The unpleasant truth is that historically marginalized groups, including racial minorities and members of the LGBT community, are not the only people whose beliefs and identities are marginalized on many college campuses. Those who believe in the exclusive truth of a single revealed religion or those who believe that all religions are nonsensical are silenced by the culture of trigger warnings and safe spaces. I know this is true because I know these students are in my classroom, but I rarely hear their opinions expressed in class.
There is no doubt that in America, the perspective of white, heterosexual Christian males has enjoyed disproportionate emphasis, particularly in higher education. Trigger warnings, safe spaces, diversity initiatives, and attention to social justice: all of these are essential for pushing back against this lopsided power dynamic. But there is a very real danger that these efforts will become overzealous and render opposing opinions taboo. Instead of dialogues in which everyone is fairly represented, campus conversations about race, gender, and religion will devolve into monologues about the virtues of tolerance and diversity. I have seen it happen, not only at the University of Chicago, my alma mater, but also at the school where I currently teach, James Madison University, where the majority of students are white and Christian. The problem, I’d wager, is fairly widespread, at least at secular universities.
Silencing these voices is not a good thing for anyone, especially the advocates of marginalized groups who hope to sway public opinion. Take for example the idea that God opposes homosexuality, a belief that some students still hold. On an ideal campus, these students would feel free to voice their belief. They would then be confronted by opposing arguments, spoken, perhaps, by the very people whose sexual orientation they have asserted is sinful. At least in this kind of environment, these students would have an opportunity to see the weaknesses in their position and potentially change their minds. But if students do not feel free to voice their opinions, they will remain silent, retreating from the classroom to discuss their position on homosexuality with family, friends, and other like-minded individuals. They will believe, correctly in some cases, that advocates of gay rights see them as hateful, intolerant bigots who deserve to be silenced, and which may persuade them to cling with even greater intensity to their convictions.
A more charitable interpretation of the University of Chicago letter is that it is meant to inoculate students against allergy to argument. Modern, secular, liberal education is supposed to combine a Socratic ideal of the examined life with a Millian marketplace of ideas. It is boot camp, not a hotel. In theory, this will produce individuals who have cultivated their intellect and embraced new ideas via communal debate—the kind of individuals who make good neighbors and citizens.