To the editor:
As a former Chronicle columnist, I believe the Editorial Board's support for safe spaces should be qualified. While most safe spaces benefit campus life, sometimes they undermine respectful campus discussion.
Last year, during campus protests demanding safe spaces at Harvard Law, I served as editor-in-chief of the law school's student paper. There I witnessed first-hand how well-intentioned campus safe spaces can metastasize, monopolizing discourse and creating an illiberal, Orwellian echo-chamber that punishes dissenters in favor of boring, rigid conformity.
The editorial board suggests that safe spaces only require that those with nothing "nice" to say say "nothing at all." But last year, some Harvard Law student protesters narrowed the definition of "nice" so much that the only way to be "nice" was to agree with them — completely.
For example, as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, whenever I accepted conservative op-ed articles, left-wing students sent emails demanding I retract the piece. They argued that I—a Lebanese-American liberal—only published the offending article due to white privilege, even though the vast majority of published op-ed articles supported the protesters. To discourage law students from submitting critical editorials, protesters often engaged in shaming tactics on social media. This shaming assumed an illiberal bent that subjugated individual dignity to group identity, as a fringe of protesters (1) implied minority dissenters had internalized racism or (2) stigmatized and pigeonholed critical white students based solely on skin color.
Once, growing up in rural North Carolina, I naively assumed that only conservatives stifled the most fundamental liberal principle: Freedom of thought. Sadly, at Duke and Harvard Law, I learned that much of the Left has abandoned liberalism—with its emphasis on intellectual humility and its opposition to essentializing others via race or gender. Yet such left-wing illiberalism threatens a university's most basic mission: to challenge our biases, thereby promoting intellectual growth.
Since Athenians executed Socrates to preserve their safe space, it's been clear that safe spaces can sometimes grow dangerously intolerant—stigmatizing not only dissent, but also dissenters.
Michael Shammas, '13
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