MAEVE LAZOR, CO-EDITOR IN CHIEF | DECEMBER 10, 2016
In my recent op-Ed, “Safe spaces more important than ever as minorities are treated as second-class citizens in wake of Trump Election, Part I,” I took aim at the “us” versus “them” mindset that has historically divided people in terms of race, religion, and nationality.
I criticized Trump for abandoning and encouraging others to abandon the legacy of respectful, tolerant, politically correct discourse and theorized that in the wake of his election, the dearth of such rhetoric will inspire more people to commit hate crimes. There is much to criticize in PC culture itself, but its necessity should not be questioned on the campaign trail or in the highest position of office in the nation.
Many academics have argued that when an environment, such as a classroom setting, is too monitored for political correctness, it can take away from a constructive dialogue. Individuals become too wary of what they might say and decide not to say anything at all in fear of unintentionally offending others.
It is one thing to say something overtly racist like “Mexicans are criminals and rapists,” as our president-elect said. But it is quite another to mistakenly refer to someone as “she” when their preferred pronoun is “they” when respectfully talking about gender equality; or to confuse somebody’s nationality with their ethnicity; or, bear with me, to advocate for registering Muslim immigrants to strengthen national security in a political science class. (This is a touchy subject, but if an individual can back up his claim with evidence and a solid, logical argument, without stereotyping Muslims as terrorists, I see no reason why the idea itself should be targeted as politically incorrect.)
The problem with political correctness today, in the classroom and in the real world, is that people see it as a censorship of free speech. It’s understandable that in the aftermath of recent events, such as the homicide of unarmed black men, the Orlando night-club shooting, and terrorist attacks in Paris, liberal American institutions have gotten a bit politically correct-happy. Nevertheless, American institutions are committed to the freedom of expression above anything.
This commitment has led institutions such as the University of Chicago to issue a letter fall of 2016 to incoming freshman stating that it will not support the use of “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces” on campus, as it infringes on the rights of free speech. Students “are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn without fear of censorship,” the letter read. The university does not plan on cancelling controversial speakers and does not condone the use of “safe spaces,” where like-minded individuals can retreat from ideas that may make them feel uncomfortable.
In an interview with Bard Watch, President Botstein, an alumni of University of Chicago, said: “The letter from U of Chicago was unnecessarily aggressive and self-righteous…They were picking up on a journalistic account of this issue and taking the high road and making themselves look important as the defenders of free speech. There is no doubt that the pursuit of science and scholarship requires free expression and the exploration of the unpleasant, the uncomfortable, the hard to understand—that’s what [Bard College] is about. [The letter] could have been said in a much more sensitive and thoughtful way, in my view.”
Just last year, Barrack Obama revealed he is not a fan of safe spaces, and would most likely support the University of Chicago’s commitment to freedom of expression. “I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. And, you know, I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either,” Obama said at a town hall event in Iowa in September, 2015.
Obama makes a careful and logical assertion about learning and censorship in higher education, and to a degree he is right about the dangers of hyper-sensitivity: it can infringe on our learning and make us too tentative to examine certain ideas. Yes, sometimes safe spaces are antithetical to the free exchange of ideas that define the college experience, and yes, sometimes they serve as an echo-chamber, but so what?
Really, so what?
Trump has name-called and shamed women and minorities alike throughout his campaign, hurting the identities of millions. These are the type of people that gather in safe spaces—because they feel targeted.
Decisions like the University of Chicago’s letter about censorship have their shortcomings, but what’s crucial to realize is they are often misinterpreted. The letter issued was part of an endeavor to uphold a tradition of excellence in education and the pursuit of knowledge—and some of that knowledge may encompass sensitive topics and may be uncomfortable to talk about for certain individuals.
But let me be clear: it is not an open window for people to desert careful, respectful conversation and revert to racist and sexist antics. It is definitely not an opportunity to bash and criticize safe space members, either.
Though this letter was issued before Trump’s election, what baffles me is that safe spaces should be more important than ever in the aftermath of his victory, which has normalized the treatment of minorities as second-class citizens. Yet people are running around denouncing safe spaces as narrow-minded clubs where controversy and debate goes to die.
But the point is, one doesn’t go to a safe space meeting meant for black students, for instance, to debate every aspect of the Black Lives Matter movement and its repercussions, or a meeting for Muslim students to examine all of the terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam. (Sure, many participants may have the same viewpoint, and that should be okay, even if it doesn’t develop any constructive dialogue.)
College campuses and work places need safe places primarily for the victims of hate speech and hate crimes. (Safe spaces welcome sympathizers who are not victims, but if you are going just to crash the party, please think twice.) Colleges especially need safe spaces because time and time again, we have seen instances of student hate, intolerance, and overt racism.
Tell me colleges don’t need safe spaces after the unaddressed mistreatment of black students at the University of Missouri and the swastika that was drawn in the bathroom with feces.
Tell me colleges don’t need safe spaces after the Blacklist created by Penn students after Trump was elected President.
Tell me colleges don’t need safe spaces after the Islamophobia at NYU demonstrated when somebody wrote “Trump” on a Muslim prayer room in the school.
Tell me colleges don’t need safe spaces after The New School discovered swastikas drawn on the doors.
Tell me colleges don’t need safe spaces after President Tom Rochon of Ithaca College in upstate New York and faculty member Spellman at Claremont Mckenna in California refused to address issues of racial insensitivity.
Tell me colleges don’t need safe spaces after a Yale fraternity held a “white girls only” party.
Tell me colleges don’t need safe spaces after the Harvard soccer team made a list ranking female students based on their looks and talked about them in a misogynistic way.
Tell me colleges don’t need safe spaces after the surging rape culture epidemic, most famously exemplified by Brock Turner at Stanford.
The point is, a point so many people overlook, is that safe spaces aren’t necessarily created for some higher learning experience—their purpose is to serve individuals who feel targeted, unwelcomed, and ostracized by or from their respective community. And to deny somebody of such a space is to deny them of their identity and to delegitimize their experiences with hate based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, or disability.
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