Politics & Policy

Silly Student Protesters Have It Wrong: ‘Safe Spaces’ Are Incompatible with a University

Protestor tents on the quad at Mizzou, November 9, 2015 (Michael B. Thomas/Getty)

Read through any contemporary account of American on-campus silliness, and one word will pop out at you from the pages: “safe.” Up and down the country, the term is en vogue. At Yale, students are worried about the effects that insensitive Halloween costumes might have upon their “security.” At Colorado College, enrollees are concerned that the screening of a pro-gay film will put their “well-being,” their “identity,” and their “safety” at risk, if not inflict “violence” upon their bodies. At Wesleyan, undergraduates were so outraged by an opinion column in their university newspaper that they tried to shut it down on the grounds that its editors had failed to “provide a safe space for the voices of students of color.”

From Boston to Los Angeles, this conceit is thrown around with abandon. A visiting speaker is skeptical of “rape culture”? She’s a “threat.” The College Republicans aren’t sure that Caitlyn Jenner is a woman? That’s “violence.” Someone in your philosophy class disagrees with your politics? They’re literally imperiling your “safety.”

At Fusion, Malcom Harris tracks the provenance of this rather peculiar idea. The original “safe spaces,” he writes, were established by gays and lesbians in the mid ’60s and subsequently picked up by feminists who hoped to “distance” themselves “from men and patriarchal thought.” These “spaces,” he notes, “were not entirely free of internal disagreement,” but they did require their participants to exhibit “a devotion to a common political project” or cause. And “those who attempted to undermine the movement — consciously or unconsciously — would be kept outside.”

Whatever one thinks of their use in these two contexts, it is difficult to imagine any idea that is less compatible with the goals of a university. One can instinctively understand why the gays of the 1960s would want to conduct conversations away from a hostile world. One can comprehend, too, why they sought refuge in private groups devoted to a common political cause. But students? At a place of learning? That makes no sense at all. Unlike gay bars or feminist workshops, colleges are inherently pluralist, and they cannot therefore devote themselves to “a common political project” or “movement” without abandoning their purpose. At a stretch, there is an argument for permitting the establishment of “safe spaces” within universities — traditionally we call these “clubs” — but there is no case whatsoever for turning the entire place over to a particular set of ideological presumptions and for punishing or excluding those who decline to acquiesce.

#share#And make no mistake: This is exactly what those crying “safe space!” are suggesting that we do. At Mizzou, the protesting students did not hope merely to expel their critics from their private meetings, but to remove them from public ground. At Yale, the shriekers were not asking for a room in which to hold a “politically correct” Halloween party, but for the entire campus to conform to their preferences. When Christina Hoff Sommers visits Oberlin, her detractors do not contend that she is wrong, but that she should not have been invited in the first instance. Put simply, those who have taken to shouting “safe space” are guilty of an egregious category mistake. In pursuit of political power, they have adopted a set of rules that were designed for private groups and attempted to impose them on everybody.

Unsurprisingly, this development has yielded all manner of confusions. Because there are no established ideological parameters on a college campus — because, that is, the “spaces” there have no clear walls — there are no objective means by which we might judge what is “safe” to say and what is not. If, as one student at Yale put it recently, “offense” is simply what “hurts,” then everybody has a heckler’s veto simply by virtue of their capacity to feel. On this rationale, the Christian upset by the visit of a pro-choice speaker could just as easily claim to be “unsafe” as could the feminist vexed by the arrival of Rick Santorum. On this rationale, no college president in the country can be secure in his position, liable as he is to be accused on a moment’s notice of having fostered an “unsafe” environment for his students. On this rationale, there is not a single topic of debate that his immune from the dissenter’s howl. Up goes the hand; out comes the word; down comes the curtain.

Because there are no established ideological parameters on a college campus — because, that is, the “spaces” there have no clear walls — there are no objective means by which we might judge what is “safe” to say and what is not.

Americans have long drawn a clear distinction between speech and violence, the general understanding in this country being that abstract expression may only be regulated when it is extremely likely that it will lead to imminent criminal behavior. The suggestion that one man’s political opinions can meaningfully impinge upon another’s “safety” all but explodes that distinction, thereby conflating intrinsically intellectual concepts such as “upset,” “discomfort, “hurt,” and “irritation” with intrinsically physical concepts such as “violence,” “security,” and “sanctuary.” In the immediate term, it may be tempting to merely chuckle at those indulging in this conflation: There is, I think, only one reasonable response to a person who believes that your hypotheses are threatening his physical wellbeing, and that is to laugh in his face until all of the air has left your lungs. In the long term, though, the trend is a dangerous one, for while the kids running around the quadrangles of Yale and Wesleyan may be incorrigibly silly, the ancient ideas upon which they are resting that silliness are once again gaining ground, and, as history teaches us over and over again, there are no more dangerous or unsafe spaces than those in which the censors and the mobs are permitted to roam with impunity.

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