IN 2017, NY Times columnist Bret Stephens gave a commencement address at Hampden-Sydney College that he then repurposed as one of his NY Times columns entitled: “Leave Your Safe Spaces.” The entire theme was that college students are way too soft intellectually, and they’ve been coddled and are too afraid to debate difficult and dangerous ideas. He mocks the concept of safe spaces, and suggests that it diminishes ones ability to truly seek the truth. Near the end, it states:
So here’s my advice to you: Get out of your own safe spaces. Define what your intellectual comfort zone is — and leave it. Enhance your tolerance for discordant voices. Narrow your criteria for what’s beyond the pale. Read the authors or watch the talking heads with whom you disagree. Treat those disagreements as a whetting stone to sharpen your own arguments. Resist the temptation to call people names.
And then it concludes:
Safe spaces, physical and intellectual, are for children. You are grown-ups now. If your diplomas mean anything, it’s that it is time you leave those spaces behind forever.
And last year, he wrote a column (which was also actually a speech given at a university) entitled “Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort”, which concludes:
As each side gathers round in their respective echo chambers and social media silos, the purpose of free speech has become increasingly more obscure.
Its purpose isn’t, or isn’t merely, to allow us to hear our own voices, or the voices of those with whom we already agree. It is also to hear what other people, with other views, often anathema to ours, have to say.
To hear such speech may make us uncomfortable. As well it should. Discomfort is not injury. An intellectual provocation is not a physical assault. It’s a stimulus. Over time, it can improve our own arguments, and sometimes even change our minds.
In either case, it’s hard to see how we can’t benefit from it, if we choose to do so. Make that choice. Democracy is enriched if you do. So are you.
He also wrote a column that was also a speech, entitled “The Dying Art of Disagreement”, which also whines about kids at universities being unwilling to debate those they disagree with.
So here’s where we stand: Intelligent disagreement is the lifeblood of any thriving society. Yet we in the United States are raising a younger generation who have never been taught either the how or the why of disagreement, and who seem to think that free speech is a one-way right: Namely, their right to disinvite, shout down or abuse anyone they dislike, lest they run the risk of listening to that person — or even allowing someone else to listen. The results are evident in the parlous state of our universities, and the frayed edges of our democracies.
By now you should get a sense of Stephens’ general style. Those crazy universities with their safe spaces and unwillingness to debate difficult ideas in the light of day.
Of course, we all know that Stephens is a bit hypocritical in all of that. Back in August, somewhat famously, he turned a little-noticed jokey tweet from media professor David Karpf that suggested bedbugs at the NY Times offices were “a metaphor” for Bret Stephens, into a massive phenomenon, by first misunderstanding the tweet, and then getting so worked up and angry about it that he not only emailed the professor, but also emailed the professor’s boss in an obvious attempt to intimidate him. It soon came out that he’d done similar things to others as well. Stephens then made things even worse by thinking he was clever in subtly comparing Karpf to the Nazis in his NYT column, which accidentally revealed that he’d just done a Google Book search of “jews as bedbugs” and then twisted the results to pretend that it was common for Nazis to call jews bedbugs.
When Karpf was on our podcast he revealed that Stephens had actually agreed to go to come to George Washington University (where Karpf is a professor) and debate the whole incident. Except… that’s now off. And the reason it’s off appears to be that it wouldn’t have been enough of a safe space for Stephens, because the University (and Karpf) refused to block the public from attending. As Karpf told Ashley Feinberg at Slate:
“The thing that I can share is that he had decided that he was only willing to come if we made it not a public event,” Karpf told me over the phone. “Students could be in the room, but he didn’t want to allow this story to continue anymore. They talked with him, and what it came down to was, the only way he’d do the event is if the public wasn’t allowed to see it. I said, ‘I think that’s really unreasonable.’ They came back to him and said, ‘Karpf thinks that’s unreasonable.’ And he said, ‘OK, we’re not doing it.’ ”
As Karpf has shown over and over again in this whole saga, he’s the one who should have a column at the NY Times or somewhere where lots more people can read his insights, as he so succinctly sums up the craziness of the situation:
Karpf, for his part, said that if Stephens had never written the column comparing Karpf to Nazi propaganda ministers, he might have relented. “If he’d just said, ‘You know I’ve been teased a lot about this because of that one email that I sent you—I’m willing to talk with you, but I don’t want it to be public,’ then I probably would have been OK with that,” Karpf explained. “But if you’re going to go full Godwin against me in the New York Times, I don’t think you then get to say, ‘Oh, by the way, it’s all off the record from here on out.’ That’s just creating a safe space for him so that he could talk about how the Bretbug affair felt for him, but not in a way that anyone would be able to cover. It didn’t seem reasonable or appropriate to me.”
GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs does occasionally hold private, off-the-record events, but according to Karpf, “it’s not like we were bringing in a diplomat who was going to tell us secrets about what it’s like to be a diplomat. This is a New York Times columnist who writes two columns a week for the New York Times. If a broader public wants to hear what he says there, then I think they get to hear it.”
Ah well. Bedbugs never really do like the light, do they?
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