I saw an oped by Judith Shulevitz being passed around by a lot of AntiSocialJusticeWarriors yesterday, so I’m reading it. It’s about safe spaces and avoiding scary ideas and all that – a familiar enough subject.
If her account is accurate there is some very silly stuff out there, but it’s not clear whether it’s just some patches of eccentricity or a pervasive trend. Still…let’s look at a patch or trend, whichever it is. There was a debate on rape culture at Brown University, for instance.
Meanwhile, student volunteers put up posters advertising that a “safe space” would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting.
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.
What? What? These are college students, not toddlers. Bubbles? Play-Doh? Blankets? PUPPIES?
Keep in mind this is presumably provided mostly for female students. Is it not just a tad problematic to infantilize women in that way? It certainly seems problematic to me. If Shulevitz is not exaggerating, that “safe space” seems more like a grotesque insult.
But other examples are more dubious. There was that all-boy debate about rape for example.
At Oxford University’s Christ Church college in November, the college censors (a “censor” being more or less the Oxford equivalent of an undergraduate dean) canceled a debate on abortion after campus feminists threatened to disrupt it because both would-be debaters were men. “I’m relieved the censors have made this decision,” said the treasurer of Christ Church’s student union, who had pressed for the cancellation. “It clearly makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students who live and work in Christ Church.”
That’s at the very least a selective way to report on that incident. I don’t think it was mostly talked about in terms of “safety.” I don’t think the debate should have been canceled once it was scheduled, because bad precedent blah blah, but I do think it was a crappy idea in the first place, and not for reasons of “safety.”
But then there’s the Kaminer one.
Last fall, the president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, apologized for causing students and faculty to be “hurt” when she failed to object to a racial epithet uttered by a fellow panel member at an alumnae event in New York. The offender was the free-speech advocate Wendy Kaminer, who had been arguing against the use of the euphemism “the n-word” when teaching American history or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the uproar that followed, the Student Government Association wrote a letter declaring that “if Smith is unsafe for one student, it is unsafe for all students.”
“It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism,” Ms. Kaminer said in an email.
I agree with Kaminer. It’s use v attribution. Yes the full word should be used (that is, attributed) in such discussions. I never say “the c-word” when I’m talking about the use of “cunt” as an epithet for women. The reasons to object to hate-mongering epithets have nothing to do with squeamishness, so yes, skip the euphemisms.
Shulevitz says it’s a small patch but then goes back to treating it as a trend.
Only a few of the students want stronger anti-hate-speech codes. Mostly they ask for things like mandatory training sessions and stricter enforcement of existing rules. Still, it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like.
Maybe, or maybe it’s just one of those seat-of-the-pants things, one of those patterns we detect without really having any idea how pervasive they are or aren’t.
Universities are in a double bind. They’re required by two civil-rights statutes, Title VII and Title IX, to ensure that their campuses don’t create a “hostile environment” for women and other groups subject to harassment. However, universities are not supposed to go too far in suppressing free speech, either. If a university cancels a talk or punishes a professor and a lawsuit ensues, history suggests that the university will lose. But if officials don’t censure or don’t prevent speech that may inflict psychological damage on a member of a protected class, they risk fostering a hostile environment and prompting an investigation. As a result, students who say they feel unsafe are more likely to be heard than students who demand censorship on other grounds.
The theory that vulnerable students should be guaranteed psychological security has roots in a body of legal thought elaborated in the 1980s and 1990s and still read today. Feminist and anti-racist legal scholars argued that the First Amendment should not safeguard language that inflicted emotional injury through racist or sexist stigmatization.
She neglects to mention the issue of stereotype threat, and how the whole “hostile environment” thing feeds into that. It’s tricky, probably insolubly tricky, but there is an issue. People who face constant belittlement from birth to death don’t just rise above that. It would be nice to think they do, but they don’t. You can tell them to try harder, but the trouble is, the trying harder is the threat. The effort expended in trying harder is effort taken away from doing the actual task, so that is a handicap. That’s a reason to try to do away with hostile environments that really has nothing to do with Play-Doh or fluffy feefees.