Senseless Sensibilities: On Yale and Safe Spaces

Much has been written about the protests at Yale over the past week. I had no intention of wading into the fray of online arguments, but a persistent voice in my head kept reminding me to be “more than a placeholder for decency.” So, here I am tackling the issue from my personal perspective. I will not address every grievance of student protestors, I won’t attack methods of protest, and I will not discuss the call for removal of certain faculty members. This is not because I agree with every protest tactic or motivation (I neither completely agree nor disagree though I maintain their right to protest), but because I have a very specific focus in this post on an issue that has irked me for some time.

When I view not only the immediate catalyst for the events at Yale, but also the so-called list of “demands” I  notice a few common themes: administrative acknowledgment of student’s feelings, admission of guilt, decentralization of power, increased diversity training and consequences for transgressing boundaries, and especially the idea of a “safe space”. Safe space here is not used as a physical safe space, but an intellectual and moral enclosure in protection of one’s ideas, emotions and experiences.

In fact, it is the concept of a safe space that underlies most every other demand. In the very opening to the student demands for the institution, students claim they “want and need” certain actions of the administration in order to move forward. The underlying assumption of this document, and much of the protest, is that students need protection from those that transgress ideological boundaries: cultural appropriation through Halloween costumes, disagreement with faculty, and less than welcoming fraternities. Rather than engaging with potentially painful and offensive speech, a collective of Yale students seem to want to stamp it out all together, because such speech is so harmful that they cannot function in an environment where it exists. The Yale impulse seems to be in favor of forever wanting to protect certain mindsets, rather than recovering enough from past wounds to engage with the present context. Though the impulse to want to protect someone from exposure to painful and offensive speech is noble it is not ultimately helpful, as any parent watching their child mature can attest.

To be clear: if a fraternity is denying black women entrance to a party, that calls for an administrative response. If black people are being threatened with assault, that should prompt a security investigation. If professors are treating black students unfairly, that deserves administrative action. And if there is a pervasive problem of people running around chanting the n-word, then that deserves a reiteration of the rules and expectations for the community from those in authority. None of these responses, of course, would preclude appropriate consequences for transgressors. The problem with the current crop of Yale protests is that students are not separating actual harmful affronts to the community from their own subjective “hurtful” and offensive experiences. And no, expressing an opinion on an emotionally-charge and controversial topic does not equal racism, and certainly does not warrant censure. There are lines of common sense that Erika Christakis’ letter did not cross, but which opposing students have trampled over.

This concerns me as a black person. But on a deeper level, it concerns me as a human who sees a denial of some basic principles of life in the protestors’ chants and demands. We, all people, need safe spaces as refuges from an at times hostile world, not as replacements for the world. I cannot pound conformity into the world around me, but I can pound resilience into my own mind. My mind is my first safe space; my room is my next. I both compromise and strengthen my safe space when I widen it to include family and select friends. But I have destroyed my safe space if I feel that it must include everyone and everything I come into contact with. Student activists may not realize that that is what their mindset in this case amounts to; but if a space is only safe if everyone who does not agree with me is silent then I will live my life constantly feeling violated.

When I consider the painful history of my people, what sparks such joy in me is our resilience. Black people in America have endured so much, and yet we have done so much despite the burdens of slavery, segregation, racism, lack of economic opportunities, denial of humanity, etc. etc. When I consider the painful moments in the lives of my family members and myself, I become even more joyful at the obstacles that I have personally witnessed overcome. I would never wish a perpetual “safe space” on those I love; I care for their overall emotional wellbeing and their ability to adapt and advance past painful situations too much to lie to them. I’ll say it again: I love my family too much to want to hide from them the reality that they have to deal with pain and a world that does not always agree with them. Their pain is not the responsibility of everyone else who comes into contact with them.

One of my sisters is a gymnast. Several years ago, when she was about 11, she fell headfirst on her Yurchenko vault. Her hands slipped off the vaulting table, her head then back hit the ground with a loud crack and she blacked out. It took her about a year to physically recover from the accident, and even today her occasional back and hip pain can be traced to that instant. But my sister is fortunate: other girls who have fallen on that same vault have suffered paralysis, broken spines, and even death.

Looking back on her recovery, what is interesting to me is that the mental and emotional component was every bit as important as the physical recovery. It took her six months before she was finally able to even walk next to the vault. It took more time for her to touch the vault, and longer before she was willing to start vaulting again. Today she is an excellent vaulter; but this was accomplished by the support and even slight pressure of my mother, her coaches, and fellow gymnasts who did not let her give up, but forced her to conquer her fears. She was “triggered” every time she saw the vaulting table in those first several months. But being triggered was essential to her recovery process. She could not have recovered if in those early days she had not learned to work through the anxiety and panic that seeing the vaulting table gave her. What she did not do was demand that the vaulting table be removed from her presence; neither did she give in to the instinct to ignore the cause of her pain.

