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Friday, June 10, 2016

Political correctness as a revival of etiquette

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a short talk at my advisor's book event in DC about the parallels between the recent speech-related demands from campus and online activists and the prewar rules governing social etiquette that the left had worked to subvert because they were hierarchical, artificial, constraining. Since then, I've come across two similar versions of this argument, from James Bowman and from Damon Linker. Linker writes about something I've been considering for a couple of years, since the Title IX controversy began:
Understood in this wider sense, we've been living through an extended libertarian moment since the early 1960s. Moral libertarianism presumes that no authority — political, legal, or religious — is competent to pronounce judgment on an individual’s decisions, provided that they don’t negatively effect other people. Thanks to this assumption, a grand edifice of inherited moral and legal strictures on sexuality have crumbled over the past half century, leaving individuals free to live and love as they wish, as long as everyone involved gives their consent.
Religiously traditionalist conservatives have rejected moral libertarianism from the beginning, while losing just about every political and legal battle over its spread. But left-wing dissent has been selective and sporadic...That may be starting to change.
Now, Linker overlooks the ways that the right has also appealed to so-called "moral libertarianism" during the past 50 years. What he's calling moral libertarianism is actually the principle of liberal neutrality, amenable to all partisans precisely because it transforms partisan demands into neutral rights. So, for example, in the 1970s and '80s, one argument for the legalization of homeschooling was that parents have a right to educate their children as they see fit, provided that they do not harm them or anyone else. Although this argument was advanced mainly by "religiously traditionalist conservatives," it was framed in a way that applies to anyone who wants to homeschool his children for any reason.

One of the most significant morally libertarian principles of this period has been the popular view of free speech. That view goes beyond what even the First Amendment permits, although First Amendment jurisprudence since the '60s has also expanded the limits of free speech. But I think the popular view is that speech should not only have no legal limitation, but that even moral or social sanctions are suspect. People shouldn't lose their jobs or even their friends just for expressing their opinions, especially their political opinions. Of course, this hardly reflects reality, where people are socially sanctioned for being disagreeable all the time, but it's a not uncommon aspiration. And it reflects a neutral or morally libertarian view of speech, even though everyone who holds it preferentially applies it to his own fellow-partisans. But, since it's pretty obvious why "free speech for my side only" is not sustainable, even partisans frame freedom of speech as a neutral right: the "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" principle.

Linker is down on moral libertarianism when it comes to sex, but I suspect he's more content with it in the realm of speech. But he's right that the moral-libertarian consensus, embattled as it may always have been, is starting to break down in every realm. In some cases - the pornography with which Linker is concerned, for example - breakdown will mean a change in the laws. But in others, it must mean a change in - or, more accurately, a revival of - manners. These manners, as both Linker and Bowman point out, are a distinctly "progressive" attempt at etiquette, but they're not in purpose and sometimes even in substance all that different from the etiquette that moral libertaranism overthrew. Before, for example, men had to avoid vulgarity and displays of sexual aggression around women, and now, men must...do exactly the same thing. Before, this was to defend women against offense. Now, it's to defend women against offense as part of a vague strategy to liberate everyone from gender sometime in the distant future.

