Reconsidering Safe Spaces

It’s rather taboo on the Left to criticize the strategies or goals of others working for justice and equality. This is especially true when you’re a person of privilege unaffected by policies and practices that do harm to others: a straight individual disagreeing with the tactics of a gay person pushing for equal rights, a white person questioning the wisdom of the ideas of black activists, and so on. If you can’t ever see yourself doing those things, use your imagination. What if an undocumented friend supports violence against the government to bring about radical change and you don’t? What if a female relative suggests the first woman president should be allowed to serve more than two terms in office due to historic discrimination? What if a black coworker says the police should be abolished, or African Americans should have places in the public sphere where whites simply cannot go, and you disagree? (Some of these things are not so far-fetched, as we will see.) Obviously, no matter who you are you will always be an independent thinker — you won’t be able to help disagreeing with this or that. And as not all black people think alike, nor all LGBTQ people or women or whomever, you will always find comrades who agree with you. The question is whether you should keep quiet about those different ideas, keep such thoughts private.

One may see this as the right thing to do because, the argument goes, going public with criticism validates and emboldens those on the Right who don’t think certain policies and practices do harm to others and therefore shouldn’t change, who think oppressed and disrespected Americans are exaggerating or delusional, who don’t really care what happens to others, and so on. In other words, if the Left engages in rhetoric that resembles holding back or controlling or condemning the behavior of marginalized and mistreated people, it will only encourage the Right to do the same. While there may be some merit to this, I am doubtful as to the significance of the effect. It’s hard to say with any confidence that insensitive apathy, ignorance, and bigotry on the Right would worsen in any meaningful way if more liberals broke rank. But even if I’m wrong, the potential harm of speaking up must be weighed against the potential benefits. For instance, avoiding hypocrisy (pushing forward the adoption of what’s right seems like a potential benefit too, from a very subjective standpoint). If we oppose violence and speak up against the violence of others, will we also speak up when our allies commit violence? Or shall we be silent because it’s not our place? This brings about another potential benefit: finding common ground with the other side concerning things like violence, or unfairness, or segregation, or anything else. Reaching common ground with ideological opponents is surely helpful in moving toward positive social change.

But there remains the nagging question of when to speak up when it won’t be viewed as your place. You’re not a woman, how dare you tell women how to act? You’re not black, your opinion on strategies and tactics doesn’t matter and shouldn’t be raised. And so on. While we want to always listen sincerely to the people actually affected by modern discrimination, intolerance, and oppression, I think most everyone would agree that no human being is perfect. No human group is perfect. We will do wrong. We will also be hypocritical at times. I think it’s possible, and acceptable, to listen sincerely to others, personally affected persons, but still reach a different conclusion and express it. In my view, no matter who you are you should use your voice when you see something you view as wrong. You should speak based on two simple principles: wrong is wrong no matter who does it and it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing. That’s an honest, moral way to live.

This brings us at last to the topic of safe spaces at universities, and the suggestion that we on the Left spend some time rethinking them.

This comes with a few points of clarification. First, I look favorably upon student uprisings when someone who demeans and disrespects people of other classes, races, sexual orientations, gender identities, and so forth comes to speak at colleges. Students must have the right to protest anyone they please! Conservative students also have the right to protest liberal speakers and try to get them to cancel their speeches or force the university administration to do so. All students must also have the right to protest college officials and professors, other student groups, racist incidents, bad policies, and more. Protests are a proud American tradition, fueling beneficial social progress, and must be protected from curtailment. Yet obviously we should be selective about when to exercise that right.

Second, colleges (like other public spaces) should be safe from hate speech, hate acts, and violence. What defines those things is subject to debate, and is a central problem here, but in principle any moral person would support this. The students who use slurs against gays or throw bananas at black people should be expelled immediately and then charged with hate crimes. Real punishment is not only deserved for awful acts, but it can make others (and the guilty) think twice next time and thus prevent such things in the future. Equal treatment can be reserved for those who say things like “Kill Whitey.” No one should have to worry about hate crimes while pursuing an education.

Third, the concept of safe groups, for lack of a better term, is a fine idea and it’s something most everyone would support. If you’re a student organization that supports trans rights and suddenly religious students who wish to restrict trans rights come along and infiltrate your meetings and try to undermine you from within you should have the right to kick them out and should have school support (including help with enforcement). Same for if pro-choice students tried to infiltrate pro-life groups. The Left should not try to keep conservative groups off campus unless they explicitly violate the second point above. So my caution of safe spaces doesn’t focus on those things.

It concerns places where classrooms, dorms, and quads are expected to be free of opinions that we Leftists don’t agree with but don’t constitute hate speech (again, the definition of this is in dispute, but we’re simply operating on principle). As a professor of religious studies at James Madison University wrote for the Atlantic, “[Students’] ability to speak freely in the classroom is currently endangered… According to anonymous in-class surveys, about one-third of my students believe in the exclusive salvific truth of Christianity. But rarely do these students defend their beliefs in class. In private, they have told me that they believe doing so could be construed as hateful, hostile, intolerant, and disrespectful.” They are likely scared sharing their opinions might lead to ugly exchanges like this one at the University of Kansas, which occurred after a conservative student suggested modern injustices and mistreatment were liberal “feelings,” not “facts.” Upon watching, I can hardly blame conservative students for being intimidated into silence, even as a social justice advocate myself.

