irascible appetites.

Unfortunately, Emory’s president, James Wagner, did not seek to put these appetites in their proper place by showing his students how the passions, though not in themselves bad, must be subdued and harnessed by reason in order to have even a fighting chance of acquiring the truth. The pursuit of truth, however, doesn’t even make a cameo appearance in his comments. President Wagner states:

During our conversation, [the protesting students] voiced their genuine concern and pain in the face of this perceived intimidation. After meeting with our students, I cannot dismiss their expression of feelings and concern as motivated only by political preference or over-sensitivity. Instead, the students with whom I spoke heard a message, not about political process or candidate choice, but instead about values regarding diversity and respect that clash with Emory’s own.

To be sure, President Wagner affirms that “as an academic community, we must value and encourage the expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent, and protest.” But then he says in the next sentence, “At the same time, our commitment to respect, civility, and inclusion calls us to provide a safe environment that inspires and supports courageous inquiry.”

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But here’s the problem: a “safe” environment does not inspire courage, let alone an “expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent, and protest,” unless these happen to be consistent with the prevailing campus orthodoxy.

As we know from experience, institutionalizing the philosophy of “safe spaces” winds up rewarding ideological conformity while empowering the most vocal and active members of the campus community to marginalize and shame those they think are responsible for a “perceived intimidation.”

What results, paradoxically, is an environment seemingly “safe” only for those who both conform to the campus’ sociopolitical hegemony and want to be insulated from encountering ideas that make them feel uncomfortable. But “unsafe” for those who believe that the primary purpose of a university is the pursuit of truth. For sometimes this pursuit leads certain members of the academic community to embrace and defend beliefs that “clash” with their school’s sociopolitical hegemony.

I say “seemingly safe” because, when you think about it, the advocates of safe spaces are really harming themselves. Consider this example. A couple of years ago, a young African-American man at Northwestern University refused to perform a piece of choral music assigned by his professor. His reason? The piece was based on the poetry of Walt Whitman, who was undoubtedly a racist. Here’s what I published online in response to the student:

You do yourself no good by not seeing the greatness even in people who have held disreputable ideas. To look at Walt Whitman and just see a racist is precisely what makes racism wrong: you don’t see the entire person – in all his complexities, virtues, and foibles – you just see the race. By doing this, you artificially flatten the person, and thus you literally lie to yourself, for you intentionally deny the truth that a great man can have within him both grandeur and vice. If you want to be better than Whitman, rid yourself of the habits of mind that in him resulted in the beliefs that you now find offensive. The ability to separate the wheat from the chaff is a sign of intellectual maturity. Thus, discarding the wheat because you can’t bear the chaff does not punish Mr. Whitman; it punishes you.

This is why the pursuit of truth rarely flourishes in “safe” spaces.

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).