On Campus, A Dangerously Wrong Answer for Hate

By Tom Gilson Published on November 18, 2015

A few days ago, the student body vice president at the University of Missouri delivered an alarming perspective on campus controversy. “I personally am tired,” Brenda Smith-Lezama declared,

of hearing that First Amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here. I think it’s important for us to create that distinction and create a space where we can all learn from one another, and start to create a place of healing rather than a place where we’re experiencing a lot of hate like we have in the past.

Alarming? Yes: because it’s exactly the wrong answer for hate, and it will lead to a future fraught with far worse dangers than the ones she wants to protect students from.

No doubt there’s plenty of hate being felt on campus today, with an accompanying urgent desire for safety. This experience of feeling hated  is both real and widespread, and is at least ostensibly the drive behind major campus unrest this month. In the same Fox News broadcast, it was reported that the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities student government rejected a proposal for a 9/11 remembrance because a memorial calling attention to “non-white perpetrators” could “increase racist attitudes.” A university diversity administrator added, “It might make a space that is unsafe for students even more unsafe.”

Surely no student should have to study in such an emotionally unsafe environment! Something must be done! At Missouri, Minnesota and elsewhere, the proposed solution is to wall off hate, and even things that could be construed as mean and exclusionary. So, for instance, if there is someone who disagrees with gay rights, he or she must be prevented from speaking on campus since he make someone  feel hated.

It’s an astonishingly ill-conceived approach, for it’s bound to lead to character atrophy, exposing students to far worse dangers in the long run.

Character atrophy is of course an analogy taken from physical atrophy, a condition with which I am, alas, all too well acquainted. Over the last four years I’ve been in and out of surgery and physical therapy for a torn tendon in my left foot. Multiple complications have extended my recovery time far beyond what was expected. I’ve had four surgeries. Each time I’ve come out of surgery, my foot has been bound up in a splint to keep it safe. From there I’ve graduated to a cast, then to a fracture boot, then to street shoes with the aid of crutches. That’s where I am today.

If safety were the point, I’d be in great shape. I was in good enough shape wearing a splint. In fact, if safety were the point, I’d have been better off staying in a cast for keeps.

Maybe you already see where I’m going with this, but let me continue. My most recent surgery in August resolved the last structural problem. My only issue now is the atrophy resulting from four years of limited use. That is, there’s nothing wrong with my foot anymore, it just doesn’t have any strength. I can walk well enough for short distances on flat floors, but on uneven ground outdoors, having very little muscle support for stability, I’m at high risk for an ankle sprain. How safe is that? How safe would it be to remain this way? For the world is not all flat and even ground, and its pace is not always calm enough for me to walk with great caution.

Walling off hate, as campuses are wont to do these days, is like wearing a cast forever; except students cannot stay in that safe, protected place their whole lives long. The world is not all flat and even ground. It could be that there’s nothing overtly wrong with these student’s character, but in an emotionally protected world there’s no way they could develop any real strength. They’re in a condition of character atrophy, and they’re campaigning to keep it that way. Protecting themselves from slights that they call hate, they’re massively unprepared to face the real thing.

Brenda Smith-Lezama hopes to create a safe place on campus. I can almost sympathize with her. My foot is out of the cast now, and I’m doing sixty to ninety minutes of physical therapy on it almost every day. It’s disruptive. Some of it’s frankly a pain. How nice it would be if someone would protect me from that! Someday, though, I’m going to need to move quickly across rough terrain. So, too will the students.


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