A couple weeks ago, I heard someone describe a class she had just come from as “retarded.” I cringed a little, and there was an uncomfortable silence in the room as everyone tried to ignore the comment.
I had hoped that the use of that word in such an ignorant, pejorative way had fallen out of use by this point. That word hurts people. Not me, necessarily; it makes me uncomfortable. But calling something or someone “retarded” can cause real pain for many people.
Yet here we are in 2015 still calling things “retarded” or “gay” when we really are saying something is dumb or just inconvenient.
Sometimes things we say are harmful in less obvious ways, and usually we’re entirely unaware a joke we just made has caused somebody else pain or trauma or fear.
Many students and organizations here at The University of Alabama have made efforts to raise the awareness of the power of language. Groups like Safe Zone provide training to teach students and faculty how to create “safe spaces” for students.
A “safe space” refers to a space that does not tolerate or allow hateful speech and offers students the safety of being free from it. With Safe Zone this refers specifically to anti-LGBTQ speech or actions.
This idea of having “safety” from harmful speech is one gaining traction on many campuses across the country, and it extends beyond LGBTQ issues. It seems hardly a week goes by that there isn’t a news story about a college or university canceling a commencement speaker or a lecture series after being pressured by students or faculty.
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times called “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” Judith Shulevitz argues that the “safer campus” movement has gone a bit too far in trying to protect students from speeches and events that might be considered harmful or triggering. The result of this “censorship” on the grounds of protecting students, Shulevitz argues, is the “self-infantilization” of college students.
Shulevitz further argues that shielding students from opposing viewpoints keeps them from learning “the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.”
And perhaps Shulevitz has a point. It is important to engage and listen to people who think and act and speak differently than you do, regardless of how illegitimate you think that viewpoint may be. It’s important that everyone has exposure to things that make them uncomfortable.
It is also important that people are protected from things that will do them harm. I think there is certainly a case to be made that some people sometimes are a bit too quick to call something harmful. Shulevitz’s piece included some examples.
I think there’s a blurred line between speech that’s challenging and speech that’s harmful. And it’s as important to protect free speech as it is to protect people from things that can cause them legitimate damage. There’s a way to do both things, and we shouldn’t fall too far on either side.
Mark Hammontree is a junior majoring in secondary education. His column runs weekly.