On the Weaponization of Safe Spaces

I rarely, if ever, get political on this blog, but as someone not that far removed from college, recent developments on college campuses have been a distressing, painful, and even familiar thing to watch.

Over the past few years, news outlets have written significantly on the use of so-called safe spaces as threats to open intellectual debate and the idea of having a free marketplace of ideas. What’s particularly notable about many of these reports is the surprise that the suppression of speech is coming from college students themselves.

Before I go further, I should state that I approve of safe space as a concept on paper. In fact, I like the idea of safe spaces when being used correctly. Ken White of Popehat does an excellent job drawing a line between the actual intent of safe spaces and how they’re actually being used.

In short, I support people creating “safe spaces” as a shield by exercising their freedom of association to organize themselves into mutually supporting communities, run according to their own norms. But not everyone imagines “safe spaces” like that. Some use the concept of “safe spaces” as a sword, wielded to annex public spaces and demand that people within those spaces conform to their private norms. That’s not freedom of association. That’s rank thuggery, a sort of ideological manifest destiny.1 It’s the difference between saying “I shouldn’t be forced to go to a talk by this controversial figure” and “this controversial figure should not be allowed to speak at my school.”

It’s no coincidence that the criticism of this approach to safe spaces has been on college campuses, which have long been recognized as public spaces critical for intellectual discourse and a diversity of ideas. That hasn’t stopped college students from weaponizing safe spaces to an alarming degree until it reached it reached the front page of The New York Times, as significant a milestone for mainstream awareness as there is (and that was before the now infamous Yale incident). It would appear that college students, who have long since fought against the misguided perception that Millennials and young people are bratty, selfish, entitled and self-centered may be unknowingly perpetuating the same stereotype through their own behavior.

Perhaps most surprisingly, even President Barack Obama himself waded into the fray during a speech.

“It’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side. And that’s a problem, too,” Obama said during a town hall on Monday in Des Moines, Iowa.

“I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative. Or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans, or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women,” Obama continued.

“I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of views,” he said.

Apologists for the behavior of students at universities like Yale and Missouri State insist that it’s not about that! It’s not about repressing undesired speech, or conformity, or the right to not be offended. It’s about creating a safe place where everyone can feel welcome! It’s easy to scoff at defenses like this in the face of a mob of students screaming over each other, hastily defining exactly what speech they find creates an unsafe campus environment and shrieking for people to be fired.

That, of course, is what happened at Yale. One of the most visible instances of Ken White’s definition of safe spaces as a sword took place when Yale administrators were perceived to be acting too authoritative in advice on what sorts of Halloween costumes to avoid. Erika Christakis composed a thoughtful E-mail proposing that this wasn’t such a big deal. Thus a good faith effort to partake in a dialogue was met with harassment, public shaming, and calls to have Chris and Erika Christakis fired and removed from their homes on the Yale campus as teachers in residence.

Chris Christakis, also a university professor, spoke to the concerned Yale students. He was subsequently shouted at by one student who has now frantically scrubbed her presence from the Internet in the ensuing backlash, while a variety of students insisted that they don’t feel at home at Yale anymore, they’re can’t take pride in the university, and that they feel the campus is unsafe. All while this campaign against the Christakis’ was going on.

Yet it’s the students who claim the professors are making the campus unsafe?

It begs the question of what it is that students who are demanding the firings of faculty with opposing viewpoints really want.

They say they want diversity programs on campuses? Great, most universities have those!

They say they want safe space programs? Most universities have those too!

They say they want faculty to be more concerned about creating a place of comfort and home than an intellectual space? That…doesn’t make any sense.

They say they want the entire campus to be a safe space? Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.

Exclusion is the best answer I can come up with for what it is that these students want. Just as Ken White said, people are upset that voices they don’t agree with are being promoted by campuses. You can certainly see it in some of the irrational fear tinging the comments of well meaning students. “Bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences,” one told the New York Times when she became alarmed at a speaker who was critical of rape culture. It could be “damaging” she said.

If you don’t like a speaker who has been invited to your campus, that’s great! That’s healthy! You don’t have to like the way your or any other college facilitates free and open discussion – even with perspectives you disagree with, or are inflammatory or controversial. If you truly believe there’s a large enough group of people on your campus who want to espouse a particular viewpoint without dissent, I’m sure the university would be happy to let you form a club that lets you form your own safe space, on your terms. That’s safe space as a shield in a nutshell.

But by the same token, if you believe in free speech, in your university as a forum to facilitate discussion and reason, that the concept of free speech actually means something, then demands for silence, for exclusion, and for firings couldn’t be a less effective tactic for promoting those beliefs.

Colleges, like it or not, are public spaces. They are open to the public and non-students enjoy their services all the time. My own college regularly had people in the area visiting the library, using the gym, and yes, attending speaker sessions. So if you’re upset that your campus is giving a platform to speakers you don’t agree with, even if you’re in no way required to partake in that discussion, then you’re behaving like an incredibly self-centered child who’s mad that you have to share your space with other people. It isn’t a problem for anyone not interested. It’s not your problem.

I just wonder if you apply this logic to other areas of your life. Can you not stand to go to sports bars because there are people rooting for teams you don’t like? Are you done going to your book store because there are controversial books? What about Netflix – did you know you can get a series on Netflix that documents sexual assault on college campuses? Are you going to demand that Netflix take it down?

What is the endgame goal of these students who lash out like this and disrespectfully scream their professors? I can’t say, but I can certainly point out what it has resulted in. Talented faculty members resigning, national media criticism, and inflammatory shouting matches.

There’s no need to be fearful of how unsafe or damaging controversial or political speakers are, college students. It seems that you’ve already become the damaging force you’ve fought so hard against.