Let’s talk about safe spaces.
“Safe space” has become a loaded term deployed by those who take issue with the formation of spaces in which, typically, only people with marginalized identities are included. Once a term simply for a space in which women, people of color, queer people (or all three) could come together to talk and exist free from the pressures of the people by whom they feel threatened, a safe space is now a buzzword for, roughly, “entitled, sheltered college liberals.” The public discussion around safe spaces has peaked now because of the banning of media from a meeting on the University of Missouri’s quad, at which students and faculty cited the need for the creation of a safe space as a reason. Many people have taken umbrage with the exclusion of the press, citing the trampling of First Amendment rights and the insulation of young people on college campuses across the country, including (perhaps unsurprisingly) members of the press. Protesting the actions of University of Missouri president Timothy Wolfe is one thing, but how dare students direct their frustration and anger about racism on campus toward a disproportionately white media populace?
What is perhaps most interesting about the public conversation around safe spaces is how many people calling for the disruption of safe spaces are precisely the people who are kept from said spaces—privileged white people in positions of power.
Take, for example, “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas” by Judith Shulevitz, a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times.
Or “The World Isn’t a ‘Safe Space’: Why College Kids Need To Stop Hiding from Views That Upset Them,” by Chez Pazienza of The Daily Banter.
Or “Campus Activists Weaponize ‘Safe Space’,” by Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic.
Or “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt of The Atlantic.
It should not come as a surprise that white journalists at prominent media outlets cannot understand why they would ever be excluded from participating in whatever they wanted.
A quick Google search for “safe spaces are bad” yields very few articles, blog posts, thinkpieces, tweets—anything—from marginalized voices. If there are people who are culturally oppressed because of their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation and also are against safe spaces, they ironically do not have the platform to visibly voice such displeasure. Is it possible, that just maybe, those most upset with safe spaces are the people who would make said spaces unsafe? Is it possible that men who are apologists for domestic violence and sexual assault would be the loudest critics of spaces that sometimes exclude men? Is it possible that white people don’t like being excluded from anything at all, let alone conversations amongst people of color who feel victimized by those very same white people?
Much of the conversation around safe spaces feels very recent. Take this blog post published by Liberty Blitzkrieg from this past Sunday night. The post romanticizes the Vietnam War protests, pining for an allegedly bygone era in which students were tough and rugged, prioritizing unbridled civil disobedience over personal safety—nothing like today’s activism, which author Michael Krieger characterizes as “one of the most dangerous trends facing modern American society.” The Vietnam War protests were really not all that long ago, but that post, like many pieces eulogizing the death of the American college student, carry a tone of disappointment in an allegedly new and different era of university culture.
There is an argument to be made on behalf of the importance of safe spaces in general. There are times at which those who confront institutional discrimination need to retreat and recharge. This is not so much a debate point as it is a fact—like gravity, or the fact that hats exist. If you belong to an entire group of people who are marginalized on a widespread level, it would make sense that you would take solace in the ability to be momentarily vulnerable among those who comfort you. Objecting to a space like this would be akin to raiding hospitals and evicting all but the terminally ill:
“The real world won’t allow you to just sit with your feet up while you’re in that cast!”
“I remember when kids my age would develop lung cancer and go right back to work—it’s sad what’s become of cancer patients these days!”
“By going to the hospital and treating your virus in a safe, contained environment, you’re actually taking for granted how much you can do without all these medical handouts!”
What is infinitely more interesting, however, is how quickly we all forget that safe spaces are nothing new. Safe spaces belong to a tradition with roots extending far beyond the borders of college campuses, and is something that dominant, mainstream society is infamous for routinely imposing.
In May of 1989, the New York Times reported the complete eradication of graffiti in subways. Graffiti had long filled train cars, platforms, and tunnels, but, as a staple of hip-hop culture dominated by young black people, was seen as a public scourge. In fact, in a New York Times piece that would be published seven years later in 1996, graffiti artists are described as “vandals armed with cans of paint.” The removal of graffiti from subways was, quite literally, the creation of a safe space. You could hypothetically entertain an argument about whether graffiti constitutes speech or is simply vandalism, but that would require coming to the insurmountable conversational road block that goes something like, “graffiti is vandalism because we say it is.” The mere act of spraying paint onto a surface is not inherently malicious, but dominant American culture in the 1980s and 90s decided that it was, so it was.
