Zimmerman talks freedom of speech at IDEAL

By SIRI TUMMALA | April 6, 2017

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Courtesy of Siri Tummala Zimmerman (left) worries that “safe spaces” protect students from ideas they find offensive.

IDEAL, a nonpartisan political advocacy student group, hosted an interview with Jonathan Zimmerman on Thursday, March 30. Zimmerman, who has Ph.D. in history from Hopkins, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and his research focuses on free speech and politics on college campuses. At the event he spoke about key points from his latest book Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Hanno Balz, a visiting assistant History professor, whose research includes youth movements, interviewed Zimmerman. Balz began by asking Zimmerman whether he agreed with the statement that the current generation is the most political one since the 1960s.

“I agree with the claim that this is a highly political generation, but I would argue that there are two elements that are quite new compared to earlier generations of protesters,” Zimmerman said. “The first is what I call the psychologizing of politics.”

He elaborated on what the “psychologizing of politics” means.

“I think the trend is to express politics in psychological terms. Think about the language of trigger words, the language of microaggressions and the language of safe spaces,” he said. “I think you see an increase of this from prior eras, but I think this started about 10 or 15 years ago.”

Zimmerman addressed some critics’ argument that he dismisses the emotions of some of today’s protesters.

“I see it as quite the contrary,” he said. “Argument requires a kind of denial at certain times. It requires a rejection and exchange. When it’s in the idiom of psychology, that is almost impossible. I think it’s a new, and in my opinion, a quite problematic, dimension of the current protests.”

He argues that the second distinct element of today’s protests is a new demand for more university administrators.

“One fundamental difference in a lot of protests today is actually the demand for more administration, so more requirements, more rules, more trainings and indeed more administrators, which has been one of the dominant trends in American higher education,” Zimmerman said. “In earlier eras there were more professors than administrators, and now there are more administrators than professors.”

Zimmerman explained how he thought that some demands for more administration were valid requests.

“There are a million reasons for [more administration] and some of them are utterly legitimate, like the whole mental health apparatus which didn’t really exist when I was a kid,” he said. “It is not necessarily a bad thing. I think it depends on what is getting administrated.”

Balz inquired about the connection between the 1960s push for self-determination, or the right for a group to have their own space, to safe spaces today. Zimmerman touched on the importance of defining what safe spaces are.

“If a safe space means a place where people feel free to express themselves without threat or harm, then I’m in favor of safe spaces absolutely,” he said. “But if a safe space means a place where people feel that they must be insulated from ideas they find offensive, then I start to get worried about safe spaces. It all depends on what you think it is.”

He further explained the link between safe spaces and self-determination.

“I would say the demand for safe spaces does show in some way a continuation of the drive for self-determination,” he said. “And yet I would argue that the demand for more administrators inhibits that self- determination.”

After the interview portion, Balz opened the floor to questions from students. Freshman Devanshu Singh asked Zimmerman his opinion of how social media is impacted by the focus on feelings.

“We’re so close to this revolution that we can’t even answer the question,” he said. “You’re the first social media generation. You are the Lewis and Clark of social media.”

Freshman Cristian Aguirre praised the effectiveness of the discussion.

“There were a lot of examples where I felt he gave a concrete example for a phenomenon that I didn’t have examples for before to explain,” he said. “It was definitely very rewarding to go to, and he made a lot of interesting points. At a lot of talks I go to, I don’t normally take out notes, but for him I did, so I really enjoyed it.”

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