Even repugnant ideas—maybe especially repugnant ideas—must be able to be articulated.
Confronted with words, ideas, or decisions they dislike, a growing number of people are asserting that they are in danger of suffering psychological or even bodily harm. But when one party asserts that a debate threatens their very well-being, it is hard to deliberate on policy—or topics such as race and gender. The result is a narrowing of the space for public discussion and an inability to teach ever more ideas and books.
As Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen has chronicled in the New Yorker, for example, law professors find it increasingly difficult to teach rape law because some students consider the subject too disturbing. “Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic,” she writes. “Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress.”
But, as Suk Gersen has pointed out, it was feminists who fought for the overhaul of deeply sexist rape laws, and it is sexual assault victims who will be hurt if lawyers do not learn about the subject. In practice, safetyism will make some of the most vulnerable people in our society less safe.
Many people ask why any of this should matter in the age of Donald Trump—a president who attacks free speech, stokes bigotry and division, and believes he is above the law. It matters because we have seen what happened when his enablers on the right failed to stand up to the worst impulses of their leader. These enablers are now morally responsible for the tragic consequences of their inaction.
We better make sure that we don’t end up committing the same sin. For as Thomas Chatterton Williams writes, “ a generation unable or disinclined to engage with ideas and interlocutors that make them uncomfortable … open[s] the door—accessible from both the left and the right—to various forms of authoritarianism.”
I continue to believe that most Americans sit politically in the sensible center with attacks against free speech, free thought, and science coming from both the right and the left. Since the right holds most of the political power at the moment theirs is the more dangerous threat. We’ll see if that is still true a year from now.