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This place matters

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Safety dance

As I gear up for my second semester of grad school I find myself thinking about safe spaces, those bug bears of conservative pundits and Twitter trolls alike. You know safe spaces, those things that inhibit free speech and coddle young minds on college campuses across the nation. They are destroying the Very Fabric of our education system, don't you know?
So does anybody here actually know what a safe space is? Class? Pundits? Trolls? Anybody? I mean, if people are bitching about them 24-7, you'd think we'd all have a clearer idea of what they are.
Wikipedia's as good a place to start as any. The idea of a safe space started with the women's movement; Kennedy Moira Rachel defined it as a place where there's "a certain license to speak and act freely, form collective strength." But isn't a safe space a place where free speech is explicitly banned? Women's consciousness raising groups of the 1970s were safe spaces. Later, gay bars were considered safe spaces - places where a person could be out and gay without fearing violence or condemnation. Also reasonable and very much necessary. So when did safe spaces transition from being havens for free expression to authoritarian hell holes where free speech is punishable by death? Where indeed.
For answers, I turned to Trends.Google.com, which shows the popularity of search terms over time. It turns out the term "safe space" was of little interest to much of anybody until October of 2015 when it catapulted into public awareness immediately following an episode of South Park titled Safe Space. And if you're thinking it's a little odd that the event that started getting Americans worked up about the evils of safe spaces was a satirical cartoon show, well, I felt the same. So I kept digging.
In a recent editorial for the LA Times, Frank Furendi complains that "Campuses are breaking apart into safe spaces." One of the examples he gives supporting this was a statement from Northwestern president Morton Schapiro. According to Furendi, Schapiro feels that black students should have a space reserved for them in the dining hall where white people aren't welcome, where they can be "sheltered from dissimilar people." In fact, Schapiro mentioned one specific incident in which a couple of white students asked to sit with a group of black students stating that they "wanted to stretch themselves by engaging in the kind of uncomfortable learning the college encourages." Schapiro argues that the black students had a right, in this case, to politely say no. Schapiro does NOT say that black students should be given a safe space in the cafeteria to avoid white people; Shapiro DOES say that black students have the right to decline to be treated like a civics class assignment. Now, you can disagree with what Schapiro says, or doubt that the incident went down exactly the way he says, but you've got to wonder why Furendi would need to so wildly and blatantly misrepresent Schapiro's case in order to argue against it.  

Furendi also says that "the Social Justice Living Learning Community offered by the University of North Dakota indicates that the balkanization of accommodation extends beyond ethnicity to students’ political convictions." Check out that learning community's website, though, and you'll learn that it's a service dorm where "each person shares the responsibility of creating an environment in which all residents are respected and valued – regardless of one’s age, size, gender, sexual orientation, identity or identity expression, disability, race, ethnicity, color, creed, national origin, cultural background, socio-economic status, or religious affiliation or conviction. Join us in embracing our differences and appreciating the unique perspectives each person brings." So Northwestern is bad because they allegedly want to students to be able to avoid dissimilar people, but North Dakota is wrong for wanting to bring together dissimilar people to celebrate differences and learn from each other? Because it seems like allegedly dividing students up and actually joining people together are opposite things. So how is Furendi saying they're both bad? 

I've dug through a ton of news stories about safe spaces and they all just seem outlandishly overblown. The College Fix ran a story after the Republican National Convention proclaiming "'Safe space’ offered at Cleveland university in response to Republican National Convention." The story's written to make it seem like the Cleveland State was kowtowing to student over-sensitivity by creating a safe space from nasty Republican ideas. In fact, Cleveland State is spitting distance from the convention area where, if you'll recall, law enforcement was worried about actual physical violence. Downtown Cleveland, where Cleveland State is located, is normally home to only 13,000 people. 50,000 people attended the convention; thousands more showed up to protest, and thousands more attended the many events surrounding the convention. Cleveland State would have been pretty damn remiss if it hadn't taken steps to ensure that the campus was a "safe space" for students and faculty. Not a space that was safe from Republican ideas, but a space that was safe from tens of thousands of out-of-towners, some of whom might, according to police, become violent. 

