​A Culture of Sensitivity

I used to believe that open discourse was a value all Americans hold dear. I presumed that when asked about what makes America so unique, many Americans would respond that our pluralistic society is the foundation of so much of our success. That it was understood that without a marketplace of ideas, our society simply could not flourish.

But then I started college.

Since the beginning of my freshman year, I have come to believe that a more fitting way to describe the current culture on college campuses is a culture defined not by open expression—but by sensitivity. This undue focus on feelings has caused the college campus to often feel like a place where one has to monitor every syllable that is uttered to ensure that it could not under any circumstance offend anyone to the slightest degree. It sometimes feels as though pluralism has become an antiquated concept. Facts and history have been discarded, and instead feelings have been deemed to be the criteria that determine whether words and actions are acceptable.

It is important to have organizations and movements on college campuses that work toward protecting individuals’ identities. The past few decades have witnessed an explosion of new identities, and students should become aware of and respect the plethora of new identities that have recently emerged. But many of these movements have gone too far.

Take the University of New Hampshire’s “Bias-Free Language Guide.” The list was compiled to inform students of words that are considered offensive in conversation. According to the guide, which was removed from the school’s website a few months ago after it incited controversy, the word “American” is unacceptable, for it fails to recognize people of South American origin. “American,” it argues, should be replaced with “resident of the U.S.” The words “senior citizens,” “older people,” and “elders” should also be eliminated, and instead replaced with “people of advanced age” and “old people.” If we’re at a point where it is offensive to say that your 90-year-old grandparent is a senior citizen, it seems that pretty soon, there may not be any neutral words left.

While some may argue that these language guides are merely suggestions largely ignored by students and administrators, they have in fact become the new reality. Over the past few weeks, Bowdoin College has witnessed an alarming shutdown of freedom of expression. A few weeks ago, students hosted a tequila-themed birthday party that featured guests donning mini-sombreros, and the administration subsequently decided to seriously investigate an "act of ethnic stereotyping.” The invitation to the party, sent by a student of Colombian descent, read: “the theme is tequila, so do with that what you may. We’re not saying it’s a fiesta, but we’re also not not saying that :).” The students who hosted the party were put on social probation (which appears on one’s permanent record) and were kicked out of their dorms. Two student government representatives who attended the party faced impeachment charges, and other students who were present at the event or were photographed wearing sombreros have also been subject to disciplinary action.

The unfolding of events is especially outrageous given that a few months earlier, Bowdoin hosted on-campus reunions that featured photo booths and props including mustaches and sombreros. Furthermore, the annual administration-approved Cold War party occurred on the same night as the tequila one, and guests showed up dressed as Soviets—wearing fur hats and coats. Just a week later, the dining hall hosted Mexican night. Nonetheless, the tequila party was the only one deemed cultural appropriation.

The rise of safe spaces has also deeply encroached upon open dialogue and free expression. It is ironic that while the origins of the term safe space can be found in the 20th century women’s movement, where it "implies a certain license to speak and act freely,” today the term has come to be associated with precisely the opposite: the inability to speak freely. Journalists have been silenced in the name of safe spaces and debates have been barred. Books have been banned and conversation topics prohibited.

In a class I attended earlier this semester, a large portion of the first meeting was devoted to compiling a list of rules for class discussion. A student contended that as a woman, she would be unable to sit across from a student who declared that he was strongly against abortion, and the other students in the seminar vigorously defended this declaration. The professor remained silent. In a recent conversation with peers, I posed a question about a verse from the Bible. A Harvard employee in the room immediately interjected, informing me that we were in a safe space and I was thus not permitted to discuss the controversial biblical passage. And these are just stories from the past three months.

The assaults on free expression have dire consequences. The rise of the microagression movement has been reported to be detrimental to mental health on campus. Students’ emotional distress is increasing as educators presume that fragile undergraduates need to be protected from any form of dissent. Administrators must recognize that the current restrictions are incompatible with the very premise and goal of an education.

It is time to stop focusing on feelings as the criteria for speech and actions on the college campus.


Rachel E. Huebner ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, is a psychology concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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