Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Post On Safe Spaces

I’ve made some jokes about this on Twitter, but while he’ll likely lose in November, the whole Trump phenomenon is clearly having a big impact. Trump of course makes stuff as he goes along, and just lies and much as it suits him at any given moment, but one of the issues raised by this particularly terrible stress test of American democracy and our institutions has been the fights over “safe spaces” and “political correctness” at colleges and universities.

I’m going to be adult and assume you know a bit what I’m talking about here. But if you need a refresher there’s been a push at colleges to adopt new guidelines on how a number of controversial issues are read and discussed. It’s a complex reality; seriously, go read about it on your own.

Trump’s bombast aside, this isn’t that much of a new topic. Back in 2015 Jonathan Chait wrote a piece at New York magazine entitled “Not A Very PC Thing To Say” that basically blew up liberal twitter/blog world. In fact it could be fairly called one of the biggest news magazine articles of 2015, at least in terms of how much journalists and writers talked about it.

Lots of people went crazy and attacked Chait, and Chait loving a fight, took them up on it. Here’s a classic one of Chait’s “fuck you too!” old school rebuttals to the original fight that links to all sorts of other pieces linking to all sorts of other pieces about the whole big thing. It was a lot of fun, at least for me, but it also involved a lot obscure developments at colleges that get blown way out of proportion, and the whole brawl won’t exactly fix anything.

So maybe we can talk about other things?

Haha no, now that the whole thing is in Trump’s hands we’ll never hear the end of it. And so fights about “PC” and “Safe Spaces” (or is it “safe spaces” or safe places?) and “trigger warnings” and all the parts of an emerging liberal/left political movement on campuses and the internet are once again front and center. Accordingly the University of Chicago decided to announce how the whole freaking University will not be party to stuff like safe spaces and trigger warnings. And people were outraged, and so Chait wrote about it again.

Personally I think all the fighting has really obscured the important issues, at least how it relates to education. I’m not an educator but I think Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette, summed up the really important points in a past blog post on the whole trigger warning issue. Azari basically argued that education in a college class room is largely based on three main considerations. Which I think could be sort of fairly summed up as:

  1.  “Students have profound and important knowledge about their own experiences.” And this needs to be respected.
  2. At the same though instructors need to be able to push their students with challenging (perhaps even offensive or scary ideas about complex subjects) because, “The contention behind a liberal arts education is that understanding them [complicated subjects] can help us improve the world we live in. This requires acknowledging the expertise of the faculty, especially where difficult topics are concerned.”
  3. But finally, “Some students may not wish to share their experiences. The rights of students to have control over what they share about themselves is an important one, especially if we take seriously the concept of feeling “safe.” Feeling safe doesn’t mean that you never have your beliefs challenged, but it does mean that you don’t feel exposed or threatened.”
And thus:
The trigger warning debate ultimately amounts to a series of attempts to come up with one-size-fits-all rules for drawing boundaries between these three considerations. That, I think, is where the real transgression against education occurs. The purpose of all of this should be to help students navigate these kinds of boundaries – situations in which conflicting considerations apply – not to create an artificial environment that keeps such conflicts from popping up. Education occurs in these spaces – not in spite of them. The ability to reconcile competing perspectives and to look at problems in original and non-obvious ways are among the most important goals of a liberal arts education
I think this is totally right. And in my opinion the fight over trigger warnings and safe spaces largely amounts to a proxy fight that’s really about political values surrounding the agenda of liberalism and leftier politics. In other words Chait is right about the changing nature of more lefty strains of politics that has emerged during the Obama years, but it’s a bit much to claim that this sorts of campus silliness is some sort of dire threat to freedom of speech or liberalism itself, even if sometimes these things conflict with traditional liberal ideals.

But the fact that Chait really stretches his argument at time (while also making some important points) hardly means that writers like Vox’s German Lopez, writing in opposition to the whole safe space fight know the best way to run a modern university. As Lopez put it, “If I, as a gay man, want to meet other guys and talk to other guys about guys without the fear of bigotry, it would be nonsensical to go to a straight bar. A gay bar is obviously a better, safer place for that.” Well sure, this is a perfectly reasonable point. But it doesn’t address the fact that many students who go to colleges other than Oberlin might not feel comfortable voicing their opinions after, oh I don’t know, the The New York Times writes a whole story (with classmate interviews!) about what a spoiled hideous monster some Princeton undergrad was for not doing the whole “privilege checking” thing. 

