I don’t know how I get myself into these arguments with people, but I seem to do it all the time. I just gently walk up to them and say something — anything — and I end up being swallowed into a discussion about politics, science or religion. It’s like sneaking up to an alligator and expecting the outcome to be a good one.
So, the other day, I mentioned to someone that my wife had covered the electrical outlets around the house in order to protect Baby Ren from electrocution. “I kind of wish she hadn’t, though,” I said, jokingly. “I remember exactly when and where I put my fingers in an electrical socket once… Just once. A tripped circuit breaker later, and here I am, knowing now not to stick my fingers into an electrical socket.”
Now, if you know me, you know that I like to joke around. Once in a while, I’ll make a joke about how people die because that’s what people do, but I’m in no way serious about letting people die. (I said this when the H1N1 pandemic was starting, and one dude hasn’t forgiven me for saying it.) But it’s all in jest. I’d never want any harm to come to Baby Ren, or any other baby. And I’d like to think that I’d develop enough sense later in life to not stick my fingers in a socket without the necessity of almost being electrocuted to death.
Well, this one person took me at my word and started railing against “safe spaces” at colleges and universities. “These kids today don’t know how to take criticism. All they want is political correctness and to not have their feelings hurt.” When he said that, I knew we were in for a hearty discussion on the subject.
But you’ll be proud to know that I didn’t go there. Instead, I reframed the discussion to a conversation about how colleges and universities are moving away from a model where the student was there to be taught and learn and more into a model where the student is a customer, and where the customer is always right… In essence, “pay the fee, get the degree” has taken over. Also, everything needs to be done quickly. Get those MPH students in and out in a year, and let the world of Public Health deal with the consequences. That is not really a good thing.
But I digress…
I don’t exactly how safe spaces began, but I do understand why they were started. A college or university is a place where ideas should be freely expressed and debated, even the really ugly ideas that plague a country like the United States. Let’s face it, folks, racism is part of the fabric of this country, and we’re a long way away from fixing it. But one way of starting to fix racism is to discuss ways to fix it. Unfortunately, the ugly idea of racism is one of those ideas discussed and, in some cases, promoted.
That kind of makes people feel uncomfortable. It’s not easy to be told you’re subhuman when you’re of a certain age, finding your position in the world. It’s probably just as difficult to be confused about your sexual identity and have someone tell you that you’re somehow a degenerate because you haven’t decided if you fancy boys or girls. As a result, there is a need for places where students can go have these discussions and know that the discussion will be free of epithets and abuse.
On the other hand of this debate, there are people who complain that safe spaces are making people soft. Like the person I mentioned above, they think that people need to hear the ugly stuff and grow a thick skin and be resilient about it. The thing is that the person in question was speaking from a position of privilege. As a White, heterosexual male with wealth, he probably has not been told in his life that he is subhuman, that he needs to go back to his country, or that his natural actions and feelings are freakish and worthy of eternal damnation.
This is why I re-framed the discussion into something I believed to be troublesome — the changes in academia that lead to unprepared students/customers — and not discuss something that I believe to be necessary in a world where the President of the United States is quick to apply labels and defend Nazis. I came to understand that the discussion would have gone nowhere, and it would have probably caused unnecessary friction at a time and place that was more of a celebration.
Yet there is a discussion to be had about the need for safe spaces from the point of view that we need to work on the things that make them necessary. This brings up issues of Free Speech because the garden-variety racist enjoys the same protections (and perhaps even more protections due to privilege) than anyone trying to counter their racism. As much as it pains me to write this, hate speech seems to be put on par with other speech, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing.
So, as long as we have free and open hate speech, there is going to be the need for people who are not in the privileged majority (and some who are) to go to a place where they can be assured of tranquility and protected from all abuse, including verbal abuse. And that is not a bad thing. People can be just as resilient whether they are protected or not. Resilience doesn’t come from suffering, and it is not underdeveloped in those who are protected. There is a whole process to it, and taking a break from being abused in order to learn resilience is, again, not a bad thing.
Yes, the “traditional” way of building character and whatnot used to be through trials and tribulations. Certainly, there is something to be said about going through trials and tribulations as part of growing up and growing old, but there’s nothing in the book that demands you suffer in order to be a better person. I mean, can you imagine? Those born with a silver spoon in their mouths would be the softest people on Earth.
I guess that a better discussion — a more productive one — would be to talk about the necessity of safe places in the context of the unabashed bullying coming from the more privileged sectors of society. For example, the same people that attack the existence of safe places are the ones who use harsh language to refer to people they disagree with, and the same ones who loudly and proudly proclaim to want to “trigger” the “snowflakes” who would then retreat into safe places. It’s almost like psychopaths complaining about people learning self-defense. Almost.
In the end, it’s all about having respectful discussions on the issues that matter to us. But, because there is not a lot of respect in our current political environment, we find ourselves needing safe spaces. Until the grown-ups in the room take over again, we’re only going to need more… And that is a very sad fact of life today.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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