Safe Spaces and Universities

I’ve always considered myself a liberal. I am pro-equal-marriage, pro-choice, pro-feminism (at least in the classical sense), and pro-gun-control. When Donald Trump utters words, or when people complain about red Starbucks cups, I feel ever less proud to be an American. So it pains me greatly then, to ask, what the hell is going on in our universities?

Safe space is an innocuous-sounding term which, despite its reasonable and even praiseworthy historical origins, seems today to really mean safety from any encounter and discussion of opposing viewpoints. And it is unfortunately part of a larger phenomenon. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in a well-known Atlantic piece:

A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.

What kind of discomforts or offenses? Here is another passage (emphasis mine):

This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion. During the 2014–15 school year, for instance, the deans and department chairs at the 10 University of California system schools were presented by administrators at faculty leader-training sessions with examples of microaggressions. The list of offensive statements included: “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

Just read the whole article.

Influence

The main surprise is that this is happening at all. For a long time, I thought terms like safe space, trigger warning, check your privilege, and microaggression were confined to the echo chambers of Tumblr and occasionally seeped out to other social media sites. But to take prominence among real college campuses, including the most elite ones—that is surreal.

Last month the Yale Halloween Costume fiasco was ignited by this letter:

Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?

Responses included:

  • “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain” in the Yale Herald (now taken down),
  • “I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns. I feel drained. And through it all, Christakis has shown that he does not consider us a priority.” (from an archive of the post)
  • this video incident:

From a professor writing in a Washington Post op-ed:

An additional problem that affects the current generation of college students even more is that it is so easy for these contretemps to balloon so quickly into national debates. That’s extremely unfortunate. One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.

Two years ago, I still roamed the halls of Cornell University as a student and I’m thankful I didn’t have to witness any of this nonsense. The most I have observed was a TA who used the term “freshpersons” instead of “freshmen”, and this is something I’m perfectly fine with. Other than that, nothing. So that means either:

  1. I went to a safe haven from safe spaces, or
  2. I managed to avoid contact with these people.

I’m guessing (2) is more likely. Perhaps it helped to have certain expectations for college life. It has become an antiquated notion that college is a place to open your mind and challenge your beliefs. Instead, certain students would persuade you that it is a place to close your mind and guard your beliefs as if they were more sacred than God.

College campuses should be safe spaces. They should be safe spaces for bright and motivated students to exercise free speech, challenge social norms, and learn new things. Picture that. And now picture that the people who want to place restrictions on these rights are not the administrators, but the students themselves.

On a similar string, here is an op-ed from The Daily Californian, calling on people to occupy the syllabus:

We are calling for an occupation of syllabi in the social sciences and humanities. This call to action was instigated by our experience last semester as students in an upper-division course on classical social theory. Grades were based primarily on multiple-choice quizzes on assigned readings. The course syllabus employed a standardized canon of theory that began with Plato and Aristotle, then jumped to modern philosophers: Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault, all of whom are white men. The syllabus did not include a single woman or person of color.

We have major concerns about social theory courses in which white men are the only authors assigned. These courses pretend that a minuscule fraction of humanity — economically privileged white males from five imperial countries (England, France, Germany, Italy and the United States) — are the only people to produce valid knowledge about the world. This is absurd. The white male syllabus excludes all knowledge produced outside this standardized canon, silencing the perspectives of the other 99 percent of humanity.

The white male canon is not sufficient for theorizing the lives of marginalized people. None of the thinkers we studied in this course had a robust analysis of gender or racial oppression. They did not even engage with the enduring legacies of European colonial expansion, the enslavement of black people and the genocide of indigenous people in the Americas. Mentions of race and gender in the white male canon are at best incomplete and at worst racist and sexist. We were required to read Hegel on the “Oriental realm” and Marx on the “Asiatic mode of production,” but not a single author from Asia. We were required to read Weber on the patriarchy, but not a single feminist author. The standardized canon is obsolete: Any introduction to social theory that aims to be relevant to today’s problems must, at the very least, address gender and racial oppression.

This is just so rich. You speak of racism? You speak of sexism? Like, you are talking about theory in a time when the world was far more racist and sexist than it is today. If anything, rewriting the past to hide racism and sexism is making matters worse.

Jumping in time, just yesterday in the UK, certain students made death threats and actively disrupted a lecture in the name of “safe space”. The speaker, “Ms Namazie, 49, is a leading secularist and member of the ‘ex-Muslim’ movement which campaigns to give Muslims the freedom to leave their faith without reprisals.” An excerpt from the Daily Mail  regarding what occurred:

Speaking after the event, Ms Namazie said: ‘After my talk began, ISOC “brothers” started coming into the room, repeatedly banging the door, falling on the floor, heckling me, playing on their phones, shouting out, and creating a climate of intimidation in order to try and prevent me from speaking.