You’re millage may very on the Chaitwars, but I’d like to broaden the conversation some.

The whole idea of safe places as it’s used in my experience is that it’s a term used in coalition politics. That is to say, the saying “this is a safe place” is used in a political coalition meeting not to mean “this is a supportive environment” or “you can share your experiences here” or that sort of thing. Rather the entire idea was about it being a place for honesty.

I’ve written before about how coalition politics is defined by pain, but I’d also argue it’s defined by danger. People bring a lot stuff to a political coalition they join, whether that’s their organization’s own long term goals; or their unique set of values; or personal beefs from past fights; or a particular worldview; or organizational or personal ambitions; or the fact that they are actually a pretty vicious and terrible person no matter how much they preach liberal or lefty values. Thus people and organizations in coalitions are often guarded about what they say or don’t say, or promise or don’t promise during any particular meeting or discussion.

But paradoxically (a bit like Azari’s points about educational considerations being in tension) there often exists in political coalitions the possibility that fights will happen at any moment. It could be a fight over protocol; or a logistical problem; or language and messaging; or long term strategic vision; or in the liberal circles I work in the dreaded Oppression Olympics.

Yes it is real, and yes it is as bad as you’ve heard.

The upshot of this is that a lot of coalition politics can exist in a weird sort of limbo where people are very guarded about what they say. While at the same time the possibility of some disagreement escalating or some long building fight coming to the fore is also there. The great British political comedy The Thick Of It captured this reality nicely in there “I’m Doctor Know” scene (trigger warning about the language in that clip.)

As someone who's worked in politics and the environmental movement I’ve seen this thing first hand. Once I was at a big summit type thing which had making environmentalism a more racially diverse place as one of its big overarching goals. It makes sense, changing demographics means our incredibly white movement needs to expand to stay relevant, communities of color disproportionately feel the impact of environmental degradation, and there’s the whole moral dimension as well. So yes it all made sense, but that didn’t stop the issues I highlighted above from making themselves very much felt.

During one of the break out session I was at a white person gave an excellent presentation on their group’s success at building bipartisan coalitions, often times with pretty conservative Republicans, at the state and local level in their environmental work in the interior west. When the Q and A part started the moderator suggested that we ask more pointed questions than usual, and reminded us we were in (you guessed it) a safe place. A middle aged Latino man rose to the challenge and asked a very pointed question which went something like this:
“You ask us to work with Republican politicians and I understand that. But you have to understand, that in my community, if you work with, or associate with the politicians that keeping talking about deportation, about people being illegal…well then you will get nowhere. And no one will even be willing to talk with you, because of what those people are saying about our families.”  
It was an excellent point that really pointed out a major failing of my movement. And I’m a white person who doesn’t know that many Latino environmentalists, but I feel like a lot of them out there in the real world  would have after reading this have wanted to give that fellow a round of applause.

The white person rose and gave a great rebuttal which went something like this:
“I understand what you’re saying, and you have every right to say it. But if you’re asking me to try and do my job, in my part of the country, without working with Republicans, well I honestly have no idea how to do that job. And I don’t think there would even be a job to do if I tried that.”

Nothing was solved in this break out. Both people were right in their own way. While aligning yourself with (white) conservative hunters, ranchers, and anglers who want to stop conservatives from privatizing the national parks or paving over Lake Tahoe gives you a lot more political strength in the Interior West, it will also close doors to other communities (in the west and the rest of the country) in the long term. But you try organizing in Utah or Arizona by solely talking to liberals and racial minorities and see how far that gets you at the state legislature or at the local county board. And yes the focus on aligning the environmental movement with the Democratic Party hasn’t been very successful in huge parts of the country where the Dems aren’t exactly in the majority, so maybe we need to try more flexible tactics in, well I don’t know, Wyoming?

I don’t have a solution to any of these problems I’ve outlined above. Nor do I have a good idea how to structure a legal seminar about sexual violence, or write a syllabus about The Crusades, or teach a class on the history of race in America. But I do think that both sides of the trigger warning/safe space wars could use a little more honesty I talked about when they try to address these issues.

Or at least acknowledge that some problems don’t have easy solutions, and there is no magical guide book on how to make the world a better place.