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University Safe Zones are places where the normal and boring can say ‘It’s all about me’

by | 23rd, March 2015

safe space

 

Safe spaces: Writing in the New York Times Judith Schulevitz takes up the story of university safe spaces, those zones of intolerance where diverse views of a diverse society are banned, where everything is ‘normal’.

She begins by looking at the work of Katherine Byron, a member of Brown University’s Sexual Assault Task Force. In her safe zone rape will be a taboo. No, not illegal. Rape is an abhorrent crime. This is a ban on anything that could upset rape victims.

This means that a debate between feministing.com founder Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy, a critic of the war on “rape culture”, was feared by Ms. Byron. She said it would be “bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences”.

Student volunteers set about creating a “safe space”. Here anyone upset by the debate could be cosseted.

Schulevitz notes:

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.

To recap: this space is for a sane adult at a centre of learning.

Schulevitz then notes:

Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material…

But 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.

Adam Shapiro, a student at Columbia, is no fan of these bubble zones.

He was asked to display a sign in his dorm window. The sign decared the room a “safe space”. Stick it up and declare to all beyond the zone of purity that you are living in a safe space free from “homophobia, transphobia, transmisogyny, racism, ableism, classism” and more. Anyone entering this zone will be expected to “not be oppressive in [their] interactions”.

That banned is like wearing a slogan T-shirt declaring your displeasure at nuclear war or meat. Julie Burchill explains:

…I think of the immortal words of Fran Lebowitz: ‘If people don’t want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?’ When I see someone wearing clothing with words on my first reaction is usually, ‘Ooo, I bet you’re really boring!’

Did Shapiro stick the poster up? No:

I did not do so. Instead, I put up a poster declaring my room a ‘dangerous space’. Some people thought I was being flippant. On the contrary, one of the very serious reasons I came to Columbia was precisely that I longed to learn and grow in ‘dangerous spaces’.

Why did he do it?

My objection to the “safer space” project is not that it is trying to eliminate racism, sexism, and homophobia. It is precisely the opposite. My objection is that “safe spaces” are attempting to create false spaces where these evils in their truest and coarsest form are kept at bay and out of the discussion. If we, in an almost totalitarian manner, silence people who have questions or ideas that we consider racist, sexist, or homophobic, does that serve to eliminate these ills or merely conceal them? Safe spaces mask what dangerous spaces have the power to overcome…

If activists on campus wish to create meaningful change, people who hold contrary views should be welcome at the table and in their groups. Both in order to correct those who hold distasteful ideas and to develop tolerance and self-restraint in those whose ideas are sound.

A safe zone forbids a place where “we can be relaxed enough to be embarrassed by our ignorance… we can be embarrassed and embarrass each other”.

Because it’s not ‘all about me’…



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