Another article on The College Fix claims "‘Safe place’ set aside for those upset at campus talk on transgenderism’s threat to liberty." In fact, transgender individuals live constantly under threat of violence, and not an imagined one. Transgender individuals are extremely and demonstrably more likely to be victims of violent crime; they're much more likely to be raped, and they're much more likely to be murdered. So when a virulently anti-trans speaker was hired to speak at UC Santa Barbara, some trans students were pretty reasonably afraid that increased anti-trans sentiment might lead to, once again, actual physical violence. They didn't ask for an anti-free speech zone, just an anti-fear-for-bodily-safety zone. 


One news story I saw claimed that a college campus had declared itself a safe space for communists. No such thing had happened - the university had just failed to officially recognize an anti-communist student group. You can agree or disagree with that decision, but the university DID NOT declare itself a "safe space" for communists.

A story claiming that Stanford had removed Trump signage because it violated "safe space" rules actually removed said signage because the university had space reserved for political signage and the signage in question was outside of that area. Here, you can disagree with Stanford's policy about political signage, but it is a fact that Stanford DID NOT remove the signage because of a rule about "safe spaces."
A story about a university offering a safe space to students who hadn't voted for Trump was actually about a university counseling center that had emailed students reminding them that, if they were stressed about current events or if they were being bullied or threatened, the counseling center was a safe space to talk about their feelings. Counselling centers have been a fixture on college campuses for decades, and they're by definition safe spaces to talk about your feelings. I've been to a lot of shrinks, kids, and I can tell you that they're not a place you can go to escape upsetting ideas - they're a place you go to learn how to deal with being upset without completely losing your shit. The letter from the counselling center didn't mention Trump, and it didn't even hint that the counseling center was not a safe space for people who voted for him. It just said "hey, if you're stressed, come to the counseling center." Is that really such a terrible thing?

However. This isn't to say there haven't been some high-profile incidents in which students DID try to censor speech on campus. However, even those events have been somewhat overblown and misrepresented. 
For instance, the Play Doh incident at Brown. You know the one, where the school brought in an unpopular speaker and scores of students demanded a safe space where they could avoid being exposed to new ideas and blow bubbles and play with Play Doh, and Brown acquiesced because the inmates are running the asylum?
So what really happened was that a student group at Brown had brought in a speaker, Wendy McElroy, who had made several public statements about rape culture that some Brown students felt were dismissive toward sexual assault survivors. The university's Sexual Assault Task Force wanted the speaker barred, but Brown refused to do that. So the Sexual Assault task force protested by establishing a competing event where sexual assault survivors could come and talk with counselors and learn about the university's resources for assault survivors. Yes, a campus group tried to have a speaker barred. Yes, I believe they were wrong. But they FAILED to have the speaker barred. Free speech prevailed. And the student group protested by holding an event meant to raise awareness about university resources for sexual assault survivors and I hardly think that's a travesty. Also there was Play Doh there. Call the National Guard. Step 1: give students Play Doh. Step 2: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria.

Finally, in 2015, some Yale students horribly, horribly bullied a professor, Erika Christakis, over an email in which she asserted that the university didn't have the right to tell students not to wear culturally appropriative Halloween costumes. While I didn't necessarily agree with everything Christakis said, but she made her point civilly and eloquently, without even a hint of disrespect or discrimination. In response, about 150 students confronted her in person, shouting and jeering while she and her husband, also a Yale prof, called for calm and civil discourse; they were afraid for their safety and if you watch the videos of the incident, it's easy to see why. Christakis was wronged, horribly. She left the college over it, although claims that she was forced out are categorically false. The dean unequivocally refused demands that Christakis be dismissed. One professor wrote a letter to the editor of a Yale newspaper in support of Christakis, and it was signed by 69 other professors. Lots of students spoke up in support of Christkis. But still Chistakis chose to leave her position, and I don't blame her. Campus should have been a safe space for her and it wasn't. And that's awful. 
Although nobody said anything about this being a "safe spaces" issue, near as I can tell. There was talk on campus around that time about how Yale could be a safer space for disadvantaged and minority students, but that was a mostly separate issue. You can research that on your own though, as my hands are tired.

So, to summarize this outlandishly TL;DR post for which you all deserve cookies for slogging through, we have a whole crap ton of smoke and one unconscionably but ultimately isolated fire. 

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