Of course, you could easily point out that since conservatives love manners, they should cheer all these speech demands made by social justice activists, and form a strategic alliance like the one between the anti-porn feminists and the socially-conservative right in the '80s. Perhaps. But as Bowman points out, there is another axis to consider here that runs perpendicular to the left/right opposition, which is the many/few opposition. Manners are inherently exclusive; they always preserve a division between mass and elites.
Social elites have always defined themselves—and justified their elite status—by their manners. I think we must have forgotten this since the word “uncouth” became, well, uncouth. Originally meaning “unknown” or “unknowing,” the word was in common use by the eighteenth century to indicate someone who was unfamiliar with the manners of what was once called “polite” society...The manners of the postwar American elite do not admit of any such overt exclusions, which are now seen as wrong and undemocratic. But the elite would not be an elite if it did not retain some means of excluding the uncouth—something that it has accomplished in our time by turning its manners into morals. 
This is what so-called “political correctness” is all about. Now we are meant to show our fitness for membership in the elite by knowing that you must refer to “people of color” but never, ever “colored people,” a locution which, dating from the benighted past, is deemed to be racist and offensive... But the dictionaries would not be doing their job if they did not warn you off committing such social faux pas as these and others with the discreet notation: “Considered offensive.” 
Offensive, you may wonder, to whom? Not necessarily to the members of those minorities towards whose feelings the dictionaries have become ostensibly solicitous. You may be sure that The Washington Post’s recent discovery that the term “redskin” is not considered offensive by 90 percent of the American Indians it surveyed will not be taken into account the next time the dictionaries are revised. That is because the feelings that matter are not those of the minorities alleged to be offended but those of the elite who have moralized our linguistic manners so as to be able to exclude the unwanted and the uncouth—that is, those who do not signal their fitness for inclusion in it by adopting the elite’s vocabulary. Lacking the means of excluding such people merely on social or aesthetic grounds, the elite must turn the social and aesthetic into the just and ethical so as to be able to exclude them on moral grounds.
Because they're elitist and exclusive, manners - progressive as well as traditional - are anti-democratic and run counter to the populism of both the left and the right. Bowman thinks the main challenge to the elitist progressive effort to revive a moral code of conduct is conservative populist opposition (or just Trump, our great savior). I'm not sure. Why wouldn't the deep tension within progressivism between populism and elitism, the effort to reconcile these into an inclusive and egalitarian code of conduct that will continually result in exclusions, issue in a more thorough demise?

Another plausible, completely different explanation for all this is David Brooks's account of "shame culture."

Friday, June 03, 2016

Marks of adulthood

In the years just after I finished college, when I was working full time and living in DC, I was very concerned with the question, "Am I an adult now?" I very badly wanted to answer in the affirmative and worked hard to make it so, but when so many other people your age are still behaving like children, it's difficult to distinguish yourself as invisibly more mature. So I was always wondering when I would reach a point where my adulthood would be incontrovertible. Then I went to grad school, where the adulthood project had to be aborted as a matter of necessity.

But now, it is a lot easier to see the marks of adulthood. For example, I am drinking a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Ever since I started drinking coffee in college, I used to wonder at decaf coffee drinkers - for why? Coffee doesn't actually taste good; it's essentially a low-grade productivity drug to help you read more books and write more words, faster. Drinking decaf coffee is like taking placebo aspirin for a headache.

But now I see things differently. It's like the hat/elephant drawing in The Little Prince. Children are defined as those who see the elephant in the gullet of a boa, adults as those who see a hat. Neither can satisfactorily explain their perspective to the other.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Love and Friendship

We went to see this, and it was very enjoyable, but I still think Whit Stillman is adrift. His first four movies were all commentaries on and against contemporary manners, and in this sense they had a purpose and an argument. But everyone (except me) hated Damsels in Distress, because they dismissed his apparently whimsical argument about the importance of dancing for social life and for bringing the young together in an innocent but auspicious way, and his complaint that we've failed to create a suitable substitute for it, to the detriment of the social lives of the young. (Notably, he made exactly the same argument Last Days of Disco, and no one was contemptuous of it then. I suppose it was more subtle there, but not that subtle, given that Josh has at least two monologues about the importance of disco for his generation.) But I think that, in the first place, Stillman is serious about this argument, and in the second, he's right, even though I am a terrible dancer and doubt that I would've personally benefited from a youth culture to which social dancing was central.

Anyway, it seems like the poor reception of Damsels unmoored Stillman. First, there was the Amazon TV pilot that went nowhere, though according to his Twitter, it's not dead and Amazon is just waiting for him to actually write the rest. Now, there is Love and Friendship, which is very clever and witty, but doesn't have any clear point. Or the point is just that Whit Stillman loves Jane Austen and wants everyone to know it, and he demonstrates his love by filling out one of her unfinished novels instead of adapting Austen's style and intentions to the social world of the present, as he had been doing before.

