Tag Archives: safe spaces

Leahy Talks Trump, Trigger Warnings in Candid Interview with Florida News Site

In a wide-ranging interview published on Friday by the Florida-based news site TCPalm.com, University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., commented on the United States in the Donald Trump era, “softness” among some of today’s college students, and changes to higher education during his 20-year tenure. The full interview can be read here.

Leahy was previewing a talk he is scheduled to give next month at the Rappaport Center at Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, Fla. The center was funded by Jerry Rappaport, the Boston real estate developer and philanthropist for whom the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy at Boston College Law School is named. University Spokesman Jack Dunn said Rappaport had asked Leahy to speak at this year’s talk, which is titled “Bridging Divides: Fostering Dialogue & Civic Engagement.” The interview was conducted by Eve Samples, a columnist for TCPalm, who will also moderate the talk next month.

The candid interview is a rare occurrence lately for Leahy, who declined an interview request this fall for a Heights article commemorating his 20th anniversary as University president. According to the same article, he declined similar requests from the Office of News and Public Affairs and Boston College Magazine. He also declined an interview request last March from The Boston Globe for an article about BC’s struggling for-profit sports that ran on the paper’s front page, providing a statement instead. It is unclear if this interview with TCPalm was conducted in person or via written responses to questions.

Leahy said in the interview that he agreed to speak at the event because he thinks there’s an intersection between religious beliefs and ongoing issues in the United States. He said his university background makes him optimistic about Americans’ ability to approach those issues with constructive dialogue.

Leahy brought up several areas of national controversy, some of which have also received considerable attention this year at BC.

“People get emotional, whether it’s around race, foreign policy, free speech, sexual orientation,” he said. “Once you have a common ground, it’s easy to engage and look at the needs of the community.”

This fall, a few hundred students attended a “Silence is Violence” march through campus that specifically criticized Leahy’s lack of a response to an incident of homophobic vandalism on campus. Earlier this semester, a group of graduate students involved in Eradicate BC Racism were sanctioned for their involvement in two unregistered protests that took place this fall. Leahy did not elaborate on specific incidents related to the issues he mentioned, but he did make several comments about general life on college campuses and how higher education has evolved.

He also thinks the Trump administration will move toward the middle, gradually becoming more moderate because Republicans and Democrats will be reluctant to enact extreme legislation. He thinks bipartisan action and compromise are for the good of all, but does worry that Trump is a liability in areas that have fewer checks and balances.  

“My concern is more on foreign policy with Trump, where he’s got a lot of latitude,” he said. “Sometimes he makes decisions or statements that seem rash, then he walks them back.”

Leahy added that he sees “painful” contradictions between his personal views on morality and religion and Trump’s rise to power. In November, Leahy signed two statements affirming BC’s commitment to upholding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama administration program that provides protections for undocumented students. Last month, Leahy and other senior administrators issued a statement condemning Trump’s executive order banning travel for seven Muslim-majority nations.

“Here’s the president of the United States saying and doing things that I think are counter to how a mature, moral person should live,” he said.

Asked if he supports the concept of “safe spaces” or trigger warnings designed to protect students from potentially offensive speech, Leahy said he does not. Instead, he thinks “we have to help young people live with realities.”

I don’t want anybody being harassed or called names—but I think there’s a softness in the American segment of the population aged 18 to 22, where some people don’t want anybody to disagree with them,” he said. “And parents, in so many instances, have protected their children. Life has some tough moments. I think there’s a value in having moments where there’s some irritation, and it’s got to be handled correctly. But I don’t believe in trigger warnings. I think challenge is a good thing.”

Parents sometimes ask Leahy what they can do to instill responsibility in their teenagers. He said he tells them to make sure their kids get jobs that require them to show up on time, put in eight hours, and “experience the joy of accomplishment.” That stems, he said, from his experience growing up on a farm in Iowa, taking care of animals and tending crops.

Leahy compared today’s political climate with that of the 1820s. Andrew Jackson called the election of 1824 a “corrupt bargain” when it was won by John Quincy Adams after a vote in the House of Representatives. When Jackson won in 1828, it was a similar change to Trump’s election this November.