So in 1989, New York managed to completely clean or remove all the tagged train cars and transit property, citing safety concerns as a primary reason for doing so according to news coverage, including this Times piece, at the time.
“’When you’re sitting in a graffiti-covered car, you don’t feel safe,’ said the president of the Transit Auhtority, David L. Gunn,” Times reporter Constance L. Hays wrote. “When the trains were covered with names, codes, and epithets, ‘there was a sense that the system was out of control,’ he added.”
Hays also got comment from then-Mayor Ed Koch, who expressed pleasure at the removal and said, “Graffiti on the walls of trains or subway stations create bad karma.”
Some would argue that using the preservation of the MTA’s karma as reason to spend public money to hire thousands of workers to clean trains is both hilariously ironic, and rather flimsy. Perhaps those sheltered New York subway riders should have just been able to confront a point of view different from their own, rather than cower in fear simply because it was not presented to them in a way they found tasteful. The graffiti was removed from inside trains (a quasi-public space, like the University of Missouri’s quad) to make riders, specifically those who found spray-painted messages to be inherently menacing, feel safe.
And let’s not forget the tumultuous history of hip-hop and its only very recent inclusion into the status quo. The 1990s were infamous for imposing the views and values of white society onto what was deemed appropriate music.
Like in 1990 when Jack Thompson, an attorney for the American Family Association, then-governor of Florida Bob Martinez, and Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro joined forces and, with the help of County Circuit Judge Mel Grossman, deemed 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be legally “obscene.” This designation led to the arrests of two members of the rap group, as well as the arrests of record store owners who sold their work.
Or how, in the same year, Mitch Ahlerich who then served as the Assistant Director of the FBI, sent a letter to Ruthless Records, a label that represented the infamous and polarizing rap group, N.W.A.. The letter complained about “Fuck Tha Police,” and was used as a catalyst for a pro-cop movement with those critical of law enforcement as primary targets. The foremost of those targets were the members of N.W.A. themselves, who found their ability to tour around the country undercut because of a lack of security. Sure, those officers have the right to want to refuse to be subjected to an environment in which they feel unsafe because of the speech of four rappers, but is that not the same coddling that allegedly runs rampant on college campuses today?
Or even how, after the state of Arizona rejected a proposal to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday in 1990, Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get to Arizona,” released the following year, was played once on MTV before being banned. The censoring of speech orchestrated by MTV was, undoubtedly, to create a safer, more pleasing brand of MTV for its viewers and listeners—but safety for whom? Safety for fans of Public Enemy, or for people who would find the band’s criticism of the state of Arizona distasteful?
The examples are nearly endless.
Augusta National Golf Club refused to admit black golfers as members before 1990, and prohibited women from becoming members until 2012. What is a golf club that refuses membership to black men or any women but a safe space for white men?
Even this past week, Twitter decided to replace its “favorites” category and star icons with “likes” and hearts, respectively. The rationale, according to the social media website itself, was that “likes” and hearts would make Twitter “easier and more rewarding to use” and less “confusing, especially to newcomers.” Though it seems like a trivial example, it was consequential enough to Twitter—and more importantly, those who invest in Twitter—to overhaul the entire system on its site, app, and third-party clients.
Safe spaces are nothing new. What is, however, is what is considered to be worthy of protection. Very, very slowly, more people are beginning to value and safeguard those who are not considered conventionally worthy by the mainstream. The people who worry about the effects of safe spaces on college campuses would be more intellectually honest in asserting that they are merely fearful of being perceived as threatening.
Unfortunately, doing away with safe spaces would only be coddling those people, or worse, it would only weaponize the concept of “non-safe spaces.”
[published for Slant News on 11/10/2015]