Before I begin, I would like to make it clear that support, help and sensitivity for those who have experienced trauma or difficulties in life is so important and necessary. Providing or receiving support for those struggling at college or university is vital and a really good service to give and be able to avail yourself of. What I am addressing in this article is not an attack on these initiatives.
What I am addressing is the type of attitude that Bishop Robert Barron picks up on in the following video. It’s the worrying and increasing trend in universities and in the public sphere of a type of hyper-political correctness that dictates what can and can’t be said in order that no one be offended or have their feelings hurt.
It is the eradication of public debate out of fear of hurting people’s sensitivities. And it is the self-imposed “child-care” attitude that abounds at some universities that does not encourage, or even allow young adults to mature and prepare for what the world can throw at them.
In addition to Bishop Barron’s commentary in the video, I would like to add the following points:
1. Restrict freedom and you restrict the basis of all human relationships.
Freedom is the basis of all human relationships. This in itself is so basic that it mirrors God’s relationship with us, that of Free Will. If you take away the people’s freedom to be able to express themselves in debate, then you take away the possibilities of human connection being made. Connection is what we are made for!
2. Tell people what they can and can’t say and you will drive them to resentment.
As Pope John Paul II said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” If you restrict freedom in the first instance, people do not even have the choice to choose what is right.
3. Freedom- and by extension, free speech- is how people grow.
People need to be allowed to grow their own way to the truth. Yes, people might begin with vile opinions, but that is the starting point for change. We cannot change people’s minds from that starting point unless we hear their opinions, where they’re coming from. We cannot refute, or offer a better argument and alternative, unless they first express their point of view for us to refute! We cannot dictate a “fast track” to kindness and a better world. As we know, our own hearts take time to grow and come to the right places. People have to be worked with, not simply shut up.
4. Pain has to be felt in order to be dealt with.
This desire to offer “safe spaces,” to announce “trigger warnings” and to pre-warn of sensitive topics to such an extreme degree are all attempts to eradicate suffering. But this in itself misses the point of pain. No one would or should rightly wish pain on anyone else. But when pain comes along, it can only be dealt with by being felt. It is only by going through pain that we actually, truly, move on from it. Running away from the pain only delays it and allows it to metastasize, like a tumor. We don’t get to have the highs without the lows in this life, no matter how comfortable we attempt to make modern life.
5. You don’t become a strong person by people being nice to you all the time.
If our aim in life is to become strong, mature, Godly people with integrity, then we do ourselves a disservice by being pandered to. Compassion is vital in life and I am not suggesting we seek out horrible people to be bullied by. But we need to create and cultivate environments where young people are helped and encouraged to be strong and resilient, not weakly or constantly given the chance to opt out of difficult scenarios.
6. What about compassion then? Compassion needs to be active, not passive.
It seems compassionate to allow people this kind of opt-out clause when it comes to difficult situations. But this is a false compassion. Compassion needs to be active; it needs to engage. It is more compassionate to debate with someone respectfully, but in order to firstly engage with them and secondly to help them reach a place of truth. Compassion is vital, but it is vital within the struggles of a real discussion. It needs to be an action within a debate, not offered as an avoidance of real life and real society. Compassion must happen as an action when it sees injustice, rather than the idea that we can just ignore or eliminate the injustice without dealing with its root cause.
7. The desire to help create a more tolerant world is admirable, but it is being channeled in the wrong way.
I would suggest that the desire behind the ideal of this attitude is a good one, but it’s naively idealistic. It needs to be constructively redirected. I know first-hand the support that is often necessary while studying. Everyone should have the opportunity to study regardless of their own personal difficulties. We all need help.
But this must be weighed in the balance of perspective. University is meant to be a place where young people can mature, discover, and ultimately hone their own opinions and go out into the world ready to offer something uniquely constructive. Young people need to be offered healing, not an opt-out. It is interesting to me that while across the world, our peers- other students- are in refugee camps with their lives and studies on hold (Syria), or reconstructing their own universities away from war zones (Ukraine), we in the West are pandering around making sure we stop other people from being offended by ideas, a glance, a word. Where did the balance go so wrong?!
8. Finally, suggestions for teachers or those working with young people.
Create a naturally safe space, a jargon-free and fully human “space” in your classroom. Be honest and age-appropriate with your students, but first, be compassionate concerning the confusing, chaotic, and broken world they may come to you from. Remember that no matter how worldly and sophisticated they may seem to be, they are always sizing you up as a credible and trustworthy possible role-model. Can you pass on confidence, authority and authenticity to them? Can you give them an view of a sensibility that can at once handle controversy and offensive or disagreeable language or ideas, but also articulate Truth and refute error?
We need to engage people, not just placate. We must always be respectful, but nevertheless, it is not life and it is not living to simply be apathetic out of the fear of offending others.