Thank you for taking the time to read my article. This type of constructive critique and dialogue is exactly what my article argues for.
Sure, despite all of the shellacking this issue has taken on both the right and left, I think it’s important to talk about.
I totally agree that hurtful hate speech has no place on college campuses. The focus of my article was on classroom discourse in an environment which must be both civil and conducive to the free exchange of ideas. I for one cannot recall any classroom or lecture where another student, let alone a professor, was spouting racial epithets or other vile speech.
This is exactly my point in bringing it up. You and I are not old enough to remember another student or a professor spouting racial epithets or other hate speech in a classroom, but it used to happen. If we look at the oldest university in America, Harvard University, we see that it was founded in 1636. It was over 200 years until a black student graduated from Harvard and over 300 years until a woman graduated from Harvard. This is a reflection of American academic life in general, with the entire system having its roots in white male supremacy. It was only through challenging what white men had established as the standards for higher education that these barriers were broken, which led to students like you and me never encountering racial epithets in the classroom (which isn’t to say it doesn’t still happen, but not as frequently as it used to).
I see the argument for safe spaces as exactly the same scenario. We have institutions with long histories dominated by white male judgment of what is or is not appropriate for the campus and classroom, but, students who have a different opinion for what is appropriate and what constitutes safety are raising their voices. These institutions have been built on the back of American society, some receiving public funds directly, and all receiving favorable treatment with regard to taxes and grants, yet they have primarily serviced white men over the course of American history, and still hold largely to traditions and standards created by white men. In that sense, it is a case of “taxation without representation,” where other input has been ignored, and is still being pushed back against under the guise of safe spaces being bad for learning.
I do find it absurd when white college administrators or media commentators tell students who aren’t white men that they should be open to challenges, that college is the place where they should challenge their ideas. To them I say, try living in a culture where you aren’t the default, try going to college at a school where the everyday practices weren’t set up specifically for you. I am of the belief that the day to day life of a black woman on a college campus is, in most cases, already more challenging than that of a white man, and that’s before we even talk about the insulting rhetoric aimed at disenfranchising the surge of new student voices on American campuses, telling these students they need to be open to challenges.
As a female and minority student, I frankly never felt unsafe — and to the contrary felt empowered — in the classroom where I had the freedom to share and argue vigorously in support of my ideas and opinions. Contrary to a higher education system dominated by white males, today, I see a faculty and student body across American universities that continues to grow more diverse (albeit still subject to underrepresentation of minorities — that’s for another article). We now have the ability to influence society through discourse at institutions at which years ago we were not even admitted.
I won’t deny there has been progress, but you don’t undo centuries of tradition in a few decades, and you don’t undo it without putting up a fight. Consider the case of the Americans With Disabilities Act. That didn’t take effect until 1990. Prior to that, if you were a student with a disability, good luck. Some campuses were way ahead of the curve in terms of making their facilities accessible to disabled people, but not every campus was. One conception of safe spaces is that accessibility needs to extend to people of all types of ability and disability.
A trigger warning on a syllabus is no bigger an ask than a wheelchair ramp to gain access to a building. Both are acknowledging that we are all differently abled, but that we all want to be able to learn on a college campus nonetheless. Do you really want to tell the person in a wheelchair, “Oh, you should challenge yourself in getting to the third-floor engineering lab instead of relying on a ramp.”? That seems absurd. It’s just as absurd to tell someone with PTSD, “Oh, you should just challenge yourself by subjecting yourself to something that is going to trigger a full-on nightmare for you.” Challenging ourselves and torturing ourselves are different things, and I don’t think a call for safe spaces is out of order in that light.
You and countless others may have felt empowered arguing your ideas in the classroom, but what about the people 30 years ago with disabilities who couldn’t even get to the classroom? What about the first black people to enter campuses in the South in the 20th Century who faced a parade of invective and scowls on their way to the classroom? And, today, what about the people who battle psychological trauma when faced with certain subjects or scenarios and, as such, can’t even participate in the discussion that everyone else is really getting into? What about the women who have been harassed across entire campuses, all over the media, and online for their legitimate Title IX claims that got outright dismissed by college administrations? There’s just no way college was or is all that rosy or empowering for any of the above, and much of it has to do with not being in a safe enough environment to be able to focus on learning and be able to effectively argue ideas in the classroom. And, the reason these places aren’t safe is precisely because of the aforementioned history of how college has been structured by and for white men for generations.
With that opportunity in hand, my point is that we should not retreat from the battle of ideas or fear them, but rather stand up and speak our truth. We cannot do so in a setting which demands intellectual safe spaces, thereby stifling the sharing of ideas and precluding constructive debate and critical thought.
I completely agree that we should not retreat from the battle of ideas. I think the people who are afraid of the battle of ideas are the people trying to shut down the idea of safe spaces, in an effort to see that the voices they don’t want to hear remain silenced. College administrators who poke fun at the notion of safe spaces and construct straw man arguments against them, professors who roll their eyes at trigger warnings, and white guys who tell women and people of color to challenge themselves are doing just that. They are not interested in having the normative challenged, and safe spaces do just that. They require people to rethink the policies and practices by which they have lived for years. They require people who are steeped in exclusivity to examine what inclusivity really means.
I can share ideas and have a debate with a woman without using misogynistic language. I can share ideas and have a debate with a person in a wheelchair without that exchange happening in a stairwell. I can share ideas and have a debate with a photosensitive person without turning on a strobe light. I can share ideas and have a debate with a person with PTSD without invoking language and imagery that triggers his or her disorder. I can share ideas and have a debate with a member of the LGBT community without resorting to homophobic slurs, or any person of color without resorting to racial slurs.
This is all safe spaces really are, demanding that people be respected and that the learning environment be open to everyone, and it is my hope that each passing decade will bring new voices into the conversation by way of empowering people to participate who had not been empowered before. Safe spaces acknowledge that, not only do you and I want to learn, but so does everyone else, and the conditions by which that is achieved have not been met yet.