We should be wary of well-meaning attempts to regulate speech - even when they're supposed to protect Catholics

An academic colleague of mine summed it up. She was exasperated, she said, at always being told by her students what they feel. She wants to know what they think.

Across academia, logic and reasoning are being crowded out by the emotions and feelings of students. Many teachers find that, when they attempt to open up a conversation, that only creates more emotional storms, rather than calm debate and authentic attempts to understand each other.

It’s well-known that campuses are increasingly defined by trigger warnings, fears of “micro-aggressions”, and fears of cultural appropriation. One recent example was a welcome event at Clark University in Worcester. A student nervously raised her hand and took the microphone. “I’m really scared to ask this…when I, as a white female, listen to music that uses the N word, and I’m in the car, or, especially when I’m with all white friends, is it O.K. to sing along?” The answer, from Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark University, was a clear “no.” The “N” word may be in a song by a black artist, but it is not for white people to sing-along.

Some warnings seem helpful, almost innocuous. Professors might want to warn students of offending images or themes, such as the portrayal of blacks in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or flagging discussion of rape cases. Micro-aggressions refer to words or acts which inadvertently offend others, such as asking a British woman who looks Asian “where are you really from?” as it implies she is not truly British. A white person blacking their face like a minstrel does cause offence to a black person.

However, the boundaries are being pushed much further. It is argued that advocating the “American Dream” is a micro-aggression because it assumes opportunity is available to all, rather than perceived bias toward the mostly white portion of American society. It seems absurd that some students argue ignoring triggers creates situations where the content causes symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in “victims.” The key term that has also come into play is “without permission,” which sounds even more alarm bells.

Such warnings, though well-intentioned, are turning into challenges to free speech in the classroom and lead to students avoiding hard topics for fear of offending, particularly in respect to race, gender, U.S. imperialism, and even religion.

If we are to have meaningful dialogue in an increasingly angry world, trolled by social media, we need understanding of why and how we are different, since commonality only goes so deep. We all need to be sensitive to the views and experiences of others, and education and dialogue help to achieve this, but education is also about fostering a degree of robustness in argument and allowing room for both traditional and progressive voices.

So Catholics should be wary of those – like one anonymous professor at a liberal arts college – who want to extend trigger warnings to conservative or religious students. The professor proposed warning about foul or sexual language, sexual content, or violence “in order to allow our very conservative students to feel more in control of the material.” Many religious students are more resilient than this comment suggests.

Moreover, the role model for Catholic students is Jesus, who was condemned by the state and spat upon and cursed by the populace as he made his way to the place of crucifixion. Likewise, for most of America’s history Catholics have had to fight against marginalization by the old Protestant establishment. Catholics thus know what it means to be marginalised and can show sympathy for those others who equally seek recognition in society.

The campus is the place where tomorrow’s leaders, decision-makers, opinion-makers, teachers, writers and intellectuals are being formed, and the same is true of tomorrow’s Catholics. The worry is that Catholic students who do not go along with the new progressive establishment are bullied into submission and silenced (a problem exacerbated by social media), or they self-censor to protect themselves and create their own safe space.

If students are to defend traditional Catholic identity and challenge misrepresentation of Catholicism on campus, then they probably need more theological support from chaplaincies and congregations than they are getting.

In his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI said: “the world is in trouble because of the lack of thinking.” The world is in even more trouble than back then, and Catholic students need to participate in what Pope Benedict called a new trajectory of thought, promoting an understanding of how we relate to each other to live more authentically.

Dr. David Cowan is an author, speaker and visiting scholar at Boston College USA.