I could be accused of being a curmudgeon when I decry the proliferation of “safe spaces” on college campuses (including mine)—spaces designed to protect people from “hate speech” that, broadly construed, means “speech that I don’t like.” When I posted about the Columbia University flyers proclaiming student dorm rooms to be “safer spaces” because they weren’t “oppressive,” I took some flak from those who thought that such spaces were useful. And, indeed, they could be, but my point was that this kind of thing is growing rapidly on American campuses, and they’re inimical to the idea of college as a place where one learns how to deal with and counter (or even learn from) speech that seems challenging or repugnant.
So I was pleased to see a younger person—the New Republic editor and writer Judith Shulevitz—echo my sentiments (in a much better and more extended piece) in today’s New York Times: “In college and hiding from scary ideas.” The piece is Recommended Reading from Professor Ceiling Cat™.
Shulevitz starts her piece by describing a “safe space” that puts my teeth on edge: something that Brown University, a hotbed of political correctness, did when students sponsored a debate between two women on the topic of campus sexual assault. One of the debaters, Wendy McElroy, was thought likely to criticize the phrase and idea of “rape culture.” Just that possibility threw the students and administration into a tizzy, for such criticism could be seen as “invalidating people’s experiences” and “damaging.” And so Brown set up a competing talk to confirm that we do indeed live in a rape culture. They also set up a safe space:
The safe space, Ms. Byron [a senior student at Brown] explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was 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. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.
Well, that sounds like an infantilizing gesture to me: really, cookies, bubbles, coloring books, and Play-Doh—the accoutrements of children? But so be it. And, indeed, Shulevitz says that such spaces could be useful, but then goes on to argue, as I do, that the notion has an insidious way of spreading like The Blob, killing off free speech as it goes along:
But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.
Yes, and that’s what’s happening all over America, including at my own university. Shulevitz then recounts a bunch of alarming episodes on campuses that show the extremes of the “safe space” movement. Here are just a few (her words):
- A year and a half ago, a Hampshire College student group disinvited an Afrofunk band that had been attacked on social media for having too many white musicians; the vitriolic discussion had made students feel “unsafe.”
Last fall, the president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, apologized for causing students and faculty to be “hurt” when she failed to object to a racial epithet uttered by a fellow panel member at an alumnae event in New York. The offender was the free-speech advocate Wendy Kaminer, who had been arguing against the use of the euphemism “the n-word” when teaching American history or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the uproar that followed, the Student Government Association wrote a letter declaring that “if Smith is unsafe for one student, it is unsafe for all students.”
“It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism,” Ms. Kaminer said in an email.
Shulevitz also criticizes the Columbia University “safer space” initiative. There’s one more episode she recounts in detail, but I’ll save it for last because it’s close to home.
Why is this happening now? Shulevitz floats several theories: students are more cosseted now because college admissions selects for students who avoid risks and challenges (I’m not sure about that idea); that students have “medicalized” their discomfort (citing trauma, triggering, mental illness, and so on) because administrators must respond to such complaints, which cite a “hostile environment”, something the U.S. government explicitly decries; and, finally, the writings of some feminist and anti-racist legal scholars in the 1980s and 1990s which equated uncomfortable speech with psychological injury. I’d add that there may be a new element of narcissism in there, too, as students increasingly look at college education as a way to get a job rather than make their minds more inquisitive and supple. The growth of “me-ness” may breed students who are solipsistic, resenting assaults on the walls of their egos.
Regardless, the issue is a problem, and one we should guard against. One person’s hate speech is another’s free speech, and colleges, above all, are places to challenge your ideas, not reinforce what you already believe. (That’s what religion is for.)
At the end, Shulevitz gives an anecdote from the University of Chicago, one that caused a big kerfuffle here just a few weeks ago. Here’s her description, and it’s absolutely accurate:
A few weeks ago, Zineb El Rhazoui, a journalist at Charlie Hebdo, spoke at the University of Chicago, protected by the security guards she has traveled with since supporters of the Islamic State issued death threats against her. During the question-and-answer period, a Muslim student stood up to object to the newspaper’s apparent disrespect for Muslims and to express her dislike of the phrase “I am Charlie.”
Ms. El Rhazoui replied, somewhat irritably, “Being Charlie Hebdo means to die because of a drawing,” and not everyone has the guts to do that (although she didn’t use the word guts). She lives under constant threat, Ms. El Rhazoui said. The student answered that she felt threatened, too.
A few days later, a guest editorialist in the student newspaper [JAC: you can see that editorial here] took Ms. El Rhazoui to task. She had failed to ensure “that others felt safe enough to express dissenting opinions.” Ms. El Rhazoui’s “relative position of power,” the writer continued, had granted her a “free pass to make condescending attacks on a member of the university.” In a letter to the editor, the president and the vice president of the University of Chicago French Club, which had sponsored the talk, shot back, saying, “El Rhazoui is an immigrant, a woman, Arab, a human-rights activist who has known exile, and a journalist living in very real fear of death. She was invited to speak precisely because her right to do so is, quite literally, under threat.”
You’d be hard-pressed to avoid the conclusion that the student and her defender had burrowed so deep inside their cocoons, were so overcome by their own fragility, that they couldn’t see that it was Ms. El Rhazoui who was in need of a safer space.
That last sentence is a zinger, and right on the mark. It’s time to stop infantilizing college students. No more Play-Doh, no more cookies—it’s time to put away those childish things. College students are adults; they’ll soon enter a rough-and-tumble world. What better way to prepare for that world than learning to deal with those whose ideas discomfit you?
h/t: Merilee, Greg Mayer