‘I continued speaking as loudly as I could. They repeatedly walked back and forth in front of me.

‘In the midst of my talk, one of the ISOC Islamists switched off my PowerPoint and left. The university security had to intervene and remain in the room as I continued my talk.’

Another excerpt:

Goldsmiths Islamic Society has previously hosted a number of radical speakers including Moazzam Begg of Cage, the charity which described ISIS terrorist ‘Jihadi John’ as a ‘beautiful, kind man’.

If you are advocating killing apostates and praising ISIS terrorists and leveling death threats against your critics, then sorry, you don’t get to claim the “safe space” defense.

And what’s worse is that people feel they have to be respectful of anything safe space, so they are stuck in a position where they can’t criticize what just happened above. “I’m offended” trumps any logical argument.

Jerry Coyne calls it the “death of liberalism“.

And we cannot leave out Yale’s twin, Missouri. Regarding the media incident at the University of Missouri, specifically this Youtube video, Conor Friedersdorf annotates:

Here the doublethink reaches its apex:

  • As the video begins, a man tells the photographer that he is not allowed to push the wall of people which has formed to stop him from moving forward.
  • Around the 20-second mark, a woman shouts that the photographer needs to respect the space of students, just as they start to forcibly push him backwards.
  • Just after the one-minute mark, having been pushed back by students who are deliberately crowding him to obstruct his view, things grow more surreal as the photographer is told, “Please give them space! You cannot be this close to them.”
  • At the 1:24 mark, as the students are chanting at the photographer and some are visibly smirking at him––and as he’s frustrated but doing his best to keep his cool––a protestor tells him, as if he is disrespecting them, “You think this is funny.”
  • Around 1:42, after several rounds of students chanting and yelling loudly at him in unison, he raises his voice to politely insist that he has a First Amendment right to be there. And a student interjects that he must not yell at a protestor.
  • At 1:50 or so, a student tells the photographer that the members of the large group outnumbering him 20- or 30-to-one need to protect their space as human beings from him.
  • Around 2:08, a woman walks right up to the photographer and says, “You know what? Back off of my personal space. Leave these students alone.”
  • That woman then spreads out her arms and starts pushing the photographer back more––and as she makes contact with his body other students tell him, “Stop pushing her.”
  • At 2:33, the same woman tells the photographer that one of the students doesn’t want to talk to him. He explains that he has no desire to speak with anyone. And she replies, “She doesn’t want to see you,” as if he’s infringing on a right to not stand in a public space in a way that makes him visible.
  • Another surreal moment comes at 2:47, when a student who has been there the whole time approaches the wall of people preventing the photographer’s forward progress and says, “I need to get through, are you not going to let me through?” as if the photographer is the one transgressing against her freedom of movement.
  • At 3:32 another student says, “They can call the police on you,” as if the photographer is the one breaking the law.
  • A moment later, the photographer puts his hands and camera directly above his head to try to snap a photo. The women in front of him pushes her hands in the air to try to block the lens. They make fleeting, inconsequential contact, and a bystander accusatorially says to the photographer, “Did you just touch her?” Because that would be beyond the pale, never mind he has been repeatedly pushed!

And on it goes like that.

This behavior is a kind of safe-baiting: using intimidation or initiating physical aggression to violate someone’s rights, then acting like your target is making you unsafe.

“You are an unethical reporter,” a student says around 5:15. “You do not respect our space.” Not 30 seconds later, the crowd starts to yell, “Push them all out,” and begins walking into the photographer. “You’re pushing me!” he yells. And even moments after vocally organizing themselves to push him, they won’t fess up to the nature of their behavior. “We’re walking forward,” they say, feigning innocence. Says one snarky student as the crowd forces him back, “I believe it’s my right to walk forward, isn’t it?” Then the photographer is gone, and only the person holding the video camera that recorded the whole ordeal remains. Ironically, he is a member of the press, too, which he mentions to one of the few protestors who is left behind.

By then, the mask has fallen.“Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” an unusually frank protestor yells. “I need some muscle over here!”

The woman calling for muscle? An assistant professor of mass media at the University of Missouri … who had previously asked the campus for help attracting media attention.

mizzou

So campus protesters have devolved into hypocrisy, blatant threats, and intimidation. This is now the example? I can hear Martin Luther King Jr. rolling in his grave.

