The Seduction of Safety, on Campus and Beyond
November 16, 2015 7:42 AM   Subscribe

When it comes to human resilience, our culture has grand ideas about the nobility of hardship and suffering. “The world breaks every one, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. And certainly, I became the woman I am today, for better and worse, because of the hardships I have endured. If I had to choose, though, I would prefer to have not lost my sense of safety in the way I did.
--Roxane Gay on Safe Spaces
posted by almostmanda (33 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think the segment on On The Media about the free speech issue at the Univ of Missouri protests does a pretty good job being sympathetic to the issues faced by the students. It's worth a listen.
posted by puddledork at 8:23 AM on November 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


Those who mock the idea of safe space are most likely the same people who are able to take safety for granted.

Thank God for Roxane Gay and her repeated emphasis on this point. I heard her segment with Jonathan Chait on All Things Considered last week and wanted to high-five my car radio. It's (almost laughably) telling that the loudest voices against "safe spaces" and "political correctness"* are white men. Chait, in particular, continues to have so little self-awareness I'm starting to wonder if they're not just trotting him out as a troll.


*why are we still using this term?
posted by witchen at 8:35 AM on November 16, 2015 [21 favorites]


“The world breaks every one, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places,”

Scar tissue is hard and tough but it's not really strong the way the original tissue was. It isn't pliable and functional in the same way, it's an emergency response to prevent much greater immediate harm.

When we want people to be physically strong, we challenge them in safe, controlled ways. We calibrate the load to be just at the edge of what they can bear and apply it for a short period. We try to ensure that they move their bodies along the natural planes of force.

I wish we could have a similar attitude to emotional stress.

Challenging cherished ideas is part of education, obviously. However, insisting that people have to listen to derogatory, racist remarks because of academic freedom and trying to insist that this constitutes a robust discussion crucial for academic formation is absurd.
posted by atrazine at 8:45 AM on November 16, 2015 [39 favorites]


Challenging cherished ideas is part of education, obviously. However, insisting that people have to listen to derogatory, racist remarks because of academic freedom and trying to insist that this constitutes a robust discussion crucial for academic formation is absurd.

As I've said before, there's a nasty Spartan streak in the academy that really needs to go die in a fire.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:49 AM on November 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


My only real concern with the move towards campus safe spaces as a concept is the fact that it is going to be used as further grounds for administrative bloat which is suffocating colleges. Also to a degree that it can be used as a new cudgel to weaken tenure as a concept.

Universities should be inclusive and support students, no one should have their math prof using sexist examples to illustrate concepts then claim free speech, but the way that it will be implemented is going to even further shift power away from faculty and further into administration control.
posted by Ferreous at 9:07 AM on November 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty cool with faculty losing the power to be racist/sexist/queerphobic.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:35 AM on November 16, 2015 [12 favorites]


I think it's worth sharing the rest of the Hemingway quotation:
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
posted by telegraph at 9:48 AM on November 16, 2015 [54 favorites]


t feckless: That may be what it says on the box, be it's not going to be how it's used. There's a war in higher ed right now between the actual teachers and administration who figured out how to skim off the top. This will be used as one more weapon to further deconstruct the actual function of colleges and universities.
posted by Ferreous at 9:57 AM on November 16, 2015


This will be used as one more weapon to further deconstruct the actual function of colleges and universities.

Yes, but at the same time, it's a weapon the academy forged and handed to their opponents. That aspect can't be ignored either.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:02 AM on November 16, 2015


Admins being shit isn't a reason to be indulgent of faculty being shit.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:06 AM on November 16, 2015 [6 favorites]


I was gearing up for a pretty long rant while the link opened because I've been seeing lots of critical articles of safe spaces and I'm pretty sick of hearing that stuff. Thanks for this antidote to that.
posted by lownote at 10:10 AM on November 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


When you consider that the Missouri case was actually about administration being shit, you got some results from actually protesting forcing people to resign, but the end result is going to likely be having the admin side police itself and also policing the teaching staff. That's what I'm worried about.

What I would hope for is some means of dealing with problem teachers or issues of insensitivity in a way that actually includes students, teachers, and administration in a concerted thing.
posted by Ferreous at 10:15 AM on November 16, 2015


Ferreous, what would that look like?

