By Tyler Higgins, Contributor
Recently, Furman played host to Robert “Bob” Ehrlich, a former congressman and governor of Maryland. During his CLP address and a separate interview, Ehrlich tore into what he deemed the “disease of political correctness” sweeping college campuses, most notably the controversies surrounding “safe spaces” at the University of Missouri and Yale University.
At Yale, this took the form of professors shouted down by mobs of students for refusing to create a “place of comfort.” Similarly, at the University of Missouri, a media photographer was surrounded by a group of protestors and harassed for attempting to document the protest, which was occurring in a public space on campus.
For Ehrlich, these incidences represent the biggest political and social issue facing college students today. “First of all, we have to eliminate this pseudo-intellectual garbage – safe zones and trigger warnings,” said Ehrlich.
Conceptually, safe spaces are an admirable idea. Certainly, every student on a college campus deserves a physical or intellectual space where they feel free to express themselves and come to terms with their respective identities.
However, the recent events at Yale and the University of Missouri have exposed the dangerous hypocrisy that the “safe space” mentality has created. Rather than using safe spaces for their intended purpose of providing a place of refuge, activists have instead weaponized them, along with the likes of “microagressions” and “trigger warnings,” to silence dissenters and prevent actual dialogue. These actions, while perhaps providing activists with short term benefits, actually have the dangerous long-term consequence of suffocating productive discourse, thereby increasing political polarization and furthering many of the issues these activists seek to address.
As Ehrlich points out, when progressive activists use these sorts of protest techniques, they only serve to undermine the entire history of progressive political and cultural progress.
“Real liberals want to engage,” said Ehrlich. “That’s what the Civil Rights movement, and the women’s movement, and all the great movements were all about – engagement and free speech. Not crying and running into a safe zone.”
Furman has remained relatively untouched from this “disease of political correctness,” as Ehrlich phrases it. However, should the temptation arise to engage in such forms of faux-activism, I hope that we can come together as a community to fight its destructive forces. Engagement and civil discourse are the lifeblood of the liberal arts. If Furman were to succumb to this more palatable form of censorship, the university would cease to serve its purpose of educating students who are not only capable of forming their own ideas about the world, but who can also intelligently engage with the ideas of others.
In sum, Ehrlich is right in at least one aspect concerning safe spaces and the spread of political correctness on college campuses. Such efforts, though probably benign in nature, only serve to undermine critical engagement and further widen existing social and political divides.
Ultimately, the goal of a safe space is to facilitate a campus environment where such a space is not even necessary. Admittedly, Furman is not perfect, and there are probably some who feel that they need such a space on campus, but my hope is that we can continue to air our legitimate grievances and express our real differences in the open, rather than hiding behind “trigger warnings” and weaponized “safe spaces.” If so, perhaps we can set the course for future generations at Furman and beyond to abandon this dangerous trend and achieve real progress through productive discourse.