Mason Maxwell and Liam Hunt: ‘Safetyism’ pushed by campus activists is wrecking free speech at universities

Former University of Saskatchewan president Peter MacKinnon, now president of Dalhousie University, launched his new book, University Commons Divided: Exploring Debate and Dissent on Campus, in Saskatoon a year ago. Kayle Neis / Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Last week, at a welcoming reception for Dalhousie’s incoming interim president, Peter Mackinnon, a contingent of Dalhousie and King’s student activists held a silent protest of Mackinnon’s hiring.

They claimed that Mackinnon threatens their safety, that his hiring had caused them harm, and that he must be fired. Among their list of demands includes mandatory anti-oppression training for all Dalhousie administrators and executives.

What has Mackinnon done that could be so horrible as to provoke such a response from the 20 or 30 students who showed up to protest his inauguration? He wrote a book, University Commons Divided, last year about dissent and free expression on university campuses.

In it, he makes such outrageous claims as: the university should not police students’ Halloween costumes, even when they’re offensive; the university should not police its tenured professors’ speech or their opinions about gendered pronouns; the university should not enforce trigger warnings; and, central among them, that the pursuit of truth should prevail over the pursuit of social justice in the university.

The activists in attendance that day would have us believe these ideas are dangerous.

It might be the case that Mackinnon is, in fact, wrong about some of his book’s claims. But his book is first and foremost about how the culture of free exchange of ideas and healthy debate on university campuses is under threat. 

The protesters, although freely exercising their right to peaceful protest, are only providing more evidence to back up Mackinnon’s claim. They have demonstrated that those who challenge their views must be removed and that their appointment be atoned for.

They have claimed that anyone holding views like Mackinnon’s poses a threat to their safety. In other words, they are helping foster what is called a “culture of safetyism,” a type of coddling that now pervades campuses around the country, including Dalhousie’s.

In their massively popular 2015 Atlantic article and 2018 book of the same name, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and civil rights attorney Greg Lukianoff analyze the current campus climate about free speech and safetyism and how we got here. They argue that the thinking of many student activists, including black-and-white thinking, us-versus-them, labeling, catastrophizing — the same pathological thinking characteristic of anxiety disorders and depression — is setting up a generation marked by fragility and intolerance.

To quote the authors, safety-obsessed activists “contradict basic psychological principles about well-being and ancient wisdom from many cultures … embracing these untruths — and the resulting culture of safetyism — interferes with young people’s social, emotional and intellectual development.” Without stress or movement, we atrophy, and our minds develop without immunity to dissent.

The authors remark that “according to the most-basic tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.” In the same way, enabling students to foster a culture of safetyism on campus so that they can avoid being subjected to discomfort or ideological challenging devalues their education. Our best ideas are ones that have been chiseled and molded by discussion and debate with people holding the contrary idea.

In psychotherapy, a cognitive distortion known as “negative filtering” involves picking out negative details from a situation, fixating on them exclusively and allowing the entire situation to be cast in a negative light based on this fixation. At Dalhousie, negative mental filtering has turned a contentious interim hiring decision into an opportunity to demonize, attack and to chalk the whole situation up to a conspiracy to propagate systemic oppression.

In other words, student activists have taken a negative event — a difficult yet common occurrence in much of the working world — and dressed it up in a monster’s clothes. If this practice carries forward to their personal and professional lives off-campus, the downstream effects on their careers, relationships and mental health will be disastrous.    

We do not doubt that the activists at Mackinnon’s protest have good intentions. They strive to make a more fair and welcoming space on campus. But turning Dalhousie into a space where disagreeable opinions are construed as “violence” is not the way to do that. They are not winning over the other side by their ridiculous demands for firing the university’s president or by their claims that his presence is an actual physical safety threat to marginalized students.

Allegations of this sort serve only to make marginalized students more fearful and anxious in the face of their administration. They are falsely led to believe that the people who disagree with those who claim to represent them actually hate them or that they are actively ensnaring them in a system of oppression.

This is, of course, untrue. Dalhousie, like so many Canadian campuses, has taken great strides to introduce human rights and equity initiatives at all levels of academic administration. Entire departments have been formed to administer campus diversity, equity and inclusion policies, staffed by dozens of bureaucrats and academics whose very job titles now include these terms. The university commons remain perhaps the most inclusive and welcoming space in the country for anyone to participate in, no matter the immutable characteristics they’re born with.

Mackinnon should be criticized, his ideas reckoned with. His book should be read critically by students and there should be space in the ear of our university administration for their critiques. That’s part of the thesis of his book. So maybe the activists should re-read the book and then reconsider their position on his hiring. As it stands, they are proving him right.

Mason Maxwell is a senior honour’s student and research assistant at Dalhousie University; Liam Hunt is a freelance writer who graduated with a master of arts degree from Dalhousie in 2017.

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