Comfortable culture dangerous

Liberals’ efforts to make minorities comfortable have been reversed – and blown up in their faces.

Smaller, private colleges and universities are working vigorously to accommodate transgender students, who have become more visible in the last few years.

At Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., for example, students may elect to live in halls where residents are not required to designate a gender. And Wesleyan students are no longer given the option to check an “M” or “F” when they go to the campus clinic for a “wellness and sexual health visit” – instead, students are asked to “describe (their) gender identity history.”

Some of these initiatives strike me as a little flaky, (come on, was it really that terrible for some transgender Wesleyan students to play on a “women’s” rugby team?) Nevertheless, I support these initiatives and I think the University should follow the lead of schools such as Wesleyan.

What I am totally against, however, is the apparent rationale behind these accommodations: To create a “safe environment” that is “less hostile” for transgender students.

Let me be clear: I want transgender students to feel safe, but I am opposed to adopting any measure aimed at accommodating transgender students – or any other group – for the purpose of making them feel welcome or comfortable.

In other words, I support the accommodations that have been made for transgender students at Wesleyan and elsewhere, but I oppose the stated reasons for having them.

In the last 20 years or so, the outlines of a new right – a right to feel comfortable – have become increasingly clear.

It started out as a left-wing thing: In the ’80s and early ’90s, liberals campaigned aggressively to prohibit race and gender-based harassment in the workplace and on university campuses. Enacting campus speech codes was part of this effort.

But, predictably, conservative forces have exploited the “right to feel comfortable” themselves.

As regular readers of this page ought to know, the whiniest minority on campus these days is the conservative.

David Horowitz’s silly (but I would say highly effective) crusade to end “the systematic political harassment of conservative students by their radical professors” is a prime example of how short-sighted, well-meaning liberals’ efforts to make minorities comfortable have been reversed – and blown up in their faces.

The fact that conservatives have appropriated this notion of a right to feel comfortable should not be surprising, because it permeates popular culture. Comfort is the supreme value of what some sociologists call “therapy culture,” which preaches “personal growth,” “self esteem” and repairing psychological trauma through media such as “Oprah” and in the thousands of self-help books published annually.

Therapy culture equates emotional trauma with serious physical maladies – as if guys who still can’t get over the swirlie the football team gave them in seventh grade are just as afflicted as someone with, say, chronic arthritis.

Symptomatic of this equivocation is the ambiguous use of the word “safe” by the liberal activists who have pushed for reforms to make workplaces and campuses “less hostile” to women, racial minorities, homosexuals and bisexuals, and now transgender people.

“I wanted to come to a college where I’d feel safe,” a transgender Wesleyan student named Zachary told The New York Times last March. But did he mean physical safety or emotional safety? Clearly, he meant both, because in therapy culture “emotional comfort” equals “safety.”

During the Republican National Convention, Republicans were frequently quoted implying that the convention protests constituted a criminal level of harassment and/or a threat to delegates’ safety: “A handful of people have tried to destroy our city by going up and yelling at visitors here because they don’t agree with their views,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “that’s exactly what the terrorists did, if you think about it, on 9-11.”

What this demonstrates is that conservatives have latched on to the right to feel comfortable, and they will eventually learn to deploy it effectively the way Horowitz has.

That would be a very bad thing. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where evangelical Christians began arguing that learning evolutionary theory is a traumatic experience for their children, an insensitive attack on a belief that is central to the evangelical identity: biblical literalism.

“Why should long-suffering evangelicals have to listen to their beliefs openly mocked by their teachers?” they’ll argue – and if people accept that there’s a right to feel comfortable, they’ll win that argument.

Think I’m Chicken Little-ing this? Just you wait.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected]