Massachusetts students resist politically correct campus culture

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CAMBRIDGE – While universities nationwide have made headlines for their crackdown on “microaggressions” and their creation of “safe spaces” away from offensive conversation, some Massachusetts college students think their peers are being overly sensitive.

Harvard University sophomore Rachel Huebner, an editorial writer for the Crimson student newspaper, recently penned a column against this “culture of sensitivity.

“I used to believe that open discourse was a value all Americans hold dear. I presumed that when asked about what makes America so unique, many Americans would respond that our pluralistic society is the foundation of so much of our success,” Huebner, who studies psychology, wrote last week. “But then I started college.”

Although she acknowledged that “students should become aware of and respect” newly surfaced various “identities,” Huebner wrote that many of progressive campus movements have “gone too far” – pointing to her recent experiences, as well as the University of New Hampshire’s attempt at removing offensive words from conversation.  

“In a recent conversation with peers, I posed a question about a verse from the Bible. A Harvard employee in the room immediately interjected, informing me that we were in a safe space and I was thus not permitted to discuss the controversial biblical passage,” wrote Huebner, who did not immediately respond to an interview request.

Huebner’s piece garnered nearly 200 online comments within a week, mostly from those voicing agreement.

Huebner isn’t the only one fed up with the political correctness of her peers. Zachary Wood, a Williams College sophomore studying political science and philosophy, has been featured in several media outlets for his work as president of campus group Uncomfortable Learning.

Zachary Wood (Courtesy Zachary Wood)

Zachary Wood (Courtesy Zachary Wood)

Uncomfortable Learning hosts controversial speakers in order to spur provocative conversation, but made headlines in recent months when two speakers – of the six invited this school year – were disinvited after receiving lashback from students and the administration of the small liberal arts school in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

The group disinvited feminist critic Suzanne Venker last October after receiving heavy backlash from students. Last month, Williams College President Adam Falk cancelled an event with John Derbyshire, a columnist with whom the National Review parted in 2012 after he posted a blog entry on another site in which he made derogatory generalizations about African-Americans.

Wood said students felt that the National Review author’s ideas had already been invalidated and it was pointless to bring him to campus. Wood disagreed, and thought that instead of banning Derbyshire, faculty and administrators should have pointed to the need to understand groups like Derbyshire’s large constituency of readers and intellectual peers who agreed with him.  

One Williams College official expressed his support for the banning of offensive speakers in The Washington Post: “When students refuse to accept discrimination on college campuses, they’re learning important lessons about how to fight it everywhere.”

Wood disagreed.

“In real world, are you going to disinvite your boss from a meeting because you disagree?” Wood, 20, said in an interview with the NewBostonPost Wednesday.

Wood, a self-described “liberal, African American, Democrat who’s voting for Hillary Clinton,” who hails from a “disadvantaged background,” said that he believes education is about listening and engaging with ideas that one doesn’t understand.

Some of the student activists who have participated in campus protests over the past year have legitimate grievances, Wood granted, but he fears that their effectiveness wanes with their extreme means of communication and sensitivity.

“Not that emotions shouldn’t be involved,” he clarified, “But students should learn to deal with those ideas without quarantining those ideas.”

But why has Wood taken up this mantle of protecting free speech?

“It’s very important for someone to say, ‘look, it doesn’t make you a sell-out, anti-black or conservative to support free speech,’” he said. “For me, it comes down to how much I care about my education.”

If he can be a role model for one student down the road to understand that being a minority, liberal or anyone who doesn’t “fit the norm of someone who supports free speech,” he will have accomplished his goal. Controversial Harvard University professor Randall Kennedy is his role model, he said.

“It’s about thinking critically for myself,” he said. “Let’s try to separate the head from the heart in thinking about these issues. It’s difficult to do, but that’s the real challenge if you want raise the bar.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis