The Dangerous Idea of Safe Spaces

F--- Safe Space

Students protesting safe space at Carleton University in Canada.

On Sunday the New York Times published an opinion piece attacking the use of safe spaces and safe language on college campuses. The article, by contributing op-ed writer Judith Shulevitz, was titled “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas”. As the title suggests, the article was both belittling and derisive towards campus youth.

A ‘safe space’ is an area on a college campus where language is clean and polite, where aggressive actions are prohibited, and where controversy is discouraged. A safe space can be like the one that Shulevitz describes as “intended to give people who might find comments ‘troubling’ or ‘triggering,’ a place to recuperate…equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” While Shulevitz attributes the description to Katherine Byron, who set up the safe space, it is difficult to imagine that the description’s condescending tinge is anyone but Shulevitz’s.

Safe language is simply the kind of language that you might expect to be acceptable in a safe space, although as a practice, safe language can be used anywhere. Non-aggressive, clean and polite. Language that avoids racial slurs and other verbal prejudice. Language that doesn’t try to force distasteful topics. Conversations that are engaged in with consideration for another’s experience and feelings. Often, the students and staff who are likely to be found in safe spaces have been trained in the way to act and speak within the safe space.

Shulevitz decries safe spaces and all college students unaccepting of what she defines “free speech.” Students who spread fliers reading “I want this space to be a safer space” at Columbia University. A debate about feminism that was canceled at Oxford University because both debaters were going to be men. An apology demanded from Smith College officials after “free-speech advocate Wendy Kaminer…argued against the use of the euphemism ‘the n-word’ when teaching American history.”

Along the way, Shulevitz champions her “free speech” heroes. Adam Shapiro of Columbia who responded to the flier slid under his door by advertising his dorm room as “a dangerous space” and stating that “Kindness alone won’t allow us to gain more insight into truth.” Wendy Kaminer, who wants the real n-word to replace “the n-word” in classroom discussions, and who complained that college students “can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism.” University of Chicago Law School professor Eric Posner who wrote in an article for Slate magazine that “universities cosset students more than they used to…because today’s undergraduates are more puerile than their predecessors,” and that “students are children. Not in terms of age, but in terms of maturity. Even in college, they must be protected like children while being prepared to be adults.”

Shulevitz echoes Posner as she poses what she must have felt to be her fatal question: “Why are students so eager to self-infantilize?”

But it is not at all students who are self-infantilizing. It is clearly people like Shulevitz and Posner who are creating an infantile image of college students. An image which they pander to others of their generation, a generation eager for more verbal garbage to sling at youth (if you don’t believe me, read the comments section of Shulevitz’s article). Why does their generation have so much resentment and hostility? The condescension and disdain are often unbelievable.

Let’s re-think some of these latest attacks on our generation.

Adam Shapiro labeled his dorm-room “a dangerous place.” In light of the context, in which “a safe space” referred to non-discriminatory language, Shapiro was asserting his right to be offensive. Is this the maturity that Posner would like to see from college students? The fetishization of offensive behavior and language is something one might expect from a pre-adolescent boy who is “going through a phase.” It is not at all adult behavior, and in light of the genuine intentions to which Shapiro was responding, his actions were petty, not heroic. Shulevitz seems to celebrate Shapiro’s “dangerousness” as though being dangerous were synonymous with being an intellectual pioneer. As long as being dangerous refers to taking offensive behavior as one’s prerogative, I think we can safely assume that the style is not a new fashion: the mode has come and gone.

But that’s exactly the problem with all of the examples that Shulevitz attempts to dignify. They are severely outmoded. Wendy Kaminer is not the first white woman to advocate the use of the n-word in an academic setting. There have been white people promoting and using the n-word in every setting imaginable since the term appeared in 1775. The term has always been one of hatred and discrimination, and it will be a long time yet before the word loses its capacity, in the mouths of the privileged, to replicate and promote bias. It isn’t, as Kaminer says, that students “can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech.” It’s that Kaminer has failed to realize that the boundary she posits between “racist speech” and “speech about racist speech” could never so definitively exist. At what point does speech stop being part of the human world and became no longer subject to the rules of speech, simply because it takes place on a university campus? The answer is never. No amount of white intellectualizing about terminology is going to take away the power to harm that is inherent in much of our language. In fact, the assertion that university language belongs to a separate, more purer sphere, often serves only to institute the language universities choose to use. Language does not lose its power; it only becomes more embedded into the existing structures of power of which universities are so integral. That is why it is the responsibility of universities to examine and deconstruct such language, and not to fall prey to it.

