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 person disagreeing with a tactic a gay social justice worker suggests, a white person questioning the wisdom of the ideas of a black activist, and so on. If you can’t ever see yourself doing those things, use your imagination: What if an undocumented person supports violence against the State to bring about radical change and you don’t? What if a female friend 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? (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 think alike 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 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, and so on. In other words, if the Left engages in rhetoric that resembles holding back or controlling 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, it suggests that liberals keeping quiet would lessen the insensitive apathy, ignorance, or bigotry on the Right. I somewhat doubt this. But even if I’m wrong, the potential harm of speaking up must be weighed against the potential benefit: namely, avoiding hypocrisy (pushing forward the adoption of what you see as right somehow seems like a potential benefit too). 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 segregation. 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. While we want to listen to the people actually affected by modern discrimination and intolerance, I think most everyone would agree that no human being is perfect. No human group is perfect. We will do wrong, we will be hypocritical at times. In my view, no matter who you are or what you look like, you should raise 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.

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, orientations, gender identities, and so forth comes to speak at colleges. Students should have the right to protest anyone they please. Conservative students 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, other student groups, racist incidents, 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 should (like most everywhere else) be safe from hate speech, hate acts, and violence. What defines those things is subject to debate, but in principle any moral person would support this. The students who use slurs against homosexuals or throw bananas at black people should be expelled immediately and be charged with hate crimes. Real punishment is not only deserved for awful acts, it can make others think twice and thus prevent such things in the future. Equal treatment can be reserved for those who say things like “Kill Whitey.”

Third, the concept of safe groups, if you will, is a fine idea and it’s something most everyone would support. If you’re a student organization that supports trans rights and 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 again we’re 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 opinion 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.” I can hardly blame them for being intimidated into silence, even as a social justice worker 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 expulsion or prosecution under hate crime laws, and thus should be permissible anywhere on campuses, even if we find them ignorant and offensive. When they are uttered we can engage with the speakers in a friendly manner and try to explain why certain views strip people of their dignity — not try to restrict such speech before it’s even voiced by making it socially taboo.

This is important for a couple reasons. First, while some of us liberals may be tired of hearing about 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. Most of us understand the devastating impact restricting speech has had on oppressed groups throughout history, people being imprisoned or murdered for daring to demand this or that right or saying this or that is scientifically true. Many socialists were imprisoned and many atheists executed for speaking up. 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, as conservatives often correctly point out, but even more important in such a space you learn how to defend your views while people who are ignorant and prejudiced are exposed to you. That interaction with the “Other” is a key to eradicating the very views that offend you and devalue your humanity. It’s a chance to change people for the better, but it seems less likely to happen if you first insist on censoring the people you’re trying to communicate with. We need respectful, reasoned engagement.

In some places, safe spaces have simply 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 private businesses have attempted to keep out Trump voters and cops.

Now, 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 the 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 hate crimes or microaggressions alike. But a public space where whites simply aren’t supposed to go? While not enacted in the name of racial superiority and supremacy, is not segregation in the name of shelter from the racist storm nevertheless wrong? Isn’t segregation wrong no matter who does it? 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 this decision seems like the right thing to do, and it avoids hypocrisy and the opening of a dangerous door — most of us liberals are horrified at the idea of the return of Jim Crow segregation. At times I feel we are moving in that direction anyway, 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. Safe groups, protests, and seeking real punishments seem like more moral goals and strategies to address injustices, among others.

Such a sanctuary of course pours gasoline on the fires of bigots (this seems a greater issue than liberals modeling how to object to social justice movement practices and calls for justice). 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, and about segregation are nearly 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 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, orientations, identities, and creeds live, work, and learn together with mutual respect and dignity, where tolerance, justice, equality, and equity reign.

Surely designated rooms or establishments (or buildings?) on colleges for non-white or non-straight/cis people do more harm than good in the fight for a better world.

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