In the Sunday edition of the New York Times, Judity Shulevitz pointed out something that’s been an issue within left-leaning groups for awhile: the increasingly onerous push by college students, primarily left-wing liberal arts schools, to demand “safe spaces” where they can be free of offensive language.
KATHERINE BYRON, a senior at Brown University and a member of its Sexual Assault Task Force, considers it her duty to make Brown a safe place for rape victims, free from anything that might prompt memories of trauma.
So when she heard last fall that a student group had organized a debate about campus sexual assault between Jessica Valenti, the founder of feministing.com, and Wendy McElroy, a libertarian, and that Ms. McElroy was likely to criticize the term “rape culture,” Ms. Byron was alarmed. “Bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences,” she told me. It could be “damaging.”
Ms. Byron and some fellow task force members secured a meeting with administrators. Not long after, Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, announced that the university would hold a simultaneous, competing talk to provide “research and facts” about “the role of culture in sexual assault.” 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. 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.
Hold on. Let’s stop right here. A college student at Brown University – an Ivy League school – can’t handle different viewpoints to her “dearly and closely held beliefs”? So she has to go into a room that even a six year old would wrinkle their nose at to “recover”?
Two weeks ago, students at Northwestern University marched to protest an article by Laura Kipnis, a professor in the university’s School of Communication. Professor Kipnis had criticized — O.K., ridiculed — what she called the sexual paranoia pervading campus life.
The protesters carried mattresses and demanded that the administration condemn the essay. One student complained that Professor Kipnis was “erasing the very traumatic experience” of victims who spoke out. An organizer of the demonstration said, “we need to be setting aside spaces to talk” about “victim-blaming.” Last Wednesday, Northwestern’s president, Morton O. Schapiro, wrote an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal affirming his commitment to academic freedom. But plenty of others at universities are willing to dignify students’ fears, citing threats to their stability as reasons to cancel debates, disinvite commencement speakers and apologize for so-called mistakes.
BZZZZT. This is where I draw the line.
Forgive me for never having been to college, but the way I understand it, it’s a place to be challenged, to have your “deeply held beliefs” challenged in an environment where having them disavowed will do no real damage. It’s much better to learn you’re wrong about something as a 20 year old kid than a 40 year old adult with a career, after all. But now we’re disinviting speakers based on their controversy? Not even speakers, but friendly speakers, who are generally on the side of those that are having them removed?
This is the liberal equivalent of book burning, which does no one any favours.
All of this reminds me of something Dan Savage, the founder of the “It Gets Better” campaign to help bullied LGBT1 teenagers cope with the awful abuse they get in school, went through when he was literally accused of committing a hate crime:
During this part of the talk a student interrupted and asked me to stop using “the t-slur.” (I guess it’s not the t-word anymore. I missed the memo.) My use of it—even while talking about why I don’t use the word anymore, even while speaking of the queer community’s history of reclaiming hate words, even as I used other hate words—was potentially traumatizing. I stated that I didn’t see a difference between saying “tranny” in this context and saying “t-slur.” Were I to say “t-slur” instead of “tranny,” everyone in the room would auto-translate “t-slur” to “tranny” in their own heads. Was there really much difference between me saying it and me forcing everyone in the room to say it quietly to themselves? That would be patronizing, infantilizing, and condescending. Cox gamely jumped in and offered that she had used “tranny” in the past but that she now recognizes its harm and has stopped using it. The student who objected interrupted: as neither Cox nor I were trans, “tranny” was not our word to use—not even in the context of a college seminar, not even when talking about why we don’t use the word anymore. I asked the student who objected if it was okay for me to use the words “dyke” and “sissy.” After a moment’s thought the student said I could use those words—permission granted—and that struck me a funny because I am not a lesbian nor am I particularly effeminate. (And, really, this is college now? Professors, fellows, and guest lecturers need to clear their vocabulary with first-year students?) By the not-your-word-to-use standard, I shouldn’t be able to use dyke or sissy either—or breeder, for that matter, as that’s a hate term for straight people. (Or maybe it’s an acknowledgment of their utility? Anyway…)
This student became so incensed by our refusal to say “How high?” when this student said “Jump!” that this student stormed out of the seminar. In tears. As one does when one doesn’t get one’s way. In college.