You don’t have to sacrifice free speech or human compassion to advance your causes. It is not a tradeoff. My TA who said “freshpersons” didn’t feel the overwhelming urge to censor or threaten people who said “freshmen”. She was the most politically correct instructor I knew at Cornell, but she was a rational person who seemed to also understand the vital importance of free speech. It was not even close to these other stories.

Why Now?

Why did this phenomenon arise, and why so recently? The following sociology paper (Campbell and Manning) is a good answer. It argues there is rise of “victimhood culture” which is distinct from its predecessors, “honor culture” and “dignity culture”, and that the rise is based on social conditions—namely the college campus, a more egalitarian society (kind of surprisingly), and 21st-century technology that grants us the ability to mass-publicize grievances.

Abstract:

Campus activists and others might refer to slights of one’s ethnicity or other cultural characteristics as “microaggressions,” and they might use various forums to publicize them. Here we examine this phenomenon by drawing from Donald Black’s theories of conflict and from cross-cultural studies of conflict and morality. We argue that this behavior resembles other conflict tactics in which the aggrieved actively seek the support of third parties as well as those that focus on oppression. We identify the social conditions associated with each feature, and we discuss how the rise of these conditions has led to large-scale moral change such as the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.

Among other things, it provides a wealth of examples of academically documented cases of microaggression and claims of microaggression. Some interesting passages here:

A third notable feature of microaggression complaints is that the grievances focus on inequality and oppression – especially inequality and oppression based on cultural characteristics such as gender or ethnicity. Conduct is offensive because it perpetuates or increases the domination of some persons and groups by others. Contemporary readers may take it for granted that the domination of one group by another, or for that matter any substantial kind of intergroup inequality, is an injustice to be condemned and remedied. But people might have grievances about many other kinds of issues. For instance, they might condemn others for vices such as drunkenness, sloth, and gluttony. They might criticize or punish people for illicit sexual acts such as sodomy, incest, or bestiality. And cross-culturally and historically, people might harshly judge and persecute religious, ethnic, and other cultural minorities merely for being different. Such grievances are largely absent from microaggression complaints, and those who promulgate such complaints would surely consider criticism of cultural minorities and unconventional sexual practices to be examples of the very oppression they seek to expose and eradicate. The phenomenon thus illustrates a particular type of morality that is especially concerned with equality and diversity and sees any act that perpetuates inequality or decreases diversity as a cause for serious moral condemnation.

And this:

…a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality.

And this:

When the victims publicize microaggressions they call attention to what they see as the deviant behavior of the offenders. In doing so they also call attention to their own victimization. Indeed, many ways of attracting the attention and sympathy of third parties emphasize or exacerbate the low status of the aggrieved. People portray themselves as oppressed by the powerful – as damaged, disadvantaged, and needy….

Certainly the distinction between offender and victim always has moral significance, lowering the offender’s moral status. In the settings such as those that generate microaggression catalogs, though, where offenders are oppressors and victims are the oppressed, it also raises the moral status of the victims. This only increases the incentive to publicize grievances, and it means aggrieved parties are especially likely to highlight their identity as victims,emphasizing their own suffering and innocence. Their adversaries are privileged and blameworthy, but they themselves are pitiable and blameless. To the extent that others take their side, they accept this characterization of the conflict, but their adversaries and their partisans might portray the conflict in the opposite terms. This can give rise to what is called “competitive victimhood,” with both sides arguing that it is they and not their adversaries who have suffered the most and are most deserving of help or most justified in retribution (Noor et al. 2012; Sullivan et al. 2012).

And this:

The emerging victimhood culture appears to share dignity’s disdain for risk, but it does condone calling attention to oneself as long as one is calling attention to one’s own hardships – to weaknesses rather than strengths and to exploitation rather than exploits. For example, students writing personal statements as part of their applications for colleges and graduate schools often write not of their academic achievements but instead – with the encouragement of the universities – about overcoming adversity such as a parent’s job loss or having to shop at thrift stores (Lieber 2014). And in a setting where people increasingly eschew toleration and publicly air complaints to compel official action, personal discomfort looms large in official policy.

Jonathan Haidt wrote a good outline of the paper here with comments.

What Now?

It doesn’t appear that this trend will subside anytime soon. What will happen? Will this cause a right-wing backlash? To protest this, will I have to vote Republican?

Bonus read: The word “colonial”/”colonialism” only occurs 12 times in this NPR denouncement of a Taylor Swift music video.

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