“People feared we had this buffoon coming in from the backwoods,” Leahy said. “America survived the big transition.”

Leahy, who got his Ph.D. in U.S. history at Stanford University, said he “would certainly not hold Jackson up as a paragon of virtue,” but he thinks history has its ups and downs.

“When you take the long view, the pendulum swings and comes back to the middle,” he said.

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor

Education Through Confrontation

The place of trigger warnings and safe spaces in the university system has long been a hotly contested topic. The growing social and political unrest of the past few years has only served to exacerbate this debate. Campuses across the nation have been dealing with the question of what it means to be “safe.” This question has no clearly defined answer, but too often attempts to ensure “safety” in reality lead to censorship. And, too often, “safety” is confused with comfort.

Make no mistake about it, all students and all people deserve to feel safe from harm. But ideas and beliefs do not. The university system exists to foster the exchange of and competition between ideas. Too often now, any sort of push-back against strongly held ideas is perceived as deliberate offense, or worse, bigotry. But the selfsame sense of bitterness and insularity pervades the rest of our culture as well. Why engage in dialogue with someone when you can simply label and dismiss them? The establishment of safe spaces is tantamount to the erection of siege walls. They aren’t about keeping the people inside safe, but keeping dissenting people out.

These practices are not unique to large political and social issues. They pop up in classrooms every day, across a wide spectrum of disciplines. Students are often permitted to excuse themselves from topics and situations where they might be triggered by potentially offensive content, and in doing so the whole classroom is weakened. How can fields like history, literature, and religion ever be tackled without a willingness to confront the uncomfortable? We cannot allow fear or discomfort to stop us from shining light on the darkest corners of our existence because sometimes that is where we make our most profound discoveries.

It’s often said that the only way to prevent history from repeating itself is by studying it. In studying the past, we come face to face with some truly horrific events and periods in human history. In a world dictated by safe spaces and trigger warnings, it isn’t difficult to imagine how we might lose the courage to confront our mistakes and thereby lose the crucial opportunity to learn from them.

I believe that safe spaces and trigger warnings are rooted in compassionate intentions. It is perfectly sensible to want to protect people from encountering trauma that they have experienced elsewhere in life. A sexual assault victim should not have to read a story about sexual assault, nor should a veteran be obliged to watch a war film. I would feel entirely uncomfortable arguing for the contrary of these cases. Yet, in my own experience, I feel more comfortable advocating for people to face their trauma. As a child of a dysfunctional home, I was raised around domestic violence. I witnessed spousal abuse on a regular basis before the deaths of my parents and I am still deeply affected by it. There isn’t a day that goes by where I escape thinking of the experiences I had in my childhood and adolescence.

I consider myself quite well adjusted, but I know there are others from similar backgrounds that are not as fortunate. And while I wouldn’t quite advocate for them to be required to engage with traumatic material, I would strongly recommend it. Coming face to face with difficult experiences that remind of us of our own is an invaluable process of growth. When we interface with great pieces of literature, or even just the insight of our fellow classmates, we have the potential to take away deep understandings of the world. Those understandings have the potential to be uniquely and substantively healing.

I would never allow myself to walk away from confronting a difficult subject because I thought it might remind me of the darkest period of my life. To do so would deprive me of the chance to learn and heal, and it would deprive my classmates of the life experience and insight I have to provide. I believe we are here, not only in college but as a community, to help each other learn and grow. To be the best people that we can be as a result of our combined experiences and knowledge. Whenever someone checks out in the exchange of knowledge, especially in the university system, it is a loss for everyone.

The concepts of trigger warnings and safe spaces are being co-opted by the easily offended at an increasing rate. They usurp the protection intended to be offered to the most marginalized and damaged members of our society and use it as a shield to protect themselves from the threat of challenge. On a bubble campus like ours we find ourselves already deeply insulated from the “real world.” I get incredibly frustrated when I see people erecting walls to protect themselves from discomfort. As a university, and as a community of thinkers, we are at Boston College to challenge and be challenged. Outside of the most extreme cases, I believe discomfort is an inherent part of constructive intellectual discourse.