Mind you, Savage – who, it should be stated, seems to be going through his own dilemma regarding “old” vs. “new” liberalism here, much like many of us – didn’t say anything like “that trans asshole” or “trans people are terrible”. He used it as a noun. A neutral descriptor, even after long ago explaining why “trans” is good but “tranny” is very, very bad, basically the transsexual equivalent of “nigger”. Speaking of The N Word™, I’m reminded of an old Carlin bit on this matter that is apropos here:
“They’re only words! It’s the context that counts! It’s the user, it’s the intention behind the words that make them good or bad, the words are completely neutral, the words are innocent. I get tired of people talking about “bad” words, or “bad” language. Bullshit! It’s the context that makes them good or bad! (…) For instance, you take the word nigger, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the word nigger in and of itself, it’s the racist asshole using it that you aught to be concerned about. We don’t mind when Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy say it because we know they’re not racists… they’re niggers!”
Personally, I’m not worried about the idiot on the street corner screaming “nigger!” at every black person. I’m concerned about the person saying how horrible that person is out loud, but secretly clutching his bag a little tighter, patting his wallet down to make sure it’s there, and doing work behind the scenes to make sure “unseemly elements” don’t get into his neighbourhood. The first person is a buffoon, but the second one is the kind who makes sure, when a black person is hanged or choked or shot2, who brings up even the spectre of a criminal history, whether it was five days or five decades prior. They’re the dangerous ones.
This brings me back to what some students are trying to do on campuses, and goes back to the now-old debate about “triggers”. Even mentioning rape, or violence, or anything that happens in the world now seems to elicit screams to put in “trigger warnings”, lest what’s being said irreparably harm the person hearing or reading it. Effectively, it’s a very bad Tumblr thread in real life, but we try, because we’re not terrible people and would really like others to feel comfortable. In fact, I differentiate liberal activism from conservative activism in the sense that liberal activism is based around “we’d like everyone to be happy!” while conservative activism is based around “Fuck you faggot, I got mine!”.
But people screaming about triggers are not being actually triggered in most cases, and if they are, they should be seeking psychiatric help and never reading history, ever. They likely don’t know what a trigger is. I know what a trigger is. When you’re actually triggered, you are viscerally reliving parts of whatever caused you to be damaged in the first place. Your eyesight gets wonky. Your breathing escalates. Your body tenses. In worst cases, it can trigger a person’s fight-or-flight instinct. This can be in response to various types of trauma – rape, war wounds, domestic abuse, anything that causes intense, life-changing pain – but a trigger goes beyond “this makes me uncomfortable”. That’s when someone brings up a tough subject and you start to fidget. A trigger is when you hear, say, Cat Stevens on the radio and if you don’t pull over, turn the radio off and calm down, you will lose control of your car and crash and die.
Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that people equate any view of society that doesn’t equate to their own to be a fatally flawed human being. I’ve been called a “traitor” by liberals, feminists and others I typically see common cause with that I sometimes wonder if they’re more of an “enemy” than conservatives who would just as easily make many minority groups second class citizens if the Constitution allowed them to. This mindset makes enemies of moderates, and actually sets back the cause of equal rights. We cringe at people in the “meninist” movement screaming about “SJWs” as if that was an insult, but things like this give them easy ammunition, and damages the cause of those who have legitimate issues that will never be adequately addressed because the movement spent political currency poorly.
I would advise liberals to remember a hard truth: when it comes to creating social good and – dare I say it – social “justice” – that boxing rules apply: if there’s a draw, the title doesn’t change h ands, and powerful interests who are hell-bent on keeping the status quo – and are buttressed by the apathy of the average person who doesn’t care so long as they get to watch Modern Family at night – currently hold a lot of titles. Enabling an environment that is open to change means making as many friends with as many reasonable people as possible. Calling everyone a racist who is beholden to an unseen patriarchy, and then trying to either ignore or silence well-meaning protests, is not the way to do that.
As for those of you in the safe room? There’s nothing wrong with telling you to grow a spine and grow up. If you are a minority group, many people automatically dislike you. They are fools, yes, but they have to be dealt with. It doesn’t matter when or how, they have to be dealt with or you will never affect change for anyone, including yourself. Despite what a few Tumblr blogs made by a 15 year old say, you are not special and you deserve nothing. Either learn to stand up for yourself or you will never accomplish anything. That includes listening to people who might offend.
And if you are actually “triggered”, do what I did: learn to cope with it. Life is much tougher than that.
1 – I know the acronym has been updated… what is it now? LGBTQR… STLN And A Vowel? At some point, “inclusion” has to involve people who are willing to meet somewhere near the middle in order to be included.
2 – Make sure to read this link of what George Zimmerman has to say about his murder of Trayvon Martin. Holy shit! This man hasn’t been committed yet?