mericans today are safer than we have ever been—save for the freak occurrences wrought by terrorists or the weather, only some of which can be planned for or prevented. The greatest risks to our safety remain the ones we inflict on ourselves in the form of bad habits and bad driving. Alas, absent daily palpable threats, our brains sometimes still search for them and readily exaggerate small risks to fill the void. The child-proofing industry is one example. Perennial food panics are another. Celebrity-helmed financial empires rely on fears related to chemicals, vaccinations, and unethically sourced consumer goods.
Still, most of us are or ought to be capable of recognizing the truth, which is that we live in remarkably safe times—and no one more so than the generation of Americans born after the national crime drop that began three decades ago.
Once, college campuses—including those at elite schools such as Yale, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania—were objectively unsafe. The neighborhoods surrounding these institutions were dreadful, and crimes ranging from muggings to burglaries to violent assaults were distressingly common. Today they are not. As an official of Yale University reassured readers of the Yale Daily News not long ago, crime in New Haven “has decreased by more than 50 percent since 1990.”
So why has “safety” now become the byword for the demands of campus activists? In a world in which it takes a village to raise a child, they are all our children. And just as we have spent their lives exaggerating the risks they face—risks earlier generations did not have the time to fear, since they had real dangers to contend with—we are peculiarly susceptible to their assertions that they feel themselves to be under threat. Claiming they feel unsafe is an extraordinarily powerful weapon. They know what pushes our buttons.
On campus, safety is now a matter of feeling rather than fact. And young activists have lots and lots of feelings. A YouTube video promoting the Black Justice League of Princeton’s recent sit-in at a university administration building featured students holding signs that described why they were participating in the protests. “I’m here because my friends don’t feel safe or loved here,” one young woman stated. All students need to be “loved and respected,” another noted. Every student should be “loved, accepted, respected,” yet another student argued. By displaying the (racist) Woodrow Wilson’s name and image around the university, another woman claimed, Princeton “denies students of color their right to feel safe and loved on this campus.”
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wrote, “Suppose nothing else were ‘given’ as real except our world of desires and passions, and we could not get down, or up, to any other ‘reality’ besides the reality of our drives.” This was what he called the “will to power,” or “the world viewed from inside.”
Today, the will to power, coated in a thick layer of feelings, is repackaged as empathy, which, like safety, has become an unassailable human right. One student protester at Princeton justified the protests by citing the transgender activist Laverne Cox’s injunction that students should practice “empathy and activism” by “listening and learning” from fellow students’ experiences in order to create a safer campus environment.
Listening and learning? Like this? “F— you, you filthy white f—s!” “F— you and your comfort!” “F— you, you racist s—!” This is what Black Lives Matter protesters at Dartmouth shouted at students studying for their exams in the library. As the Dartmouth Review reported, protesters also offered “listening and learning” interactions such as pinning a woman to a wall and shouting “filthy white b—!” in her face until she fled the building.
These new seekers of “safe spaces” don’t want safety or empathy. They want immunity—from ideas they don’t agree with, from reasonable debate, from experiences that don’t suit their narrative, from a past that includes leaders who accomplished a great deal but were also deeply flawed human beings.
“We have a duty to amend the past so it doesn’t influence the future,” one Princeton student protestor claimed. No, you don’t.
College presidents, who usually wear their moral seriousness like bad cologne, appear flummoxed by a generation of college undergraduates who, having earned something (entrée into an elite university), now feel that they are owed everything.
True empathy embraces the necessity of experiencing discomfort in the service of understanding. It is what George Orwell pursued when he tramped across London and visited the coal miners at Wigan Pier. By contrast, immunity seeks freedom from rather than freedom for. It produces not strong or thoughtful human beings but wounded word warriors threatened by readings of Ovid. It creates people who are basically phobic in their reactions to ideas that displease them. It sees the real world as a place of unacknowledged microaggressions and turns the university into the intellectual equivalent of a bomb shelter.
Pained liberals have tried to explain away the protestors’ behavior by pointing to the anxiety this generation must feel, facing as it does burdensome student debt, difficult job prospects, and, yes, even global climate change. These things “have young people rattled,” Todd Gitlin wrote in the New York Times. “There are actual apocalypses in the making.”
People who live in genuinely unsafe environments have a different understanding of fear and safety. “Speaking as a veteran who saw combat, and who had friends killed and wounded,” wrote former U.S. Marine Chris Martin in the Atlantic, “it is difficult for me to reconcile the idea that campuses are not ‘safe spaces’ for students. To me, a ‘safe space’ is one in which no one is actively trying to kill you.”
Benjamin Franklin offered history’s best riposte: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
What we have here is an irreligious kind of theodicy. This means that intellectual counterattacks against it are meaningless unless they are backed by strong action on the ground—by fellow students who don’t want free speech and reasonable debate trampled, by college administrators who refuse to be cowed by the demands of entitled undergraduates, and by parents who are paying for their children to be educated on these campuses.
But college presidents, who usually wear their moral seriousness like bad cologne, appear flummoxed by a generation of college undergraduates who, having earned something (entrée into an elite university), now feel that they are owed everything. In all likelihood, these students don’t feel genuinely unsafe; they feel entitled to have the adults in their lives capitulate to their demands regardless of their merit. In our current cultural climate, claiming to feel unsafe or unaccepted or unloved is a powerful weapon in advancing their will to power. In fact, their victories are even more triumphant when they win by advancing claims that have little or no merit, like that people who say things they have declared offensive should be stripped of their freedom of speech.
And so the genuinely “safe spaces” society once nurtured—the classrooms where freewheeling debate occurs, the meeting rooms where citizens gather to hash out their local differences, and a popular culture that makes room for unpopular opinions—face extinction. If we don’t fight to preserve the integrity of these spaces, then the only safety we will know is the kind we are getting our first glimpse of on college campuses: the suffocating certainty of the panic room.