Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces: The Campus Counter-Revolution

Once upon a time (not that long ago), the west’s colleges and universities were its centers of political dissent and incubators of cultural change.

From dress and speech codes to musical trends to the defining issues of the day, students — often with the support and encouragement of more “liberal” faculty — fashioned their own new civic religion out of the catch-phrase “subvert the dominant paradigm.”

The politically active among today’s generation of college students seem hell-bent on turning that religion inside out, maintaining its outward image, form and tactics while working diligently to negate its substance.

From “trigger warnings” ahead of controversial readings or class discussions to “safe spaces” within which potentially traumatizing elements are banned altogether, the goal is conversion of campuses into hothouses, with students as delicate flowers ensconced within and protected from any hint of challenge to their cherished preconceptions.

We’ve been here before. Be it Thomas Bowdler’s “family-friendly” butcherings of Shakespeare, Anthony Comstock’s crusade against delivery of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials via the US postal system, or Tipper Gore’s demand for “Parental Advisory” labels on music, the neo-Puritan impulse cuts across our history as response to anything new, anything different, anything challenging.

Such movements are inherently conservative, and the 21st century campus version is no exception. Conservatism isn’t about the particular content of any set of ideas. It’s about protecting the established, enshrining that which exists now and protecting it from challenge or change at all costs.

If there’s a defining difference in this creeping (and creepy) new campus conservatism with its trigger warnings, safe spaces, and demands that scary, challenging speakers be un-invited to address students, it’s not the speed with which new social norms (particularly those relating to sexual mores, sexual orientation and gender identification) are adopted, but the speed with which the new norms are deemed sacred, no longer up for debate or discussion.

This is the conservatism of China’s Cultural Revolution; western college activists are its Red Guards. They are not the crowd storming the Bastille. They are the crowd cheering around the guillotine. Their demand that society accept the social changes of the last few decades as set in stone and immune to challenge is fundamentally reactionary.

Trigger warnings, safe spaces and campus speaker censorship tend neither toward advancement of good ideas nor protection from bad ideas.  Free thought and free expression, however, do serve those ends. Students: Rebel!

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

Read more at http://thegarrisoncenter.org/archives/883#5yuiw5qzUdsLoCPy.99



  1. Not really dissent Thomas.

    The 1960s stuff was just taking the big government stuff taught at the universities to its logical (socialist) conclusion. The propaganda against “big business” has been taught at American universities since (at least) the time of Richard Ely (the mentor of both “Teddy” Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) , more than a century ago. And the “argument” that “the rich” are evil and become wealthy by “exploiting” people is as old as Plato (the founder of academia) – it is a way for lazy student bums (and their teachers) to feel superior to people who actually build up a business.

    Even back in the 1920s Mises pointed that student “radicals”, far from being rebels, were just assuming everything they were taught to be true (a conformist position) and then drawing the collectivist (National Socialist or Marxist) conclusions that logically come for what they are taught.

    Mark – why on Earth write to the New Statesman?

    The Spectator had a big article on the “Stepford Students” (or the Village of the Damned children) months ago. The “New Statesman” is part of the problem – they are certainly not in favour of political diversity on campus.

    By the way Thomas….

    “Storming the Bastille”.

    The place was not stormed – nor did it contain any political prisoners.

    The Governor of Bastille was offered safe conduct if he surrendered the place – and he did, He was then brutally murdered.

    The murder is re-enacted every 14th of July in Paris – the socialists kill a pig. Of course the real pigs are the socialists themselves – and the people who “stormed” the Bastille in 1789.

    As for the Red Guards being “conservative”.

    Well if by “conservative” you mean “violently destroy traditional society and create a radically new one” then they were indeed conservative.

    But then you use the term “right” or “conservative” to mean both people who reduce the size and scope of government (such as Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge) and people who expand the size and scope of government (such as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt).

    As for Freedom of Speech – the student “radicals” have never really believed in it.

    Someone defending “capitalists” on a “radical” American university campus in the 1960s was treated in much the same way as someone defending “rich Jews” in a German university in the 1920s.

    Being shouted down (silenced) was the best such a person could hope for.

    It still is.

  2. Dr Gabb mentioned Counter Currents in the US as an outlet for discredited theories about the central role of Jehovah’s Witnesses in ending free speech. The theories are even more discredited now:

    A case in point is Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center (which has $315,000,000 in the bank, because poverty is where the money is). For a couple of years now, Heidi has undertaken a letter-writing campaign to get Amazon.com to drop Counter-Currents from their Affiliate Marketing Program. For those who don’t know, Amazon gives a commission to websites that link to them if people who follow the links purchase items during their visit. Over the past year, our Amazon Affiliate earnings have not been a huge sum in absolute terms, but in relative terms they were quite important, providing about 20% of the pittance that I live on. Last week, Caitlin Dewey, a writer at The Washington Post, wrote an article about Heidi’s campaign, giving it a great deal of publicity, and not 48 hours later, Amazon canceled our affiliate account. The SPLC’s purpose, of course, is to put Counter-Currents out of business. (Ask yourself how you would fare with a 20% reduction in income.) Counter Currents and free speech

    Ms Beirich is a Jehovah’s Witness and the SPLC is an organization run by and for Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    • So far as I’m aware the normal complaint is that it’s Jewish, and that somehow smack bang in the middle of Alabama they can’t find anyone of colour to hire as a lawyer.

      • According to Wikipedia, Morris Dees was raised as a Baptist. That was the only religious affiliation mentioned in that article. So far as I can tell, the organization’s religion is “getting donations from status quo progressives.”

        • According to the internet, their senior staff are around 60% Jewish, but some of the assignations appear doubtful including Ms Beirich who is apparently “fat German peasant”. I was just pointing out what the normal complaint is. I do know that they accused Murray Rothbard of being an anti-Semite peddling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which is kinda… quaint. Whether they checked his ethnicity remains doubtful.

  3. Good article Thomas. However, I might argue that it’s not so much “conservative” as standard counter-revolutionary tactics in which once you gain power, you suppress anyone and everything that might challenge “the revolution”.

    If I wanted to get myself into trouble, I might also suggest that the victim/survivor narrative is the result of the large Jewish influence on the New Left. Most peoples tend to tell a story of their history in triumphalist terms- in England it was we won Agincourt, against Napoleon, two World Wars etc. The Jewish national story is one of being victimised, and surviving it. But that will probably get me called a racist, so I won’t make that point.

  4. Ian,

    Well, that’s the essence of conservatism — once you think you’ve got things the way you want them, throw yourself across the tracks of history and yell STOP! (as William F. Buckley, Jr. put it — or was that Russell Kirk?). The trend that I see is this happening earlier. Instead of waiting to be in actual full control, the “New [statist] Left” starts in as soon as it thinks it has even plurality support, e.g. “the [climate change] science is settled, so let’s not discuss that any more.”

    There are plenty of victim/survivor narratives. I don’t really see any “Jewish angle” here. I will note, however, that in the first draft of the piece, the conservative/Red Guards stuff was basically your take on the Puritan influence.

    • Ha, undercutting my own theories 🙂 I’m just suggesting cultural influences. Nobody would deny that, for instance, Catholic and Protestant societies have different cultural tendencies. Protestantism focusses on self-criticism, Jewish focusses on the victim who survives. Put them together and you get something like the PC approach, in which (Protestant) Anglo-white-male-straight-cisgenders self-criticise as the perpetrators of the victimhood that that the victims have survived. It’s only speculation of course, and admittedly something that cannot be proved by any scientific method. But the sudden arrival of the victim as hero in our culture in recent decades is a phenomenon deserving of discussion, I think.

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