This seems to be becoming a regular feature here: students playing the “safe spaces” card to try to get events or talks cancelled that offend them. This time it’s at a redoubt of academic excellence—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—and this time the university didn’t give in to the students with hurt feelings. And once again I have to turn to a conservative website, Legal Insurrection, to find the story. But I’ve corroborated it elsewhere, as with the Facebook posting below.
In fact, the MIT students, who were of Palestinian descent, objected to a celebration of Israel’s 67th birthday organized by a group of Jewish students under the aegis of MIT’s Undergraduate Association (UA). The celebration, part of regular student activities, had already been planned for last Thursday when a group called Palestine@MIT objected strenuously, trying to get the celebration shut down. What was bizarre about this is that they claimed that the celebration would make them feel “unsafe”. The group’s “open letter” on Facebook said this (my emphasis)
The Israeli Independence Day raises politically sensitive questions given that it just so happens to represent the 1948 Palestinian Exodus, also known as the “Nakba”. This is a day of extreme tragedy and traumatic loss for millions of people, including many students here at MIT. As Palestinians and supporters of Palestine in the MIT community, we are alarmed by the fact that the UA are endorsing this event, given that the UA represents us as well. We feel unsafe in an environment that celebrates a catastrophic day for one nation at an official school-wide capacity by a body that represents all students equally, with no regards or sympathy towards our tragedy.
We direct this message to the entirety of the student body with a request for change. We request the UA to detach the carnival from SpringFest, and to refrain from sponsoring and/or publicizing it at a school-wide capacity.
Of course these people wouldn’t think twice about the effect on Israeli students of holding one of the many BSD or other anti-Israeli events held all over the country on college campuses. (And I’d object equally strongly if Jewish students tried to shut those events down, or claimed that they felt “unsafe.”) But they have the right to object, and even to try to get the even cancelled. What would be unconscionable—and would constitute censorship—would be if the already-scheduled event were shut down because of this dubious “unsafe” trope.
It’s ridiculous to think the celebration would make students feel “unsafe”. Seriously? As if Jewish students have a habit of attacking their opponents physically, much less verbally! The “unsafe” trope is clever, though, as it wields more psychological influence than just saying you’re just “offended.” Offense is merely an emotion produced by words, but a lack of “safety” implies that violence is in the offing, thereby having a greater resonance with people. You don’t have to insulate students from words, but you’d damn well better protect them from physical harm! But I doubt that those Palestinian students really feel that they’re in danger. Rather, they have simply learned the tropes that are most effective in shutting down opposition.
At any rate, MIT’s UA president Matthew Davis, rejecting the request to un-sponsor the celebration, wrote a letter that was a model of rationality. Here’s part of it (my emphasis):
Every student group at MIT is recognized by the Association of Student Activities (ASA), and through this organization, all undergraduate student groups are recognized by the UA. Every recognized student group has the ability to apply for funds from the UA through the Financial Board, and is eligible for such funding as long as they are recognized by the ASA, with no other consideration.
As part of this, it is often the case that some student groups will be ones with which other undergraduates are uncomfortable, or may express an idea contrary to the opinions of others. In the course of history, it is often the case that such groups would not be allowed; moreover, it is often the case that those who hold a minority opinion, contrary to that of the majority, may have their opinion silenced either through the active suppression of the majority, or a lack of resources provided. Perhaps the most valued and intrinsic desire of every human being is to have a voice – to allow their ideas to be expressed. There are two courses of action the UA may take in regards to controversial groups and ideas – either recognize no groups, whether of the majority or minority opinion, if there is a hint of controversy, or recognize all groups equally, regardless of the popularity of their idea.
In these cases, consistent with what has been stated above, the UA has always taken the case of the latter, and recognizes all groups equally, so long as that group is recognized by the ASA and is operating consistent with MIT policies. The reasons for this are many – but perhaps most importantly, by recognizing all ideas and opinions equally, we are more able to allow a free expression of ideas, allowing undergraduates to be exposed to a wide range of opinions, and choose for themselves those of which they are for, and those of which they are against. At times, this will result in us feeling uncomfortable – and it is the challenge of every one of us to recognize why that is the case, and act accordingly. Please note that this freedom does not extend towards groups or events which are in violation of MIT policies, such as the MIT Nondiscrimination Policy.
That’s how a thoughtful person who adheres to Enlightenment value deals with the Special Snowflake Syndrome, and I wish other students—and all college administrators—could handle issues this way. That way we wouldn’t wind up with colleges like this:
By the way, the lawyer Ken White, who publishes at Popehat, has an interesting piece called “‘Safe spaces’ and the mote in America’s eye” that’s well worth reading. While White regularly excoriates the kind of victim mentality evinced above, he wonders, in this post, how the new generation of students would ever have learned to value free expression, and concludes that their environment have given them precious little influence to develop that value.
h/t: Malgorzata, Andrew