The filling is mostly good, with some dialogue that seems anachronistic (for example, at some point, one of the characters refers to a relationship "dynamic" - probably not an eighteenth-century usage), but there's something a little narrow and academic about the project. It doesn't have a broader argument or any real connection to the present. There is a kind of Machiavellian moral (or anti-moral) point within the story, that those who are always abuse friendship probably should not rely on the sincerity of their friends, and the manipulators are the ones who least expect (and so are most likely) to be manipulated themselves. There are worse things to make than a clever fable in period costume, but also better things, like Stillman's other movies.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Yes, this is the first time I've read Dostoevsky, even though when I was college, it seemed like everyone was taking a class on one or another of his books every quarter and then writing a thesis on him. I kept my distance from all that, just as I kept my distance from the Jane Austen enthusiasm, only to discover soon after college that Austen was in fact as good as the enthusiasts claimed. So sometimes Miss Self-Important is wrong, or too quick to dismiss. When I happened upon this old Commentary article by Gary Saul Morson a few weeks ago, I decided now was the time to be wrong about Dostoevsky. And I was, but not as much.

Here's the thing: Austen is for young women. Not exclusively, since no excellent novelist is so narrow, but I suspect that the greatest direct pleasure and edification to be gotten from her major novels will occur between the ages of 18 and 28. After that, you can still appreciate the wit, craft, morals, and aesthetics, but it no longer has immediate application to your life. (Come at me, geezers!) So Austen's popularity among college students is fitting. But what about Dostoevsky? Who is Dostoevsky for?*

Here is who Dostoevsky is not for: mothers. No one among his collegiate enthusiasts mentioned to me that Dostoevsky assiduously collected lurid stories of child abuse because they tested the limits of Christian faith, and he put this collection to use in his novels. Another thing no one mentioned to me is that after you have a baby, your capacity to read about little children suffering, especially at the hands of adults, falls precipitously. And moreover, the treatment of children in literature (or movies, or any representation) becomes disproportionately memorable. I think this is what is meant by "faint-hearted," which it is very uncool to be because it impinges on one's sense of detachment and irony, but which is a deficiency that can apparently be acquired in mid-life after many years of impeccable detachment and irony. No one mentioned any of this to me, but now I am mentioning it to you. So even though this was a great book in some cosmic sense, I think the main thing I will remember is the one not particularly important line from Ivan's Grand Inquisitor speech about a Turk tickling a baby to make him laugh and then shooting him. I will not quote it here, in the unlikely case that you too happen to suffer from the defect of faint-heartedness.

The book is about other things, like the Russian obsession with the decay of the aristocratic order with its nobility of character (of both the actual nobles and the peasants, for we must not forget the subtly-named peasant Platon in War and Peace) into cold, bureaucratic stupidity on one hand, and boiling, revolutionary stupidity on the other. And Christianity.

Maybe someday, once I've re-hardened my heart, I'll go back to the Grand Inquisitor passage because it was important to Arendt, and the book will work on me more effectively. But for now, all you get is this half-hearted post and no further interest in reading Dostoevsky.

*I don't mean to leave this hanging as some great unknown. It's pretty easy to answer. Dostoevsky is for young men alienated from modernity having a theological-political crisis. So, young men who read books.

