I’m as skeptical of safe spaces and trigger warnings as the next asshole, and I’m on the record comparing them to “the crystal vibrations of homeopathy and hypnotherapy,” but in that same post, and by the same token, I believe that while most of the proponents of this sort of thing suffer at worst from a naively misplaced trust in institutions to do right in the hands of the proper government and an overabundance of sincerity, it’s their loud public detractors who frequently suffer from a cancerous form of intellectual hypocrisy. So it was this past Sunday when, emerging from the palace to denounce the worries of the gardeners, Judith Shulevitz, a prominent critic and author frequently published in the most prominent and widely circulated publications in America, rang the alarm on the most worrying trend in the universities today. No, it is not the necessity of entering a lifetime of debt servitude to graduate from even our lousier state schools, nor the declining practical value of general education outside of a few faddish and vocational majors, nor the fact that war criminals and state security charlatans occupy positions of prominence in our best universities, nor even something as banally scandalous as the criminal extortion cartel that is the NCAA. No, indeed, it is the tremendous trauma inflicted upon poor administrators, and society as a whole, when, for example:
Last fall, the president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, apologized for causing students and faculty to be “hurt” when she failed to object to a racial epithet uttered by a fellow panel member at an alumnae event in New York. The offender was the freespeech advocate Wendy Kaminer, who had been arguing against the use of the euphemism “the n-word” when teaching American history or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the uproar that followed, the Student Government Association wrote a letter declaring that “if Smith is unsafe for one student, it is unsafe for all students.”
“It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism,” Ms. Kaminer said in an email.
Now, I actually agree with this sentiment; I think the notion that we may be harmed, or traumatized, or “re-traumatized” by the mere utterance of unpleasant or offensive or troubling words and ideas, especially in the service of exploring and criticizing those words and ideas, ranks high on the list of the most bogus notions ever dreamed up by our species. And, I mean, what is the Anthropocene if not one grotty epoch of our species’ inexhaustible supply of bogus ideas? But here is the rub, and the hypocrisy. Judith Shulevitz is making this argument, lighting these lamps in the Old North Church, in America’s premier organ of news and opinion, which, Oh By The Way, does not permit the use of the word nigger in its pages, not even “when teaching American history or ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’”
Here, for instance, from last month, is Dwight Garner’s review of the widely praised new novel, The Sellout:
So much happens in “The Sellout” that describing it is like trying to shove a lemon tree into a shot glass. It’s also hard to describe without quoting the nimble ways Mr. Beatty deals out the N-word. This novel’s best lines, the ones that either puncture or tattoo your heart, are mostly not quotable here.
I should mention that Garner is also required to “[work] around a perfectly detonated vulgarity,” lest the mere appearance of such traumatizing and re-traumatizing language should besmirch the Average Reader’s tender eyes and brain.
This is a minor point; we could all very easily find thoughts and expressions and whole political ideologies which would never pass the gates of the unofficial but powerful censors of mainstream discourse in America. But I happen to believe that its smallness makes it all the more pertinent, because what, after all, is the complaint about safe spaces and trigger warnings if not that they are small, petty, and un-serious; that they are the ill-considered attempts at prior restraint by what amount to a novel class of intellectual prudes, whose contempt for freewheeling debate is at last a kind of puritanism? Well, so what if it is? Where is the greater threat to freedom, in the seminar room, or in the nation’s most important paper? Censor, censor thyself.