16 December 2015

Safe spaces for whom?

Part of the case against the latest generation of "political correctness" is that its purveyors on college campuses want an unnatural shelter from opposing point of view that will ill-prepare them for a pluralistic and competitive adult world. This shelter takes the form of so-called "safe spaces" where, presumably, people won't be exposed to bigotry, condescension or, as the opposition adds, disagreement. Otherwise apolitical observers were disturbed when student protesters at the University of Missouri threatened journalists covering their protest earlier this year. Is a "safe space" to be safe even from scrutiny? In These Times magazine gathered some student activists to discuss the implications of safe spaces for the January 2016 issue. Yamiesha Bell of the University of Connecticut was asked "Why are safe spaces important for movements?" She answered:

Safe spaces allow you to be happy and be free, and not to have to apologize for all that. The first time I was in a safe space was an all-Black space that was intentional. I just cried, because I've never felt so much love and so appreciated just for being me. It's so important for Black folks to see what a safe space looks like and feels like in order to be able to say, "I deserve this every single day of my life."

Lest my citation be inferred as a comment on black people, I can imagine any number of minority groups, not to mention women, feeling and speaking the same way. With that disclaimer out of the way, there is something childish-seeming about Bell's yearning for unconditional and presumably unanimous acceptance. This isn't white privilege talking, by the way. While there is arguably such a thing, let me assure you that when white people, or even white men, go out in the wider world where their presumed dominance seems unsafe to others, they feel nothing close to the love and unconditional appreciation Bell considers her right. Non-whites might well observe that the reason the white world seems unsafe to them by the "safe space" standard is that it's unsafe, by that same standard, for everyone, whites included. That doesn't mean whites haven't dreamed of safe spaces, either for themselves or for all humanity. That's what utopias are, and here is where some would caution that while utopia is the theory, totalitarianism is the practice. Is Yamiesha Bell a totalitarian? How should I know? I tend to doubt it, but the sort of yearning she expresses in that quote is the sort totalitarians have tapped into. It's important to remember, however, that she's describing only her first time in a safe space. If safe spaces are where political movements are organized, I'll bet that she's felt less love in them as time goes on, however safe she felt.

Does a safe space have to be safe from journalists? Bell defends the Missouri students; they were right to tell reporters that the protest area wasn't their space because "that really wasn't their space." But since when is a public space not a space for journalists? Asha Rosa, a Columbia student, explains that "Part of protest is taking over spaces and setting the terms of how the space is going to be used....if they're going to set certain rules, they don't necessarily need to explain to people why." Bell in particular is up front about her revolutionary intentions; she wants to "get rid of the higher education system as it is and create a new one [because] this is not a safe space for people of color." Implicit in such revolutionary rhetoric is a denial of accountability to a news media seen as part of an oppressive establishment, whose judgments are neither objective nor appropriately sensitive to the revolutionaries. Rosa seems to expect more deference from the media, complaining that "I don't see journalists coming to organizers for quotes for context about the movement in the way they should." Of course if reporters aren't seeking organizers out that's bad, but there's a hint here that Rosa wants the story reported on the organizers' terms to an extent a free press is never obliged to respect.

The Missouri protests were provoked in part by reports of racist insults used by whites against black students. The protesters have an understandable desire to purge that sort of racism from civil society once and for all, but as they maintain their confrontational stance and continue to insist on safe spaces, the rest of us have to wonder where the line will be drawn separating respectful criticism from perceived bigotry. It's even possible to wonder whether students like Bell and Rosa acknowledge such a thing as respectful criticism of their tactics, much less their goals.  Whether they do or not, we'll have to live with that uncertainty as we continue the constant negotiation that democracy is in pluralistic societies -- and so will they. If they expect not to be criticized, not to be judged, not to be confronted, not to be contradicted, they're bound to be disappointed. If they assume any or all of that to be prejudiced, then they're prejudiced themselves. Democracy means everyone is accountable to everyone else. If our generation's protesters forget that, then intrusive cameras or people with notebooks will be the least of their problems.

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