Monday, March 23, 2015

Safe Spaces, Education, and Feminism

The issue of trigger warnings and safe spaces is boiling over on college campuses. Many students are demanding that their colleges protect them from any statement that might remind them of trauma or even make them "uncomfortable." Others are willing to tolerate offensive comments as long as they are provided with a "safe space" that will protect them. Judith Shulevitch found this great example at Brown, where a safe space was set up during a campus debate about sexual assault:
The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.
Personally my idea of education pretty much equates to being bombarded by viewpoints that go against dearly and closely held beliefs, so I don't know how you could have a university that avoided such mental assaults. (Some of my favorite documents to teach are chronicles of the massacres of Jews that took place in Germany during the First Crusade, and I've never met a student who didn't find them disturbing.) But what really bugs me is the notion that young people and especially young women have to be protected from Bad Things because they are too weak and vulnerable to stand it. Wasn't that the basic position of the patriarchs who fought against educating women or letting them hold any sort of important job? Wasn't it the point of feminism to assert that women can be just as intellectually and morally tough as men? If the presence on campus of a libertarian skeptic of "rape culture" is so upsetting to you that you need to retreat to the pastel room and watch puppy videos, are you really an equal adult?

Some sorts of safe spaces are a familiar part of most campuses, and I don't see anything wrong with them: LGBT clubs where people feel safe in talking about their sexuality, say, or African American clubs and fraternities. Nor do I really think that 19-year-olds are fully adults, and I think that college exists partly to provide a structured and reasonably safe environment to grow up in. But it seems to me that coddling young people can easily be taken too far. As Shulevitch warns,
The notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.
I guess I don't have any problem with students wanting "safe spaces" as long as nobody tries to make my classroom into one.


G. Verloren said...

The general push is for society as a whole to be more empathetic to the segments of our society which are most vulnerable and sensitive, or which have been most badly victimized. While there are some aspects of how people go about trying to promote that which I disagree with, in principle I support the notion of trying to make society more empathetic.

The tipping point we need to watch out for, of course, is the line between supporting those who need to be supported, and attacking or demonizing anyone or anything which might possibly offend someone's sensibilities. Simply put, censureship is very often destructive and counterproductive. If you want to promote empathy for those who might be extra sensitive to certain topics of discussion, responding with anger to those who lack empathy isn't a great way to foster it, but rather to erode it.

So called "safe places" have my total support, because they approach the problem from the angle of offering support to those who need it, without in any real way affecting those who don't. It's effectively no different than having a nurse on campus, or student counselors, or signs posting numbers for support hotlines. Even if most students never need to make use of such services, they're still important resources for the ones that do. Moreover, one can never accurately predict who is really going to need assistance - misfortune sometimes strikes hardest on those who least expect it. As the saying goes, "It is the strong swimmer who most often drowns."

pootrsox said...

Daniel W. Drezner's commentary on the subject:

John said...

Well, yes, certain sorts of conservative or cranky people are always bemoaning the latest campus fad, blowing it out of proportion, and generally complaining that kids these days are idiotic wimps.

But the demands for "trigger warnings" are new and real. My sister teaches art history at an elite university and she is now routinely confronted by students who want trigger warnings for things like depictions of torture, and she has been asked more than once to excuse certain students from having to view objectionable images. Since the tortures of Jesus and the saints are one of the main themes of European art, it is hard to see how this is possible. And can you really be said to understand the culture of medieval or Baroque Europe if you won't think about the sufferings of the saints, or even look at pictures of them?

And, yes, students all over the country have tried to have certain speakers banned because their ideas make people feel attacked. Some universities have refused to do this, but others have given in to the blackmail of hurt feelings. Nobody can defend the Catholic church's view of homosexuality on most campuses because gay students complain that it is an assault on them. Not even Pope Francis could speak at many American colleges. I posted here a while back about the 'Radfems' who have been banned from speaking at many campuses because their ideas are hurtful to trans people.

I believe that one of the banes of our world is the refusal to grant any legitimacy to opposing political ideas, even to refuse to hear them at all. One of the bad effects of this is that since people refuse to hear opposing ideas, they come to think that everybody agrees with them, and then when they lose an election they blame fraudulent voting by illegal immigrants or sinister manipulations by the Koch brothers.

Colleges absolutely should expose people to attacks on their most deeply held beliefs, and young people who think they need to be protected from such assaults should be told otherwise.