The Clark Bubble

Can Ideological Diversity and Safe Spaces Exist?

Jason Fehrnstrom, Scarlet Staff

On September 6, 2016, The New York Times published an article entitled “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults.” The lionshare of this article was focused on Clark University’s orientation programs which focused on racism, diversity, and the promotion of inclusion. The article recounted Clark University’s Chief Officer of Diversity and Inclusion Sheree Marlowe’s presentation on safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggressions. Certainly the article was not derogatory in tone. However the NYT did make a concerted effort to cast our university as being emblematic of a larger trend in higher education; that is, an unapologetic, intentional drift among the nation’s liberal colleges towards a politics that recognizes the experiences of historically marginalized peoples.

Indeed, their analysis may be true. Clark University consistently ranks among the most liberal colleges in the nation. Niche, a website which profiles American universities, indicates that approximately 90% of respondents would describe Clark as being liberal or very liberal. This is all good and well. Communities, such as colleges and universities, ought to be able to form their own political and cultural identities. However, could this homogenizing drift have deleterious consequences towards our education and campus culture? The answer has to be no. Conservative pundits revel in inculcating the notion that the creation of safe spaces and trigger warnings necessarily implies an intolerance towards ideological diversity. In doing so, they have implicitly encouraged their acolytes to weaponize our first amendment and create toxic discourses that lack decency and respect. The intentional political incorrectness of President Trump’s politics are indicative of this trend.

In this toxic climate, colleges can and should take reasonable measures to protect those vulnerable members of their community who may be susceptible to verbal attacks. This can and should include safe spaces for victims of sexual assault, religious minorities and other historically disenfranchised groups. These spaces should not exist to insulate students from ideas at odds with their own. This practice would be inimical to the purpose of education. Rather, they should be constructed so as to prevent indecent, incivil behavior that seeks to undermine the existence of vulnerable populations. These measures are not incompatible with ideological diversity. Harmful behavior towards vulnerable populations is completely different from the expression of reasonable opinions that deviate from the status quo. At Clark there are many students who have dissenting opinions about fiscal policy, the proper size of government, immigration, and the role of the government in regulating access to weapons. Professors here actively encourage these students to share unconventional opinions and stimulate intellectual discourse. Perhaps there are some students who may have a contemptuous stance towards these dissenting ideas and the people who hold them. However, these students are a vocal minority. The lionshare of students here revel in exploring ideas that are at odds with their own. In order for this to happen effectively, there must be some boundaries concerning what is respectful to say. These boundaries around civil discourses are about common decency and respect. They don’t exist as a mechanism of enforcing one ideological point of view, as many conservative pundits claim they do. For example, many at Clark would likely agree that the phrase “white trash” is a derogatory term that ought not to be used in a respectful discourse. This insult is typically directed towards the inhabitants of Trump country. Evidently, respectful boundaries around speech can plausibly exist to protect populations across the political spectrum. Protecting students is the paramount responsibility of any college or university. Taking reasonable, measured steps in order to fulfill this duty should not be perceived as being mutually exclusive with promoting ideological diversity.