We have a problem that needs to be addressed. I think that how we address it is going to depend a lot on the context - someone using sexist examples in their teaching is a different situation than administrative inattention in the face of racist student behavior.

It's hard to imagine what you think is going to happen, and what you think should happen instead, since the problem is so broad.

What new process are you afraid will be instituted? Or are you afraid existing processes will be used to address more kinds of cases? (And why would that be bad?)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:33 AM on November 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


I thought it was very interesting that she said "I do not believe in using trigger warnings because that feels like the unnecessary segregation of students from reality, which is complex and sometimes difficult."
posted by twsf at 10:44 AM on November 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Scar tissue is hard and tough but it's not really strong the way the original tissue was. It isn't pliable and functional in the same way, it's an emergency response to prevent much greater immediate harm.

There was an interesting thing I think I may have read here about Shackleton and Co. in depths of their malnutrition having old wounds and cuts from years early suddenly resurface and open up as if they had never truly healed but had just been temporarily papered over.
posted by srboisvert at 10:55 AM on November 16, 2015 [10 favorites]


I'd imagine some sort of council system that involved representatives from different groups that would hash out appropriate responses to issues, but again that seems quite unlikely to happen.

One of the biggest problems is that a huge portion of the issues on campus have to deal with administrative implementation, from who is accepted, how money is issued, how sexual assault is dealt with, what is done about institutionalized racism. There will obviously be teachers with issues being sexist, racist, etc but that is kind of smaller more localized element than how bigger issues are dealt with.

What I distinctly fear is that administrations at colleges are going to say "yes I know we fucked up, but trust us we'll fix it, just give us more power to eliminate and remove people." When you consider that colleges have shifted vastly to underpaid adjuncts, while at the same time increasing tuition it's not hard to see schools using any new provided powers to dismiss people being abused to increase the bottom line. States have been looking for any way they can to break unions and tenure. In the end students are going to be hurt by a bad education from a system that doesn't fund the actual teaching side.

Basically I don't trust that the "solution" won't be lip service from newly hired directors of diversity with expanded ability to remove teachers while pushing the actual problems behind some curtains.
posted by Ferreous at 11:06 AM on November 16, 2015


She then goes on to write, "Rather than use trigger warnings, I try to provide students with the context they will need to engage productively in complicated discussions." Which is what "trigger warnings" were ultimately about, providing a context that allowed for people to choose how to engage in a topic.

And perhaps we wouldn't have started using them if we didn't become a culture of the "surprise twist," the rickroll, the shock-porn link, the gratuitous "kick the puppy" sexual assault scene, and the screamer ad.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:11 AM on November 16, 2015 [12 favorites]


I think secular colleges have a lot to learn from religious institutions on this front. My college clearly delineated the religious beliefs required for all who attended and identified a corresponding code of conduct that all students and faculty had to adhere to in order to continue to attend or teach there. I felt much more comfortable being in an environment where certain things could be taken for granted, and it allowed me to focus on learning what I wanted to learn instead of navigating thorny free speech issues.

I think secular institutions are being too hard on themselves trying to promote social justice while also maintaining a commitment to free speech. The students are mature enough to know that all Americans have constitutional rights, but that it is the job of government, not institutions, to protect those rights. Nobody attends a public health school who isn't primarily interested in public health as their reason for going there. That doesn't mean they are not also interested in free speech as an individual and societal good.

Student protesters demanding the resignations of faculty and adminstrators who fail to demonstrate a commitment to social justice are simply acting out the values that are already implicit in the secular university environment of 2015. Rather than shame them, why not make an explicit commitment to the same values and delinate the conduct expected of members of the academic community in clear, black and white language. We are already doing this with respect to sexual conduct.

Any department that is unable to adequately concretize their commitment to social justice as it relates to its specific field of study (eg physics, chemistry, engineering), should be expelled from the University and be required to form an independent research conclave without the benefit of school titles, mascots, or sports teams.
posted by fraxil at 11:16 AM on November 16, 2015


I think secular colleges have a lot to learn from religious institutions on this front. My college clearly delineated the religious beliefs required for all who attended and identified a corresponding code of conduct that all students and faculty had to adhere to in order to continue to attend or teach there.