Monday, May 16, 2016

High school impostors

Two new, bizarre stories in my favorite genre, one involving an old guy masquerading as a high school student, the other a high school student masquerading as an old guy. The fake doctor story is funny, but ultimately there isn't really anything so shocking about a kid pretending to be an adult with a good adult job. It's fraud, sure, but it suggests that society is working ok, instilling sufficient and even overweaning desire in the young to grow up and be respectable. But Miss Self-Important does love this defense of the kid, advanced by his father:
“He’s not out doing drugs, he’s not out trying to rob nobody,” Robinson said. “He’s trying to do something constructive, and if he did do something and the paperwork wasn’t right — he can get ahead of himself sometimes and he may have been trying too hard, but he had good intentions.”
The old guy who posed as a high school and also as a fake teenaged son to an actual married couple though, that one is much weirder, but it's hard to know from the reporting which parts of this scheme were his idea and which were his "parents'," and what the goal of the charade was. Was it just the most bizarre way to stay in the US illegally that anyone has come up with, or was there some other motive? The article has him playing the clueless foreigner card, so who knows. But since both of these stunts have already occurred in film (recall the great Drew Barrymore vehicle, Never Been Kissed) there isn't even anything ultimately original about even the old guy's weirdness. We can thank Drew Barrymore for her culturally pioneering work normalizing creepy old guy impostordom.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Notes on baby sleep

1. When strangers strike up conversation with me about the baby (the sharp increase in unsolicited stranger interactions is an additional benefit of having a baby), the order of their questions is invariably: what's her name, how old is she, how's she sleeping? I know baby sleep is a fraught topic, but how could strangers have any real interest in my baby's sleep patterns? I have no interest in anyone else's sleep patterns, not even my friends' (sorry). I oblige them with a response (pretty well), but the prevalence of the question continues to puzzle.

2. I actually don't know if Goomba is sleeping pretty well. I only know that she sleeps the requisite number of hours per day that the baby books suggest. But I also think the baby books are full of lies about sleep training. They're all like, "Just toss your kid in the crib and shut the door and plug your ears. Don't worry, she won't cry for more than 40 minutes! And she'll sleep through the night (except for the 90% chance that she'll wake up at midnight to eat). And within three days, you won't even hear a peep out of her when you put her down. She will practically be begging for naps! She will learn to talk just so she can say, 'May I please be put to bed now, Mother?' It's gonna be great!" This is a lie. It is true that Goomba has never cried for more than 40 minutes and that she sleeps for many hours after crying. But it is not true that she doesn't cry. "Sleep training" is a false advertisement. There is (eventual) sleep, yes, but no training. Or, at least the baby is not the one being trained. If anything, it trains parents to withstand willful baby crying and to enforce baby sleep. Which is fine if it's all that can realistically be achieved with a pre-rational creature whose driving passion in life is to be held all the time, but the sleep-training gurus should just admit that. When you read further into the books, there are some disclaimers about how maybe the magic won't happen quite as quickly as three days, and maybe you just have to keep at it for a while until the child finally achieves protest-free sleep. I suspect that will occur closer to 10 years than three days.

3. Up to about five months, Goomba would fall asleep as if by spontaneous collapse. There was no gradual drifting off like an adult, but instead, normal activity or even howling one minute, unconsciousness the next. This was especially funny in the cases of howling. Now she drifts off, in principle, except she mostly prefers not to sleep at all. I miss the days of spontaneous collapse. It was the cutest thing.

4. Before the instruction to put babies to sleep on their backs became widespread, it was apparently very common to sleep babies on their stomachs. But most babies hate "tummy time" until pretty late into their first year, when they're already rolling and sitting and therefore not stranded like sad, overturned turtles when they're put on their stomachs. How then was it possible that a majority of infants used to be put to sleep on their stomachs from birth? This question has been bugging me for many months.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

The prototypical American adolescent is from Skokie, IL

I re-watched Sixteen Candles the other day and realized for the first time that it takes place in Skokie. The school bus reads, "Maierhofer Bros., Skokie, IL" and one of the geeks wears a Niles East jacket. Indeed, the schools scenes were filmed at Niles East before it was torn down. I knew that many John Hughes movies had been filmed in the north suburbs of Chicago, but I didn't realize that this included specific places in Skokie. I'm sure it's been noted many times before that those movies generated the sort of defining image of American adolescence for at least for the next two decades, if not still today. Adolescence is suburban, middle-class, white, angsty, anti-intellectual, dominated by social cliques and anxiety about sex. Later teen movies tended to be set in vague southern California suburbs, which was probably more convenient given the location of studios, but continued to work from the basic template created by Hughes. It's kind of nice to think that the prototypical American teenager created by Hollywood, who has been so important for the self-understanding of so many actual teenagers*, was not the product of some generic Burbank soundstage, but was instead modeled on the particular inhabitants of, of all places, my home town.

