Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, an especially significant novel in feminist literature, depicts a moralistic dystopia in which women are relegated to total subservience to men, acting purely as wombs or wives, but never both. The protagonist and narrator, Offred, reflects on the differences before the advent of the theocratic dictatorship that tore her from her family and forcibly turned her into a concubine, stating, “Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. There is more than one kind of freedom … Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.”
The mechanism of “freedom from” is leveraged to silence and suppress women in Atwood’s dystopia. However, this mechanism can be explicitly used to suppress any demographic. As more and more students demand freedom from intellectual diversity by labeling it as oppression and attempt to end it through the systemic silencing of opposing opinions, the American college campus is moving closer and closer to a regressive dystopia.
The idea of college safe spaces and coddling is a relatively hot topic right now. I myself have written about it multiple times from a contemporary perspective, focusing on constitutionality and precedent. But viewing the regression of free speech and intellectual diversity on campus from a historical lens paints a more viscerally jarring picture.
Consider the history of the rationalization of sexism. Pennsylvania State University psychologist Stephanie Shields hypothesizes that historical paternalism was enforced by a cultural standard labeling men’s instinctive responses as “passionate” (and thus strong,) but women’s instinctual responses as just “emotional.” By generalizing women as biologically predisposed to emotional or intellectual weakness, sexist behavior and norms have been justified as protecting women. On college campuses, safe spaces are a form of this protectionism that subjugates people and continues to treat them like children.
As I have previously asserted, free speech is the best attack on bigoted behavior simply because it does not discriminate. The best way to shut down racism is to employ one’s “freedom to” logically deconstruct racist and other bigoted fallacies, not just silencing the conversation. In fact, shutting down the conversation to ensure people’s “freedom from” discomfort or even immoral opinions just ferments bigotry into an even worse beast, churning ignorance and fallaciousness into resentment and anger. This backlash to silencing and political correctness is exactly what produced the rise of Donald Trump. Trump supporters, who are statistically working-class and uneducated, are not supporting him for the successes that were Trump University or Trump Steaks, but instead, they admire Trump’s self-described best asset: his “aura of personality.”
Aside from its syntactic redundancy, this “aura of personality” is just a manifestation of pent-up anger, not only at a feeling of a decline of American exceptionalism, but also largely as a violent reaction against the politically correct, safe space culture which vilifies any and all dissenters and forces them into silence and submission. The result of silencing someone, even a bigot, is not shutting down the idea, but fueling their fury. In essence, safe space culture breeds the very evil it seeks to destroy.
Furthermore, college students should not want an arbitrary line drawn to grant them “freedom from” uncomfortable ideas. Intellectual diversity, especially that of the highest quality afforded by attending a prestigious university, is an incredible privilege and an asset to learning. Only by learning how to defend moral or logical ideas can students, especially those in the liberal arts and humanities, truly become scholars. Yet today, conversations are shut down with claims of triggers and microaggressions. While claims of PTSD from traumatic events such as rape or abuse should not be taken lightly, psychologists have already come to the conclusion that discourse and mild exposure to events which caused trauma is the best way to overcome it.
The people who tend to advocate for safe spaces also tend to be the ones who vehemently oppose a potential Trumptatorship. However, to halt a rising tide of a cultural and political system motivated by fear and irrationality, we, as college students with the power to shape some part of the future, must not impose a fear of intellectual dissent in our own social spheres. It is tempting to give into the imposition of “freedom from” unpalatable ideas, but choosing “freedom from” over the “freedom to” uncensored or coded speech destroys the very core of what it means to receive an education and will condemn us to a future of a society ruled by terror and instinct instead of knowledge and advancement.
Tiana Lowe is a sophomore majoring in math and economics. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Tuesdays.