This would be pretty much a non-starter at a state university, especially in Missouri. The whole free speech issue at Missouri started because by law, the entire campus has to allow people to express themselves, regardless of their commitment to social justice. David Duke could come to the quad and give speeches, and preventing him from doing so would be illegal. So the university can't make that commitment.

Even without the law, the university, while an institution, is a government institution, and still bound by the same restrictions the government is. The reason you can have a set of required beliefs is because you are a private institution.
posted by zabuni at 11:33 AM on November 16, 2015


I think secular institutions are being too hard on themselves trying to promote social justice while also maintaining a commitment to free speech.

I'd say the problem is that people enmeshed in the status quo are attempting to use free speech as a shield against criticism, cheapening free speech in the process. We're finally getting overdue pushback on this, forcing people to actually look harder at what free speech actually entails.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:35 AM on November 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


NoxAeternum, if you're talking about the student protesters, they're also trying to create a shield from people mis-characterizing their message and values. It is really common for groups like this to lose control of their message when media have a chance to distort via soundbites, selective quoting, and prejudicial reporting.

In an era of social media, protest groups have so much more control over broadcasting their ideas directly to the world. If they don't trust an established media outlet to report about them fairly, it doesn't make sense for them to try and court their presence.
posted by lownote at 11:57 AM on November 16, 2015


There was an interesting thing I think I may have read here about Shackleton and Co. in depths of their malnutrition having old wounds and cuts from years early suddenly resurface and open up as if they had never truly healed but had just been temporarily papered over.

How interesting!

Of all the scars from my various surgeries and significant traumas, only one -- from surgical repair of a severely broken leg -- failed to fade to near invisibility after ~10 years, remaining lumpy and a trifle empurpled along its 8 inches, and that one did break open into a series of deep and slow to heal ulcers wherever there was a lump almost 20 years later when I happened to take antibiotics with an additive (clavulinic acid) designed to defeat a mode of antibiotic resistance.

I presume bacteria got incorporated into that scar as it formed, and I'd guess something like that was the case with the wounds and cuts of the men of the Shackleton expedition, and that in their extremity their immune systems were no longer strong enough to restrain those incorporated organisms.

But psychological traumas which result in PTSD can be like that too, in the sense that the traumatic event itself breaks out of an encapsulation and is re-experienced in the presence of certain triggers.

Over the next generation or so, a bigger wave of vets with PTSD from their service will pass through colleges and universities, and it will be interesting to see whether the conservative and libertarian academy attempts to dismiss their PTSD the way it's currently belittling the domestically-generated PTSD of women and minorities.
posted by jamjam at 12:31 PM on November 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


American conservative politicians love soldiers but are not overly fond of veterans.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:31 PM on November 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think secular colleges have a lot to learn from religious institutions on this front. My college clearly delineated the religious beliefs required for all who attended and identified a corresponding code of conduct that all students and faculty had to adhere to in order to continue to attend or teach there.

Is the implication here that there's no such thing as a secular code of conduct? Or that secular codes of conduct are somehow less enforceable or harder to comply with? Every university has a code of conduct; many have honor codes. I really have no idea how bringing religion into the mix would improve the situation.

Finally, I have never been enrolled at a religious institution, but there are definitely a lot of religious-affiliated universities that absolutely do not mandate "required religious beliefs." Notre Dame and Boston College are two that come easily to mind.
posted by telegraph at 2:47 PM on November 16, 2015


To clarify, the kind of religious institution I attended has the advantage that students are told right up front, before they are even accepted, that there will be limits on speech and behavior. They are told the reason (religious beliefs) and required to either agree or seek education elsewhere. Right now what I see at state run institutions and the "non-binding" religious institutions is that students and faculty are being told there are limits on speech and behavior, but the exact nature of those limits is not clear (codes of speech/conduct notwithstanding -- they can be quite vague and unhelpful), and are not being told exactly why they have to accept those limits. The language about harm, trauma, safe spaces, etc., is not helpful if it does not allow an individual to know what is allowed beyond having to guess whether another individual would consider it "unsafe".

