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Generation Safe Space

Does Generation Safe Space need the military to protect them from hurt feelings? Recent polls indicate increasing support among young people for military rule. Given the constant assault on their fragile identities posed by such atrocities as ethnic Halloween costumes, culturally insensitive Banh Mi sandwiches and the like, who can blame them for craving a new authoritarianism?

Critics on the right have increasingly bemoaned the oversensitivity of the not-so-greatest generation but this critique is starting to show up all over the place. Liberal professors are, somewhat hyperbolically, terrified. Eminent sociologists are deeply concerned. Radical environmentalists allege a new liberal McCarthyism. When some of the saner voices on both the right and left start to agree so broadly, it’s past time to pay attention.

Who is to blame? Helicopter parents? Nanny-state bureaucrats? Rule-obsessed educrats? A rhetorical coup in academic discourse in which disagreement becomes disrespect or insult? Widespread mental illness with a lack of corresponding cognitive therapy? Economic insecurity and the increasing impoverishment of the middle class? Increasing job instability for the young? Accusations fly all over the place as we try to understand why the insufficiently trigger-warned would throw out free speech because of the existence of hate speech, or move to reject democracy itself in favor of authoritarian rule. Few though examine the broader political atmosphere of fear and intolerance since 9-11 that our young people have grown up in, and the role of mass surveillance and the militarization and securitization of political discourse. Could broader notions of vulnerability be leading to an increased sense of personal vulnerability? Or perhaps, a little bit of all of the above?

Whatever the cause, there is no doubt a backlash is brewing, and trending in an unfortunate direction. While the Ivy Leaguers purge a few token administrators (while simultaneously creating new administrative positions that students demand), hate crimes outside of universities are on the rise. While in the classroom each utterance is more and more carefully subjected to scrutiny for microaggressions, populist pundits and politicians are increasingly open about their racism and xenophobia. What do the students expect? With some campus activism devolving into 50% group therapy and 50% primal screaming at hapless administrators, does anyone think this is actually helping create safe spaces for the sort of nuanced, open-minded public debate necessary for real learning and growth? Why create a movement that allows yourself to be viewed as a mass of coddled, over-sensitive elitists, unless of course the problem is that this is what you are?

Watching authoritarianism on the right grow simultaneously with authoritarianism from the campus liberal-left produces anxiety, but anxiety itself fuels these attacks on free speech. Is it time for another Free Speech movement ala Berkeley 1964-6? Or would that potentially hurt somebody’s feelings?

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Jonathan Taylor is a Professor in the Geography Department at California State University, Fullerton.

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