I am not advocating a disrespect of people’s experiences. I am also not advocating not speaking up against obvious violations of good conduct at colleges. What I am saying is that I cannot, in good conscience, “help” or “respect” family or friends in such as a way as to leave them more vulnerable to later emotional attacks. No one knows when they will see or hear something that sends thoughts and emotions spiraling backwards to a painful moment in personal history. The answer is not to remove every person or every idea that potentially (or even actually) causes conflict. Within my own family I can recall instances of racism, bullying, assault, and myriad other stressful situations. What is impressive to me is that some of the people who have suffered the most are those most willing to confront their festering wounds. That is the path to healing.


4 thoughts on “Senseless Sensibilities: On Yale and Safe Spaces

  1. Eric Mader says:

    Of the slew of articles I’ve read in past weeks on the campus protests now rocking US universities, this one is easily the best. Your decision to go directly to the concept of a “safe space” and unpack it in the clear light of the real world is spot on. You manage to underline what’s most wrong with this concept and the way it’s being used by our student activists–namely, that it is utopian; and that besides being utopian, and thus unworkable, it doesn’t foster strength in anyone.

    Movements that allow utopian pipe dreams to inform their demands usually end badly, if not for the whole society, as sometimes happens, then certainly for the pipe-dreamers themselves. Because these latter will eventually bump head-on into reality, and they won’t be ready for its refusal to conform to their ideological demands.

    I also like your careful parsing out of what should and should not be actionable offenses in a university environment. That we are in a climate where “microaggression” can even gain traction as a concept shows how messed-up these students’ priorities have become. Much of what counts for what these kids call “microaggression” is little more than honest attempts at communication–at beginning the process of engagement with someone from a different community or culture. Activists’ use of this concept shows an almost anti-human presumptuousness. It is sad.

    Wisdom and peace are found where people learn to stand humble and curious in the presence of the other. Humble because, faced with the other, we’re faced with a being created in God’s image. Curious because this other, whoever he or she may be, has an experience different from ours, lives in a world shaped differently from ours. Curious because, if we have our wits about us, he or she can teach us much that will deepen our grasp of the world.

    In America, certainly, many millions of members of the majority white culture are guilty of not cultivating such humility. They’re guilty of a lack of empathy and real curiosity. They assume their culture and race are the default position from which to assess all others. But getting beyond such “default” thinking is an enormous task, in any culture or community, because all people everywhere start from where they are; it’s the normal human approach to difference. If it is to be gotten beyond, it will be through contact and open exchange, not closing off of “safe spaces” where comments like “Where are you from?” are seen as aggression.

    The activists’ apparent belief that they can make any public space “safe” by simply censoring everything that doesn’t conform to their narrative is not going to help them address the real problems. And their assumption that their narrative is always right, that it is flawless simply because they have woven it, is intellectually naive and ultimately just as arrogant as any other supremacism.

    I think your essay also deserves to be read because of its wise words on strength and how one can gain resilience and joy in a contradictory world. I’m a white American, from a whitebread Midwestern background, but indeed: the more I learn, the more impressed I am by the resilience and joy of black American culture. Such grace under such pressure. And I’ve learned not nearly enough.

    Being from a Comparative Literature background, I know where this shrill student dogmatism is coming from. It’s a belated product of figures like Herbert Marcuse and the radicals of the ‘60s French left. But although some of these theorists shed light on culture and its dynamics, there’s little grace to be found in applying their insights dogmatically. Which is another reason it’s so sad to see so many students, and their professors besides, falling prey to it.

    Hope you keep writing. I’m going to share your article with others. And God bless.

    • Tiffany B says:

      I think you’re right about the roots of some of this ideology. Unfortunately, from what I’ve witnessed over the past few years on college campuses the idea of “intersectionalities” and all oppression coming from a single white-male source has brought us to the point where it’s nearly impossible for people to separate and judge issues. Microaggressions = racism = sexual assault = transphobia = poverty = anti-immigration etc. etc. There’s very little room now for nuance or selective agreement, it’s all or nothing. Apparently, it gets worse than Yale:

      This was beautiful: “Wisdom and peace are found where people learn to stand humble and curious in the presence of the other. Humble because, faced with the other, we’re faced with a being created in God’s image. Curious because this other, whoever he or she may be, has an experience different from ours, lives in a world shaped differently from ours. Curious because, if we have our wits about us, he or she can teach us much that will deepen our grasp of the world.”

      • Eric Mader says:

        Many thanks for the good word, Tiffany.

        Again what you write about “intersectionalities” as part of the students’ intellectual grounding only further underlines the degree to which this movement is mere utopianism. These intersectionalities conveniently make all grievances part of one huge amorphous Wrong inflicted on the students by, yes, one huge amorphous Enemy that, surprise, always wears a white male face. Never mind that a petite Asian heiress can be just as brutal in managing her sweatshops as any white male; never mind that the female student from Jordan virtually shudders in revulsion in the presence of gay men; never mind that the black male activist still thinks women should know their place–all this is irrelevant because the Enemy is clear.

        These students, in one huge movement of Overthrow, must permanently shut up all the legal, intellectual, institutional, and religious norms of that evil Western world which, come to think of it, made possible their universities and even their very sense of inalienable rights. It’s utopianism through and through. And these university administrations are craven not to stand up to it.

  2. Andrew C. says:

    Very well written, Tiffany. Thanks so much for adding this to the conversation — you brought up thoughts about safe spaces that I haven’t considered before.

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