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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Meet the student who turned his dorm room into an unsafe space

Meet the student who turned his dorm room into an unsafe space | Down with campus censorship!

"A blob is spreading through British universities, devouring once chatty, free-speaking students and pooping them out the other end as self-policing offence-avoiders. It turns every bit of campus it touches into staid zones in which nothing fun ever happens and nothing foul, or even just naughty, is ever said. The blob is called the Safe Space Policy. And as spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings revealed this week, 13 per cent of UK unis now have one...

At Columbia, the Ivy League, super-supposedly-liberal university in NYC, one student rebelled against a request that he, and every other student, hang a sign in their dorm-room windows declaring that their living quarters were ‘safe spaces’ in which ‘homophobia, transphobia, transmisogyny, racism, ableism, classism and so on’ will not be permitted and everyone who enters will be expected to ‘not be oppressive in [their] interactions’. Most students dutifully displayed the Safe Space sign, but one Adam Shapiro, a junior majoring in history, refused. In fact, he hung up a different sign, his own one, declaring his room an unsafe space...

‘People call them safe-space zones, but actually they’re censorship zones, that’s exactly what they are’, Shapiro tells me. ‘Students need to fight back and have dangerous spaces.’ Towards the end of last year, Columbia — home to some of the most PC, word-watching students in the modern West — had at least one ‘dangerous space’: Shapiro’s room. Instead of hanging up the sad ‘safe space’ sign shoved under his and every other students’ dorm door, Shapiro wrote and displayed a sign headlined ‘I do not want this to be a safe space’. His room, the sign said, is a place where all who enter will be expected ‘not to allow identity to trump ideas [or] emotion to trump critical thinking’. ‘Whether you’re black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, bi, transgender, fully abled, disabled, religious, secular, rich, middle class or poor, I will judge your ideas based on their soundness and coherence, not based on who you are’, his sign declared. Then there was the sign-off, in bold, a warning to anyone who thought they could pop into this student’s room and arrogantly expect that certain things would not be thought, said, or argued out: ‘This is a dangerous space.

‘I came to university because I wanted to be in a dangerous space in which controversial ideas could be explored’, Shapiro tells me. But safe-space policies, he says, militate against such open-ended, free-wheeling and, yes, sometimes difficult thought-excavation by chilling what can be thought and discussed. ‘The idea behind them seems noble: to be kinder to each other — I’m all for that. But the underlying principle is that there are certain rules that you can’t break and certain things that, if you say, the discussion will be closed.’ Once a safe-space is created, he says, anyone can say to anyone else ‘That’s really offensive, and shut an idea down and not engage with it’. So what is presented as a morally upstanding stab at keeping students safe from harm is in fact more about cushioning them from controversy, from ideas. ‘That isn’t what I came to university for’, Shapiro says.

In many ways, Shapiro’s self-made ‘dangerous space’ sounds a lot like the ideal of the university itself — a space in which, as he put it in his college magazine the Columbia Spectator, ‘we can be relaxed enough to be embarrassed by our ignorance… we can be embarrassed and embarrass each other’. He tells me he often thinks of the words of US philosopher Cornel West, who said education is a process through which you’re ‘unearthed and unsettled’. College should be about ‘giving up old ideas and challenging assumptions’, Shapiro tells me, but ‘this isn’t happening now, because as soon as someone is uncomfortable, the discussion is quickly shut down, whether that’s in a student group, a dorm or a classroom’. Yet despite standing up for the pretty historic and Enlightenment-bolstered notion of the university as a place where one is made precisely uncomfortable — by books, by words, by ideas that call into question what we think we know and think is good — Shapiro received a load of flak for his ‘dangerous space’ sign and the article he wrote about it. Angry students played the privilege card, saying it was typically arrogant of a straight, male, white student — ‘what they presumed to be my identity’, says Shapiro — to say ‘let all ideas be heard’. The safety-worshipping students never stop to think how insulting they are being to ethnic-minority students and other identity groups when they say that free and open debate is too difficult for them and is something only the white and middle class can properly cope with.

Shapiro recognises the danger to coming out in favour of ‘unsafe spaces’ — which is that people will paint you as someone who thinks students should be physically unsafe, forced to negotiate their way through insults and maybe even a bit of argy-bargy. But he makes clear that he’s challenging the nonsense idea of ‘mental safety’. ‘No one should be threatened physically or insulted purposefully’, he says. ‘But anything which explores an idea should be preserved. There’s a difference between calling someone a faggot and saying “I wonder if a family is best raised by a mother and a father?”. I happen to think that position is wrong, but I think it’s a position that should be fully explored in a university. Right now, though, if you were to bring that up in a classroom, you would be eaten alive.’ Of course students, like all citizens, have a right to be free from physical harm. But a right to feel mentally comfortable, and never truly challenged? ‘That isn’t a right’, says Shapiro, and if instituted, it would threaten university life, he says...

Shapiro sees trigger warnings, in which students expect to be warned in advance about potentially upsetting class content, and microaggressions, where pretty much any kind of speech can be treated as aggressive to a certain group of people, as standing alongside safe-space policies to form a kind of Holy Trinity of anti-intellectualism, debatephobia, hostility towards difficult ideas. He thinks this infantilisation of students will impact hard on the content of intellectual life in the West. ‘It will be interesting to see the quality of thought that comes out of Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford 20 years from now, because right now people are being infantilised and are not being pushed beyond their limits, to truly think.’