It's at least better than having to identify Skokie as, "the place where the Nazis once had a march that almost became a Supreme Court free speech case," which is how I do it now. Henceforth, I will say, "the place where the epochal film, Sixteen Candles, was filmed."

*I can't exactly say this self-understanding is an especially good one, but since it's bound up with my home and my childhood, strong feelings of partiality prevent me from criticizing it too much. Besides, whatever the shortcomings of Hughes's movies, you must admit at least that Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a piece of comedic brilliance.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

On lullabies, part 2

During further research into "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," a song that Goomba loves even though it denies its narrator's scientific curiosity, I discovered what must be the greatest lullaby of all time: "Ah! Vous dirai-je maman." It shares its melody with "Twinkle, Twinkle," and a number of other children's songs across a surprising number of languages. But the main thing is that the words are brilliant:

Ah! Vous dirai-je maman
Ce qui cause mon tourment?
Papa veut que je raisonne
Comme une grande personne.
Moi je dis que les bonbons
Valent mieux que la raison.

All lullabies should aim at this standard of naivete and irony to depict how children and adults regard one another. 

Friday, April 01, 2016

Pressing questions of our age

Do we think that the Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats song, "S.O.B.," is intended to be a parody of doo-wop and acapella?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

In defense of unsafe spaces

Back in the Golden Age of Blogs, people used to write long posts responding to other posts on other blogs instead of posting their objections in a medium that makes anything over 50 words look like the infinite crazed rambling of a certified crank, or just clicking a like button that means anything from "I totally agree with all your words" to "I am glad that you exist and compose words, though I have not bothered to read any of them." Remember when online discourse was somewhat less groupthink-inducing? Yes, good times. For a brief moment, I would like to take us back to those halcyon days to respond lengthily to Jacob Levy's blog post/lecture in defense of safe spaces. Ironically, this throwback to old blogging norms recalls the way that the Golden Age of Blogs was an unsafe space in the sense of being all dispute all the time, embodied of course in the classic cartoon justification for staying up until 3 am to do it: Someone is wrong on the internet!

I think Jacob is wrong on the internet. Not totally wrong, but interestingly wrong, since I agree with his basic premises about the nature of associations and their limitations on free speech, but not with his conclusions. Jacob's defense of safe spaces rests on two different analogies:

The first is that universities are not simply small-scale replicas of the state governed by all the same rules (in particular, by the same application of the First Amendment), but rather complex associations with their own purpose and rules. Within the larger association of the university are smaller associations, including departments and student associations, that are perfectly within their rights to exclude individuals who do not want to pursue their purposes, or do not want to pursue them in the same way. They can argue with these objectors and defend their purposes and means, but they're not obligated to argue endlessly, and at some point can just turn their backs and demand to be left alone to pursue their purposes. Because of their ability to exclude those who do not share their collective goals, these associations are in effect safe spaces for their goal-sharing members.

This is pretty much the position that Northwestern's president advances when he characterizes Hillel as a safe space for Jews. Whereas formerly, we would say Hillel is the Jewish student organization, this argument re-describes it as the Jewish safe space in order to show that recent student demands for safe spaces are actually just requests for something that already widely exists and that we all accept the free-association rationale for anyway. In addition to student orgs, Jacob re-describes the entities we previous understood to be political science departments as political science safe spaces - places where chemists don't invade to call political science a not-science. Yet, if it's the case that student associations already were safe spaces, then why would students just now begin to demand safe spaces? There already are dozens of student affinity groups at every school, and no one is challenging their legitimacy. (Well, this is not quite true - in fact, the rights of some student groups to exclude are very much under dispute, but not the rights of the minority groups primarily at issue here.*) At the same time, why are faculty not requesting that their departments be re-described this way?