“Homosexuality is immoral because God says so” or “Affirmative Action should be abolished” or “All (or Blue) Lives Matter” or “Your biological sex is female so your gender is female no matter what” simply can’t (or shouldn’t, in my view) be classified as hate speech worthy of official reprimand or expulsion or prosecution under hate crime laws, and thus should be permissible anywhere on campuses, even if we find them ignorant or offensive. They should be met without an explosive response like the one above. When they are uttered we can engage with the speakers in a civil manner and try to explain why certain views are inaccurate, strip people of their dignity, or even lay ideological foundations for hurtful laws and practices — not try to restrict such speech by making it socially taboo through intimidation or a violation of official university rules through policy change. This is important for a couple reasons. One is about the value of legal free speech, the other about the value of social free speech.

First, while some of us liberals may be tired of hearing it, free speech is a right that must be protected; like most all rights, it needs to have limitations, but it’s highly valuable to all of us. Now, “free speech” has to do with how the government relates to its citizens, not how we relate to each other. This is often forgotten by conservatives discussing this issue. So the student-to-student intimidation seen above isn’t at all a free speech violation. But most colleges are public spaces, owned by the states. They’re for everyone, not just liberals. Universities shouldn’t change their policies in ways that punish conservative or religious opinions. (Again, the line between hate speech and non-hate speech will have to be debated and determined; yielding to student protests to cancel one speaker may be the right thing to do, while the same could not be said for another.) Most of us understand the devastating impact restricting speech has had on oppressed groups throughout history, people being imprisoned or killed for daring to demand this or that right or saying this or that is scientifically true or socially desirable. Universities and other government arms were part of this. Today, we liberals wish to voice our opinions boldly. Free speech is something we have to extend to others if we desire it for ourselves. It’s the right thing to do and avoids hypocrisy.

Second, universities are places of learning where you should be met with viewpoints you think are dead wrong or horrific, as conservatives often correctly point out, but even more importantly in such a space you learn how to defend your views while people who are ignorant or prejudiced or apathetic are exposed to you. That interaction with the “Other” is a key to eradicating the very ideas that offend us, devalue the humanity of comrades, and contribute to awful policies and practices. It’s a chance to change people for the better. That seems less likely to happen if you insist on censoring, via collective intimidation, the people you’d like to see fundamentally transform. We really do need respectful, reasoned engagement and open communication. There’s value in social free speech.

In some places, safe spaces have surely gone too far. At American University, for example, after bananas were hung from little nooses on the day a black student government president took office, student protests made several demands to the university president, who agreed to them. One was to designate a new cafe on campus as a sanctuary for people of color for the rest of the semester (admittedly, a matter of days). The cafe, called The Bridge, was originally intended to be open to all students. Similar requests have been made at Oberlin College, Evergreen State, and elsewhere, and, similarly, private businesses have attempted to keep out Trump voters and cops.

(Sarah Huckabee Sanders was denied service at a restaurant because of her role in the Trump administration. This kind of act should not be legal. I personally do not want to live in some nightmarish Libertarian dystopia where everyone refuses service to everyone else and that’s somehow fine by law. If business owners want to violate the law and face the consequences in acts of dissent, that’s fine. A Nazi walks in, sure, break the law and refuse service — an epic stand! Of course, as with all lawbreaking, whether refusing service is the moral thing to do depends on why it is done. Ethics are situational. So we can’t pretend the motives and morality are the same for kicking out, say, LGBT Americans, who are still largely unprotected from this horror, the religious right frolicking along with no consequences for discrimination. But I still think the country should follow the example of Seattle, D.C., and the Virgin Islands and protect political rights in such spaces. It shouldn’t be legal to refuse service to, say, a liberal. That’s a more decent country, with better laws. What I want for myself I need to be willing to grant others. A society where I could be kicked out of a restaurant for being a Marxist or atheist with no consequence to the owner, no law broken whatsoever, sounds like a dreary society to live in indeed.)

I care a great deal about racial justice, about creating a society where black people have the same opportunities and privileges as whites, unburdened by present racism or Jim Crow poverty passed on to them. I recognize my own privilege: the one not experiencing the storm needs no shelter. And I don’t want to ignore the psychological and emotional needs of people who experience racism, from hate crimes to microaggressions. But a public space where whites simply aren’t supposed to go? While not enacted in the name of racial superiority and supremacy (quite the opposite), is not segregation in the name of shelter from the racist storm nevertheless morally questionable? Isn’t public segregation still wrong, even for that purpose, with that motive? Do we want to give racists a “they are doing it so we can too” card of justification? We should be a bit more cautious of any type of exclusion in public spaces. Opposing that seems like the right thing to do, and it avoids hypocrisy and the opening of a dangerous door — most of us liberals and Leftists are horrified at the idea of the return of Jim Crow segregation. At times I feel we are moving in that direction anyway, a terrifying feeling, so the white backlash (“we can do it too”) would likely be severe, a disaster for race relations that would leave many people of color hurt. Private spaces like homes and dorm rooms, safe groups, protests, and seeking real punishments for severe misdeeds (like hanging nooses) seem like more moral goals and strategies to escape or address injustices and hate, among many others.

A sanctuary like The Bridge pours gasoline on the fires of bigots (this seems a greater danger than liberals modeling how to object to social justice movement practices for the Right). You don’t have to care what bigots think, but you should care about what reinforces their worldview. Whites whining about being oppressed, about black revenge, about segregation, and about hypocrisy are virtually always spouting nonsense. Exclusion in public spaces seems to be actively offering such arguments a hint of legitimacy, which should be avoided at all costs. A cafe reserved for people of color also counters the Left’s goals and rhetoric of inclusion; it counters what we’re supposed to be working toward: a multicultural society where people of all colors, sexual orientations, genders, and creeds live, work, and learn together, where tolerance, justice, equality, and human dignity reign.

Surely designated areas or buildings at colleges for non-white, non-straight, non-cis, or other people do more harm than good in the fight for a better world.

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