The problem of recursiveness is also evident when considering two male debaters discussing feminism. We have been hearing for centuries what men have to say about women and their situation. If ideas about gender are to progress, we must embrace more than ever what the historically voiceless gender has to say. There is an opportunity cost at play when investing time and energy in ideas, and a debate between two men about feminism on a campus doesn’t enter innocently into the marketplace of ideas. It precludes a debate that could be had which includes the voices of women.

For every debate about feminism without women there could have been one with women. For every Adam Shapiro being monotonously dangerous, there could have been an Adam Shapiro engaging in new ideas and innovative thought. For every Wendy Kaminer advocating old ways of using racist language there could have been a Wendy Kaminer re-imagining language and discovering new ways to escape the confines of our linguistic bias. For every place on a college campus where a student has felt hatred or discrimination, for every place where a student has felt excluded from conversation, for every place where a student has felt unsafe – there could have been a safe space.

Freshman Jeremiah True was recently banned from the discussion section of a Humanities 110 class at Reed College. He had challenged well-established ideas like the feminist theory of “rape culture” as well as common statistics, such as that one in five college women are sexually assaulted during their time in college. True, whose Facebook page claims that his area of study is “How to Annoy People,” defended himself by simply saying “I’m not a sheep.” When the class instructor sent the email banning him from future discussion portions of the class, he told True, “The entire conference without exception, men as well as women, feel that your presence makes them uncomfortable enough that they would rather not be there if you are there, and they have said that things you have said in our conference have made them so upset that they have difficulty concentrating in other classes.” The idea that women need to be quiet about rape is a prevailing idea in our culture, if not on our campuses. Would Shulevitz defend True’s right to disrupt his classmates’ genuine passion for an idea that is the avant-garde of university thought, just because his incendiarism served to undermine what may or may not have been the predominant ideas of the classroom?

Engaging in the same-old broken conversations over and over again is not intellectual bravery. It is intellectual complacency. To promote such complacency as university doctrine is to condemn the university to a perpetual marginality of irrelevant analyses.

The idea that universities cannot healthfully create intellectual discussion by repressing some ideas that are already overwrought and out-of-date is absurd. Every epistemic community parses the ideas it deems will help its thought to progress from those which will bridle and constrain its thought. Preschools through secondary schools prohibit everyone but students and their teachers from even entering the grounds. Their textbooks are anything but recycle bins for every idea that wishes to compete for attention, and lengthy discussions are held about what will included and what won’t. Congress has demonstrators removed from legislative sessions by security escorts. The New York Times requires ID for entrance. Shulevitz probably chooses her friends and the ideas she exposes herself to, the same as anyone else. There is no intellectual sphere which openly self-determines to be a conversation free for any antagonist to stomp on. Why is that college students are being attacked for their choices, when they reject only the most vile and damaging non-conversations?

Eric Posner, the law professor that Shulevitz quotes from, wrote, “There is a popular, romantic notion that students receive their university education through free and open debate about the issues of the day. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Students who enter college know hardly anything at all.”

Posner was right that “free and open debate” is not how education works in universities. Such a formulation is reductionistic and incorrect. As he states, it is a “romantic notion.” But Posner is wrong about why that notion is amiss. It’s not amiss because college students are stupid. It is wrong because not all ideas are created equal, and not all ideas should be given equal credibility. If they were equal, universities would still teach Creationism, geocentrism, and alchemy. They would teach superstitions, old wives tales, and a host of false sciences. Some colleges would still be segregated. Some colleges wouldn’t accept women. Some colleges would have no ‘safe spaces’, and the students who rely on them would be excluded from the campus altogether.

How would that be for intellectual courage?