My three kids are sarcastic and irreverent. This isn’t a shock to anyone who knows me. Their mouthiness can be irritating, but usually I manage to remember that I don’t set much of an example of rhetorical decorum.
Maybe I should start giving the same consideration to other people’s kids.
For some time I’ve been mean to university students who feel entitled to a “safe space” — by which they seem to mean a space where they are insulated from ideas they don’t like.
I call these young people out for valuing illusory and subjective safety over liberty. I accuse them of accepting that speech is “harmful” without logic or proof. I mock them for not grasping that universities are supposed to be places of open inquiry. I condemn them for not being critical about the difference between nasty speech and nasty actions, and for thinking they have a right not to be offended. I belittle them for abandoning fundamental American values.
But recently a question occurred to me: where, exactly, do I think these young people should have learned the values that I expect them to uphold?
Today’s college students came of age in the years after 9/11. What did we teach them about the balance between liberty and safety in that time?
We should have taught them not to give up essential liberty for a little safety. Instead, we taught them that the government needs the power to send flying robots to kill anyone on the face of the earth without review and without telling us why. The government, we’re told, needs to do that for our safety. We also taught them that the government also needs the power to detain people indefinitely without judicial review, again in the name of safety. We taught them that to ensure our safety the government needs the records of what books we read and who we talk to. With that as a model, it seems like small potatoes to say that safety requires disinviting Bill Maher from a university commencement, because he’s something of a dick.
We should have taught them that it’s noble to speak out for liberty. We didn’t. We taught them that concern with liberty is suspicious. They grew up in an America where police say that talking about civil liberties suggests involvement in criminal behavior and that criticizing law enforcement priorities provides a good reason to investigate you. They grew up in an America were the FBI monitors protestors and activists in the name of safety. They grew up in an America where questioning the War on Drugs is called unpatriotic.
We should have taught them that it’s shameful to oppose liberty and work to undermine it. We didn’t. They grew up in a world where a man can advise the government to disregard our liberties and waffle on whether the state can crush the testicles of children to torture information of of their parents, only to be rewarded by a prestigious position at a top law school.
We should have taught them to think critically when someone says that “safety” requires action. We didn’t. We taught them to submit to groping by TSA agents recruited via pizza boxes who single us out based on transparently bogus junk science. We taught them that even if you demand policy changes based on junk science that is demonstrably deadly, you can still be taken seriously if your politics are right.
We should have taught them that our subjective reaction to someone’s expression isn’t grounds to suppress that expression. We didn’t. They probably didn’t learn that lesson from the freakouts over mosques at ground zero or in Georgia or in Tennessee. They probably didn’t learn it from calls to deport Piers Morgan for anti-gun advocacy or by the steady stream of officials suggesting that dissent is treason or from their government asserting a right to “balance” the value of speech against its harm. They didn’t learn it from state legislators punishing universities based on disagreement with curriculum.
We should have taught them to be suspicious of claims that speech is harmful in a way the law should address. We didn’t. We taught them that making satirical videos about police is criminal “cyberstalking” and that stupid jokes by teens justify imprisonment and that four-letter words are crimes (or should be) and that swearing at cops online is “disorderly conduct” and that singing a rude song to imaginary children justifies prosecution.
We should have taught them to be suspicious of rote invocation of airhorn words like “racism” and “sexism” and “trauma” and “unsafe,” especially when those terms are used to limit liberty. We sure as hell didn’t do that. We taught them that jailing grandmas for buying two boxes of cold medication is justified because think of the children. We have taught them that cops can cops can rape and torture people because drugs are bad. We teach them that “terrorism” is an existential threat, a magic word that can be invoked to justify anything. Rather than teaching them to question catchphrases, we teach them to respond to them in Pavlovian fashion.
We should have taught them to question authority. Instead we taught them to submit to it without question if they didn’t want to get shot or tased.
Instead, we are teaching them, even now, that climbing a tree outside our view, or visiting a park unattended (as many of us did when children) is a matter requiring state intervention. This is not a Yakov Smirnoff joke: in Russia, complete strangers will approach you on the street to scold you if you’re wearing your scarf the wrong way. “You’ll catch cold!” We are becoming the Russia our grandparents warned us about: not a Stalinist tyranny, but a tyranny of concern. For our own safety, of course.
Sure, occasionally we manage to assert that free speech trumps feelings or that speculative safety doesn’t trump liberty. But those few messages are drowned out by the drumbeat of safety, safety, safety.
Should we expect universities to teach them to value liberty or question safety? Please. Universities think that free speech is something to be confined to tiny corners of campus to protect students from the trauma of being handed a copy of the constitution. Universities are places were administrators censor Game of Thrones t-shirts and Firefly posters then censor the posters complaining about censorship, all in the name of “safety.” Universities are places where enraged educators cut down free speech walls and attack protestors and tell students to destroy displays they don’t like. Sending people to American universities to learn to respect liberty is like sending them to a brothel to learn chastity.
Today’s young people are responsible for their own actions. They are bound, like all of us, by this truth: the government saying something is right doesn’t make it right. But it’s not fair to ignore our culture’s role in shaping the values that lead to an appetite for “safe spaces.”
I’m not going to stop calling out university students who assert that they have a right not to be offended, or who claim that they are entitled to spaces safe from ideas they don’t like.
But I hope that some of them will call me out — call all of us out — in return now and then.