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Chapman Rackaway: ‘Safe space’ contrary to mission of universities


Prior to my employment at Fort Hays State University, I was a happy resident of Columbia, Mo., and I will always be a proud Mizzou alum. Thus I’m greatly saddened by recent events there, and warn my adopted home state of Kansas to be careful not to follow the same path.

Censors have disguised themselves as sincere reformers, and their success could produce disastrous consequences.

The Missouri campus has fallen prey to the same overzealousness seen at an increasing number of universities. Unlike some, I do not deny that racism persists in Columbia: I have seen it firsthand. Sadly, the protests often fail to eradicate racism and instead merely suppress a conversation that needs to be held.

To understand where the protests deviated from their goals of fighting racism, we must understand the demand that the protesters’ narrative be unquestioned. Students, and notably one communication professor, physically forced away media under the masquerade of creating a “safe space.”

The virus spread to Kansas, with demands for the resignation of student body leaders at the University of Kansas, a protest planned (then canceled) for the Board of Regents visit to Wichita State University, and a race forum at Emporia State University that initially excluded media. While those movements have not expanded to Mizzou’s proportions, there is potential for more unrest.

Allow me to make one suggestion to Kansas’ students: Don’t. While the desire for change may be sincere, calls for reform are being manipulated and mutated into something much more sinister and chilling: the end to dissent.

At its core, the concept of a “safe space” is antithetical to a college environment. A college must be a haven of diversity – but not only in terms of race or sexual orientation. Diverse viewpoints, even those that some may deem “dangerous,” are exactly what the university is supposed to encourage. Ideas contest ideas in an open and honest debate when the university delivers on its promise as a conceptual laboratory.

Today not only is viewpoint diversity poorly practiced at many universities, it has become an endangered species. Rejections of “safe spaces” are the only levees between today’s era of individual self-censorship on campus and a flood of intentional, systematic censorship.

Donald Trump’s bromides are not fought by squelching him, as appealing as that may be to some, but by better and stronger ideas.

Democracies cannot function without dissent. What “safe space” protesters intend is reform, but simultaneously they are actively threatening a core value of democracy.

In Ray Bradbury’s classic novel “Fahrenheit 451,” censorship of books was widespread. The censorship was not the work of an oppressive government, though. The public, so insecure it could not stand dissent, demanded censorship, and government complied.

Cautionary tales like Bradbury’s remind us that the scariest ideas, those that can disturb us the most, are there for a reason. We need to be challenged, not coddled. Even more important, our students deserve to be challenged with ideas as well.

Racism can be defeated, but only by better ideas. Not by censorship, in whatever guise it takes.

Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.