I think we all agree the reason for these limits is a concern for social justice and vulnerable groups, but it would be more clear if that concern were handled in a more "religious" manner, reflective of the overruling ideological commitment that is becoming more evident in the past few years. In other words, students deserve more clear instruction on what is and isn't going to be tolerated before they sink significant time, money, and emotional effort into a given college and for the justification to be clearly stated in the way that religious institutions do. For both the minority individual subjected to repeated microaggressions but unsure of what recourse they have, and the religious individual told that their campus group has no right to use campus facilities or resources because of its religious basis, more clarity is needed.
posted by fraxil at 3:40 PM on November 16, 2015


re: Shackleton & old wounds, vitamin C deficiency leading to scurvy! (a bit of science on the topic) I'll leave it to more creative folks to pinpoint the equivalent of vitamin C in this analogy.
posted by epersonae at 3:45 PM on November 16, 2015


I (a women who has been harassed in the past) shared a link to this article in a social chat space I share with a largely progressive, almost gender-equal group of friends. The first - and almost immediate, within thirty seconds - response I got was from a man: "Eh, but on the other hand, I am opposed to the concept of 'safe spaces' being used as an anti-speech tool. If you find some speech triggering, it's not my job to censor myself so that you're not triggered."

He didn't even read the article; he just jumped right to "safe spaces are censorship" and "it's not my job to make you feel safe". And this is someone who would identify himself as socially progressive. It's acutely depressing, both to hear this and to not be surprised to hear this, and it makes me wonder how any of us ever find the energy to try to change things. Particularly on days like this, when it seems like the best someone like me, having a conversation like this, can hope for from the people who have the luxury of being able to take their safety for granted is confusion and mild resentfulness.
posted by Hold your seahorses at 7:04 PM on November 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


Challenging cherished ideas is part of education, obviously. However, insisting that people have to listen to derogatory, racist remarks because of academic freedom and trying to insist that this constitutes a robust discussion crucial for academic formation is absurd.

It makes sense when you realize that many academic schools of thought regard the academic experience not as a strengthening exercise but a selection exercise-- it's designed to alienate people into leaving, allowing a remnant to stay who wasn't bothered by the experience in the first place. In this view, the academic experience isn't about molding students into better, stronger, more educated people, but finding out who is best-suited and those who fit in for weathering the experience and chucking the rest.
posted by deanc at 9:05 PM on November 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


The first - and almost immediate, within thirty seconds - response I got was from a man: "Eh, but on the other hand, I am opposed to the concept of 'safe spaces' being used as an anti-speech tool. If you find some speech triggering, it's not my job to censor myself so that you're not triggered."

To which he should be told "No, you should watch what you say lest everyone else think you're an insensitive dick. And I daresay you're failing in that regard."
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:21 AM on November 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


It makes sense when you realize that many academic schools of thought regard the academic experience not as a strengthening exercise but a selection exercise-- it's designed to alienate people into leaving, allowing a remnant to stay who wasn't bothered by the experience in the first place. In this view, the academic experience isn't about molding students into better, stronger, more educated people, but finding out who is best-suited and those who fit in for weathering the experience and chucking the rest.

Once again, Spartan bullshit that needs to die. We need an academic helot revolt, honestly.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:31 AM on November 17, 2015


I feel the need to point out that part of an academic education is enculturation into the language and rhetoric of the field. That language does not entirely abhor the slurs or generalization fallacies central to racism, sexism, and heterosexism, but you don't get away with using them casually under a cloak of academic freedom and walk away unchallenged.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:15 AM on November 17, 2015


Except that, as many people have pointed out, you very well can get away with it, as long as you appeal to the specific virtues the academy extols. This is also part of why the academy has had such a hard time with those fallacies as well - there's very much an attitude of "oh, well you were going to face unpleasant truths" that is used to dismiss legitimate criticism.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:46 AM on November 17, 2015


And this was another excellent piece getting to what the problem is: 'We Need Yale to Choose Us': Inside the Racial Tensions of the Ivy League
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:14 AM on November 17, 2015


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