The second analogy, connected to the way that departments and disciplines can be seen as safe spaces for particular approaches to inquiry, is to the way that scholars require a respite from constant methodological dispute in order to get their work done. Students are just like scholars in their need for breaks from ceaseless dispute during which to work. Ergo, they need safe spaces, understood as spaces free of dispute.

Jacob's primary example of the defensibility of safe spaces is the case of the Yale student who told the resident master of her dorm, “I don’t want a debate; I want a safe space.” Unfortunately, this demand is one of the vaguest available. Let's assume Jacob's parsing of her comment is right and
she was saying was not “I want all of Yale to be an environment in which my feeling are protected.” She was not saying “I don’t want there to be debates at Yale.” She was saying “this place, this residential college, this dorm that you are the faculty member associated with, this needs to be a place where I can go catch my breath.” 
But here, the first analogy breaks down. A dorm is not an association like Hillel or a Black Students Association. Its purpose is to provide room and board for a number of randomly selected students who, prima facie, have no shared purpose beyond a desire to sleep indoors at night. So long as you are a student who shares that purpose, you can't in principle be excluded from a dorm for your other interests or views. At least, not any more than a Jewish carnivore should be excluded from Hillel because other members, even a majority of other members, are vegetarians. What would it mean for an association like a dorm to become a dispute-free zone? It's fine to insist that other students can't barrel down this girl's door at any hour of day and demand a discussion of Halloween costume appropriateness. Her room is a kind of safe space insofar as she always has a right to exclude people from it. But dorms also have physical common spaces and digital common spaces like list-servs. Should those be dispute-free as well so that students can use the whole dorm to catch their breath and have their feelings protected? Given that dorms are not simply student-run voluntary associations, how would that kind of mandate be enforced, and by whom?

The second analogy, of student safe spaces to scholarly breaks from arguing to get work done also faces difficulties. In the Yale case, Jacob claims it applies as follows:
At a large majority white institution like Yale, it can be the case that from the perspective of any given white student saying “well I think everyone should be admitted to university on their own merit and we should abolish affirmative action.” That’s the first time they’ve every had that conversation and they’re really into it. It is never the case at a large majority white institution like Yale that for any given African American student it’s the first time they’ve heard it. And when the African American students say “we want a moment in our day, we want a space on the campus where we can step back”. They aren’t saying “we want to shut down debate on campus.” They’re saying something that is perfectly within everyone’s range of reasonable emotional and psychological needs: “Stop boring me with this argument about whether I belong here or not, I have work to do.”
On this argument, safe spaces seem to exist to facilitate student productivity. But what scholars actually do when they take a break from methodological dispute is not to go somewhere where criticism is formally prohibited, but to temporarily tune it out. The entire time that I was writing my dissertation, other people were criticizing every aspect of it - the relevance of the texts I was using, the relevance of using texts at all, of political theory as a subfield, of political science as a discipline, etc. This included people in my own department. At no point could I force these critics into silence, but I could ignore them while I worked. Yet if that's all that a safe space is, then it's just an individual capacity to focus, and it needs no external enforcement. My department never had to proscribe certain topics from discussion in the grad lounge or ban written criticism of competing methodologies or designate certain spaces within the department "safe" for theory or statistics in order for us to do our work. In the dorm example, the analogy to scholarship would mean that students and administrators can talk about whatever they want over the house listserv, and any student can choose to ignore every word of it and focus on his work instead.