Discomfort in the classroom is the friction of dissimilar ideas coming into contact. As students, scholars, and intellectuals we must be willing to embrace that discomfort and insulate ourselves from the dangerous relativism that is creeping into our culture at an ever-increasing rate. We’re allowed to think another person is wrong and, if we conduct ourselves politely, we deserve the right to try and prove that person wrong. This interaction is what hundreds of years of academic progress has been built on. But now it seems that universities, the very system that should be promoting this intellectual battle, have taken a back seat or worse—cordoned off the ring. Where once professors and students were in the practice of instruction and learning, we seem to be approaching a practice of coddling and being coddled. What is the point of a university at all if the only thing the community wants is to have its innate ideals protected from the outside?

Featured Image by Margaux Eckert

Safe Space And Making the Rules

Over the past month, we’ve seen discussion and action across the country and in our own community addressing the issue of race on college  campuses. Much criticism has been directed toward this movement by some who increasingly view the debate as one between free speech rights and racial justice. Not only is this dichotomy false,  it reflects the divide that exists between the freedom of speech by white people  and speech by members  of minority groups .

While freedom of speech is a right in the United States for people of all races, there is still a great disparity of influence between white speech and speech by  minority groups. People of all races are equally free to say whatever they want, but they are not equally heard by those who can effect  meaningful change .

So when we hear students requesting, and ultimately enforcing, safe spaces where they can discuss their ideas for racial justice without fear of social retribution, they are not necessarily trying to create a university system that obliterates forms of free speech. Rather, they are looking to establish social spaces with new sets of rules where their ideas are respected and validated in the same way that the ideas of whites are, because students of color have continually felt marginalized in the current system.

It is too often forgotten that it was not that long ago that people of color were excluded from most universities, and, as such, were only co-opted in the mid-20th century into a system designed by and for whites. Most U.S. universities were founded in an era before civil equality between the races was established, and many still proudly bear the symbols of antebellum oppression and ignore the human costs of the slavery that built these institutions. Why should students of color feel indebted to a system that was never made for them and offers no reasonable avenues for changing its governing rules?

Universities speak proudly about improving campus diversity, but they are not so loud when speaking about the ways they are changing the system to represent the needs and wants of this changing community. This is because universities were forced to improve their acceptance rates for students of color but have never been required to reflect this change in their power structures.

The result is that our current universities benefit from the presence of students of color, in terms of the financing that can come with achieving measures of campus diversity according to performance-based government funding, and in terms of the prestige that comes with claiming to have  a racially diverse campus. But universities are not obliged to return benefits to these same students by meaningfully responding  to their demands. Their beaming faces of various colors can be used to fill admissions websites and pamphlets, while their desires and pains can easily be ignored.

Ultimately, this fact reflects the severe lack of a fair and open governing structure at most universities, which is particularly true at BC, as it has no democratic or representative means to incorporate student or faculty input into its governing system. Racial injustice puts into sharp relief this lack of a shared governing structure, which would meaningfully allocate to faculty and students institutional power and allow them to contribute to the rules that set the course of the University and address the issues that matter to them.

Safe spaces and protests demanding racial justice are the only options for students of color who have been offered no other means of effectively having their voices heard and impacting university policies. While some schools , like Harvard University, have acted to implement some of the demands of these activists, and others like Mizzou have been pressured to do so, many universities have little or no shared governing structures that provide students and faculty a stake in the university system that they must join to receive a decent education.

In creating these spaces of revolution and action, students aren’t trying to limit free speech. They are setting the rules by which marginalized voices can be meaningfully heard. For a moment, they are able to say they refuse to buy into a system they have had no input in creating. For a moment, they are able to say that they will not accept the bargain they are being coerced into: a liberal university education for the silencing of their voices. For a moment, they have a stake in a system they can believe in .

These are but moments, and they are not sustainable in their current form. But it is possible to progress toward advancements in racial justice by giving students and faculty greater means to be heard at the highest level of university governing structures, making the university responsive to those for whom it exists and thus offering to all a greater stake in its future.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins