I recently came across a YouTube video of an administrator at Ohio State using the notion of a safe space to end a student protest. Whether the student’s cause is righteous or not isn’t what interests me. Even if the students are right and administration is wrong, trying to remove students who have occupied a building is simply how the game is played.
What does interest me is the administrator’s approach. He’s authoritative but not authoritarian. He’s respectful but not deferential. He’s straightforward but not patronizing.
And he gives the students a choice. He doesn’t call the police to remove them. Instead, he tells them that he plans to call the police in a half hour, and they have the choice of leaving or staying to be arrested. This gives both students and administrators shared power and shared responsibility.
Moreover, he turns the notion of a safe spaces back on the students. The desire for places free from racial and sexual slurs, where stereotypes are not perpetuated, and where women and minorities have an equal voice without reprisal, has morphed into a demand for spaces where conservative or even moderate opinions are banned, where critical thinking is seen as a threat, and where progressive opinions are subjected to purity tests.
The New York Times even described a safe space at Brown University that featured “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.” Though an extreme and unusual example, it illustrates how safe spaces can devolve into infantilization.
That certain people are delicate flowers who need a trigger warning even for mundane phrases such as “violates the law,” and need to be protected from any viewpoint that is not in alignment with their own, is a perfect illustration of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
There’s also a narcissistic aspect to safe spaces. The expectation that the world will conform to my desires fails to recognize that other people have competing desires. If it’s all about me then I’m not thinking about how my behavior affects others.
The administrator in this video takes the demand for safe spaces to its logical conclusion. If students don’t want other people to make them feel unsafe then students also have a responsibility not to make others feel unsafe.
In the Atlantic, however, Conor Friedersdorf writes, “I’ve never heard of even one case of a college staff member or administrator coming away with even a scratch.” And he’s right. Administrators were in no danger. It would be fatuous if they thought they were. Really, there’s no good reason why students can’t occupy administrative buildings in protest.
But that’s not the point. The idea of a safe space has gone from a reasonable demand for everyone to have an equal voice free from harassment, to the unreasonable demand that students face no challenges to cherished beliefs, and that people walk on eggshells because students can be triggered by almost anything.
If college students want a safe feeling environment then they have a reciprocal responsibility to others (in this case college administrators) to make them feel safe by not infringing on their sensibilities, no matter how small. And that means no more occupying administration buildings or other public places.
If the students find this to be absurd or onerous then it’s their responsibility to reexamine the reasonable limits of safe spaces, and to question their own alleged fragility.