The reason this solution doesn't satisfy students is because what they want from "safe spaces" is not analogous to what scholars want or need in order to get their research done. They don't want a break from dispute, like a nap or quiet office, so that they can be individually productive.**  Infinite opportunities for such breaks already exist, and there is no epidemic of students accosting one another in libraries or at yoga classes or on the quad and demanding a debate about affirmative action here and now, so it's not clear why designated safe spaces are necessary to protect these already-plentiful opportunities for respite and recharge. That's also why we never hear about faculty requesting safe spaces where they can be free from, say, exposure to quantitative methods. If you want to be free from quantitative methods, you just avoid the methods workshop, which leaves the rest of campus a safe space. You don't need to officially designate a room next to the methods workshop a safe space from methods, where presumably no one is permitted to express a positive view of statistics. Breaks from dispute are individuated things we can all take all the time. They aren't safe spaces and don't require recognition as such.

When students ask for safe spaces, they tend to ask for official recognition from the university for some particular, usually political and controversial, view or position, and the official exclusion of objections to that position. In the Brown case above, for example, the safe space is a place where there will be discussion of rape but everyone must accept rape culture as real. In the Yale case, the request was (maybe?) that the dorm be a place where we can talk about what to wear for Halloween, but no one is allowed to defend wearing something deemed by another student to be cultural appropriation. In this respect, a safe space is somewhat more like a Hillel than it is like a scholarly break from argument, but even so, the analogy is incomplete. Hillel requires its members to be broadly sympathetic to Judaism, but it's otherwise ecumenical and requires no other commitments for participation. You don't even have to be Jewish. There are actually very few student groups whose membership is tied to holding one particular political position and being prohibited from voicing any other, because such groups lack broad appeal and because people are generally loathe to join groups that define themselves primarily by what members can't say or believe.

But if a safe space is just a request for ad hoc associative privileges by just such a group of monomaniacs - we the Rape Culture Believers of Brown want to reserve a room for our use tomorrow, or we the Yale Anti-Cultural Appropriation in Halloween Costumes Committee want to meet in the dorm tomorrow - then under certain circumstances, we can assimilate safe spaces to existing associative liberties, as Jacob claims. We might wonder though why these sorts of groups get to circumvent the usual process of organizing and receiving recognition as an official student group. We might also wonder if these same associative liberties could be applied in the other direction: if, for example, an equally monomaniacal group of students at Brown wanted official sanction to meet and discuss the arguments against the existence of rape culture in a context where no contrary views were permitted. Would that also be a legitimate use of associative rights to create safe spaces?

More to the point for free-speech critics of safe spaces though, do any of these associative principles apply to dormitories, classrooms, newspaper editorial pages, and other "spaces" open in principle to anyone who is a member of the university as a whole? Here I think not. These may not be spaces where full First Amendment protections apply (ie, although there are no legal consequences for plagiarizing an op-ed or launching an ad hominem attack on a fellow student in class, these acts may well merit sanction from the university). But they are places where I can't think of any reason that particular political arguments or positions must be pre-emptively proscribed in order to sustain the purpose of the association or the university.


* I do wonder what Jacob thinks about these sorts of limitations on free association. It's fine to say that universities need not be completely neutral about the purposes of associations formed within them. They need not tolerate a student chapter of the KKK. But if associative liberties are fundamental to complex associations like the university, should we be especially concerned to preserve them where we can, as in the case of single-sex social (really, party) associations?

** Jacob frames his argument about safe spaces largely in terms of productivity and distraction or annoyance, but the students themselves tend to frame them in terms of trauma and security. Such framing is also one of the primary objections to safe spaces: critics argue that controversial student speech does not actually threaten anyone's safety. I'd be curious what Jacob thinks about the rhetoric of safety and trauma invoked in conjunction with the demand for safe spaces. I think it shifts the issue quite a bit, as in the safety from exposure to quant methods parallel I draw above.

UPDATE: And then I checked my RSS feed and discovered that Megan McArdle had posted many similar objections five minutes before me. Golden Age of Blogs!