Safe Spaces Are the Opposite of Retreat

(CN: Mild discussion of sexual assault and descriptions of rape apologia.)

I think the most condescending part of the University of Chicago’s letter to students is this: “we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

This fundamentally misunderstands how safe spaces work. Done properly, they are moderated spaces with where certain lines of inquiry are suspended. If you consider the process of moderation, it becomes clear that a doctrine of “all ideas all the time” is woefully unprepared to advance academic freedom. We’ll use sexual assault, but really, this could be a good number of things.

If we want to talk about sexual assault, there are a number of political considerations that must be had. If a survivor shares her story, will people be allowed to challenge her narrative? Survivors face a number of well-rehearsed objections anytime they share their stories. Rape apologia includes, but is far from limited to, asking what she was wearing, suggesting she made it up for attention, suggesting she deserved it, asking if she was drinking, and worrying about the reputation of the assailant (named or unnamed). Survivors know this and often decline to identify themselves is spaces where they will have to fend off these challenges. There are important legal dimensions to some of the proceeding questions, but we know, for example, that accusing a man of sexual assault has approximately 0 prestige associated with it.

When setting the rules for a safe space, the moderators must engage with those ideas. Setting rules that you cannot challenge a survivor’s narrative does not happen in a vacuum, but in response to the overwhelming tendency to try to litigate the specifics of a case until the victim goes silent. Students who join these spaces do so having engaged with these ideas quite thoroughly as well. And teachers who moderate their classrooms with some of these principles in mind have hopefully weighed the consequences of their moderation. At their best, safe spaces are among some of the most engaging and thoughtful forums on a college campus, offering the chance to air ideas that would otherwise be silenced at the expense of retreading dubious common knowledge.

Imagine if in a calculus course a student kept asking if his professor was sure that arithmetic works? Should not 2 and 5 equal 6? Never mind that was covered in other math classes; never mind that there is a wide consensus among experts; never mind that a quick internet search would reveal that under normal definitions, only the fringiest of people think there is something wrong with arithmetic as it is taught by the mathematical elite. Now, imagine if the professor, after several discussions in this line, declared that the room was an “arithmetic space”. If you wanted to participate in class discussions, you had to accept that arithmetic worked. Would she be stifling academic freedom? Retreating from ideas she disagreed with? Or would she be protecting the integrity of the discussion?

This analogy is not perfect; arithmetic is much more straightforward than political discussion. I do think that professors and student groups should err on the side of fostering conversations rather than shutting them down, especially on complex social matters. But not every discussion need go over the tired arguments about how a woman who is inebriated was basically asking to be assaulted, especially to the exclusion of other issues. The test for whether or not our student was disrupting the class had three parts: were there other places he could and should have learned this? Was there a broad consensus? Could the ideas be easily accessed to show this?

Far from retreating from ideas, safe-space creation requires engaging with them. Underneath every rule is consideration about the history and politics of the topic at hand. It requires clear goal-setting for the discussion. Participation too is an enormous intellectual exercise. Participants who cannot fall back on familiar ideas will necessarily have to have new ones. Resistance to short-circuiting lazy argumentation is retreat, but weirdly there is an absence of moral panic and think pieces about that.

Certainly, not every rule is as well-justified, not every decision completely thought through, and not every space is moderated beyond reproach. Can that not be said for other kinds of academic spaces, however? Plenty of “unsafe spaces” have defective rules and terrible moderators! That these problems are considered normal for one kind of moderation and damning for another says more about the politics of those levying the complaints than the moderation itself. My particular bugaboos about safe spaces are the ways they are sometimes foisted on people without consent and that they are sometimes advocated for spaces where they are in fact counterproductive. Again, that happens with unsafe spaces, and again note the absence of think pieces.

Ironically then, it is critics of safe-spaces who consistently refuse to engage with these points, preferring instead to retreat from those ideas by building a strawman. In turn, they refuse to engage in situations where popular but defective arguments are out of bounds. If engagement with ideas really is the heart of academic freedom, I challenge the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago to explain why discussions should not have moderators who consider the consequences of different rules and participants who explore them.

I suspect that he will continue to retreat.


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