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!


Julia said...

Like. In the sense that I totally agree with all your words.

Miss Self-Important said...


Jacob T. Levy said...

Like, in that I agree with some of them, find all of them interesting, and appreciate both the engagement and the callback to the Golden Age.

educatedwhinge said...

The cultural and educational decline that made these 'safe spaces' debates possible is such that the outcome of the debates doesn't particularly matter.

Miss Self-Important said...

It's been all downhill since they allowed modern languages into the curriculum.