Shapiro says one of the most frustrating things about the response to his creation of a dangerous space — of a small corner of old-style university life on an otherwise safety-colonised, trigger-warned campus — is that some students accused him of defending prejudice and hate. Not so. In fact, as he made clear in his Columbia Spectator piece, he wants freedom of thought and openness to controversy on campus precisely as a means to defeating backward ways of thinking. ‘We need dangerous spaces where bad ideas can die and good ones can flourish’, he wrote. He tells me: ‘When someone says something hateful and heinous and it makes us feel awful, it also actually makes us stronger for having to interact with it and deal with it. And we should deal with it, not hide from it.’"


Response to a hate-filled and incoherent comment on the original op-ed, Safe spaces at Columbia University inhibit discourse:

"The moment you stop listening to what other people have to say, is the moment you become powerless to understand their perspective and, perhaps, change their minds. And while nobody has the right to deny your right to exist as you wish, occasionally, the person with that disagreeable opinion might change your mind on an issue. Creating an environment in which disagreeable ideas are suppressed, rather than debated, should be avoided anywhere, but particularly at a university."

Other comments:

"condoning oppressive behavior under the guise of 'creating dialogue' is still condoning oppressive behavior."
"Bananas under the guise of being plantains are still bananas."

"The specificity of the wording on the poster is disturbing. It's almost like an oath of membership and reminds me of something one might have seen in the Cultural Revolution.

I'm gay; I was bullied in school. But never have I thought "I'm exhausted" and then made the leap that I need to avoid people that have simple disagreements with me or have questions. I certainly would never have wanted this in college. (I can see the need for safe spaces in counseling or support groups.)"

"We don't dismiss a black man by referring to him as "boy", so we shouldn't refer to a white man as "boy" either, should we? I usually don't police people's language, but I wonder if "safe space" supporters watch their own language so closely when the person being discussed is straight or white or a male. Doesn't everybody deserve to feel "safe", too, from words or phrases that are triggering or threatening or erasing new?"

Related article:

Reflexive PC-ness is problem for Theta, Chad Washington

"Yesterday, members of Kappa Alpha Theta were “outed” as un-PC for brandishing “Mexican” paraphernalia at an Olympics-themed party. Immediately, I was reminded of Chad Washington’s arrest last spring. Online commentators claimed racism was at work, expressed sentiment against the athletic community, and relayed condemnation from the student body—all within five minutes, and with hardly a peep of concern for the victim...

Enter the “Political Correctness Police,” the term I use for those as vocal as they are misguided when it comes to social justice. The PCP were the most aware of Washington’s identity as an African-American athlete, and this detail figured in their commentary days before anyone knew the circumstances of the incident. Similarly, the PCP pounced on the members of Theta for their alleged cultural appropriation, placing the emphasis of the story around sorority girls dressing in sombreros and mustaches to represent Mexican culture, and omitting the other nationalities equally stereotyped and poked fun at, such as the “German Olympic team” wearing lederhosen and the “French Olympic team” brandishing berets and baguettes.

Columbia students have a proud and well-earned reputation for speaking out, but the diatribes of our most vocal today reflect a culture of outrage on campus. Columbia students—especially the PCP—often rush to condemn remarks that fall out of line by pulling the “racist,” “sexist,” or “elitist” cards, prefaced by the ubiquitous phrase, “check your privilege.”

But where PC-ness is meant to minimize offense against the disadvantaged, we have instead made any calm discussions on race, gender, and socioeconomic status off-limits. The PCP take issue with people of privilege approaching situations that include any kind of minority, and then condemn them for that privilege. This is wrong. The discussion cannot just be about the underprivileged—not when the privileged are in a position to effect change. We have to realize that change requires extending compassion to those whose worldviews are less politically correct than our own.

This “reflexive” PC-ness also reinforces the otherness of social groups. For instance, the PCP used the controversial tweets and other “public displays of bigotry” to perpetuate the “nasty athlete” stereotype. A similar projection emerged with the “privileged prep school brat” stereotype that monopolized Overheard Columbia, based on submissions of questionable authorship.

The PCP’s impulse to think in terms of groups instead of individuals comes from an admirable intention, but reflects a perversion of the ideology behind social justice movements, and has to stop. No lone individual is truly characteristic of a group. We should thus never chalk one person’s behavior up to characteristics that implicate entire groups...

We can never hope to achieve a post-racist, post-sexist, post-elitist society if every aspect of our lives is an issue of group identity. Especially not when the language we use in the name of PC-ness only reinforces the barriers that we seek to eliminate—including those dividing the majority from the minority, and minority groups from each other. How can we reap the benefits of student diversity when the lingering fear of sounding un-PC to people of diverse identities forces us to walk on eggshells during discourse for fear of offending them?

We must end the PCP’s monopoly on justice, in which individuals are barred from discourse and criticized for their private expression due to their position of privilege. Those who’ve challenged the PCP in the past failed to upend the establishment because their personal privilege undermined the credibility of their arguments. I’m different because I’m a lower-middle class gay Dominican—a collective of marginalized identities that spares me from PCP scrutiny and allows me to have a say in these issues, which is an ironic privilege in itself. Just think about how you’d be reading this article if I were a rich, white, heterosexual male...

Join my cause and make PC-ness something more than a cause in and of itself. Spend some time with the less politically correct. Promote diversity by living it. Then we’ll talk."
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