The Safe Spaces You’ll Need

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.

Mariachi Whale
The mariachis just kind of get in the way.

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.

What book?

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.

Don’t buckle-up, don’t wear your helmet, don’t vaccinate

The partisan hack who keeps getting elected for the House of Representatives from my district posted on Facebook about the summer road season. Interestingly enough, some of his most ardent supporters starting criticizing laws in Pennsylvania that mandate seat belt and helmet use. They seemed to be upset that they’re not allowed the “freedom” to not wear seat belts, and they were also upset that bills are being proposed to mandate helmets for motorcycle riders. Just like anti-vaxxers, they don’t like ounces of prevention and apparently prefer pounds of cure.

Seriously, anti-vaxxers must be in league with Big Pharma, because vaccines cost way less than the hospitalizations and drugs required to treat the diseases they prevent. How else can you explain that they are so anti-vaccine? Anti-vaxxers trigger outbreaks, children end up going to the doctor or in hospitals, and the pharmaceutical companies compensate them handsomely. Right?

Back to the helmets and seat belts.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there were about 35 thousand traffic deaths in the United States in 2015 (the year for which the latest data are available). About 6,000 of those were pedestrians and bicyclists. (For a discussion on bicycle safety, click here.) That leaves about 29,000 deaths in motor vehicles. From the best data we have, via CDC, about half of those people would not have died if they were wearing their seat belts. The other half… Well, stuff happens.

Similar protective effects can be seen with motorcycle helmets and motorcycle accidents. And don’t even get me started on the death and injuries prevented by vaccines. More than any other intervention in public health, vaccines have prevented millions of deaths and injuries from serious infectious diseases. Don’t let anyone try and convince you otherwise.

But where is the line with regards to freedom? If you’re an adult, should you be allowed to take your life into your own hands — literally — and not wear a seatbelt or helmet? This would be okay, I guess, if you lived in an absolute bubble. You don’t. Think of what happens when a car accident happens. It usually involves more than one vehicle. Even if it wasn’t your fault, you not being restrained puts the other people around you in danger from you being ejected, from you dying in front of their eyes, and from them being charged with a more serious crime because you decided to exercise your freedom that day.

And what about the first responders that have to go deal with your mangled body? What about the time and effort spent trying to save your life? Chances are that you wouldn’t have a sign on you that stated that it was okay to let you die if you were not wearing your seat belt… And passing any kind of law or regulation saying that it’s okay to let you die would be utterly unethical.

Then there’s the fact that the rest of us would pick up the bill for your death in one way or another. Someone has to replace your loss of productivity. Another person would have to look after your family since you’re gone. And so on and so forth. Let me write it again: You don’t live in a bubble.

This whole misunderstanding of Libertarianism is a thorn on the side of public health people the world over. “We don’t want the government to tell us what to do,” they proclaim.
“Then do the right thing to keep yourself safe, because you don’t live in a goddamned bubble,” we tell them.
“Freedom!” Yeah, their conversations are full of nuance and self-introspection.

Left to their own devices, these people would kill us.

But, okay, let’s say that you don’t want to wear a seat belt or a helmet on your motorcycle. Then I propose the following… You don’t drive on public roads. See, in the real world, we took a vote, and we elected people to make laws and enforce them for us. Those laws set standards for what is safe and what is not safe on public roads. Don’t want to wear a seat belt? Don’t be on the roads that the rest of us adults living in reality paid for with our taxes. It’s that simple.

The same principle has been adopted with immunizations. Don’t want to get vaccinated because you’re afraid of something some celebrity — or fraudster of a physician — told you? Then you don’t get to go to our public schools and endanger the rest of us. You don’t get to ride on planes or trains with the rest of us.

Oh, yes, you keep your freedom, but you don’t risk our freedom to be safe from danger because of it. In other words, grow the hell up, put on the belt or helmet, get your vaccine, and stop being a petulant child. There’s work to be done and we cannot possibly be arguing this right now, in 2017.

Should You Use A Bike Helmet?

Ah, those crazy public health people and their crazy recommendations. “Vaccinate,” they say, but you still have outbreaks where vaccinated people are hit with the disease they were supposedly immunized against. “Wash your hands,” they argued, but people who wash their hands still get gastrointestinal disease. “Wear your seatbelt,” they proposed, but people die from seatbelt-related injuries all the time. “Wear a helmet while riding a bicycle,” but there seems to be no appreciable reduction in the number of head injuries when mandatory bike helmet laws are proposed.

What gives? What’s with all of these recommendations that seem to be useless?

Well, they’re not useless. They are given the perception of being useless by those who seek to be contrarians. After all, if you really want to argue against something, you will find some sort of evidence against it. Or, rather, you will find a way to misinterpret the evidence to suit your needs.

So should you wear a bicycle helmet?

There’s no monkeying around with safety.

The answer, as always, is that “it depends.” At the very least, bicycle helmets are proven to protect your head from severe outcomes when you get hit or hit something. The Cleveland Clinic states:

“All bike riders should wear bicycle helmets. Each year in the United States, about 800 bicyclists are killed and another 500,000 end up in hospital emergency rooms. About two-thirds of the deaths and one-third of the injuries involve the head and face. Wearing a helmet can reduce the risk of head injury to bicyclists by as much as 85 percent.”

There’s a caveat in that statement, however. Just wearing a helmet alone will not save you from injury if the accident is bad enough. So it’s a little deceptive to think that you are safe from injury if you just wear a helmet. You’re safER than you would be without a helmet, but you’re not safe at all if everyone around you is driving like a crazy person.

Or if, say, a minion is coming straight at you.

There also seems to be a bit of a paradox in mandating bicycle helmets. The more you mandate helmets, the less people ride, the more drivers think cyclists are safe (and thus relax around cyclists to the point where collisions are increased), and the more cyclists feel safe and engage in unsafe riding. This explains the paradox a little better:

“Proponents of legislating mandatory helmet use cite strong evidence that helmets can prevent many fatalities and up to 88% of potential brain injuries in bad falls. Opponents focus on the potential chilling effect of bike helmet laws on cycling itself. According to this argument, since cycling is already a discretionary activity, anything that makes cycling less convenient — and indeed the simplicity and convenience of bicycling is one of its main attractions — will discourage cycling.

In effect, mandatory helmet-use creates an additional expense for the cyclist, another piece of equipment to carry around and one more preparatory step before climbing aboard and pedaling away. And indeed, cycling has declined in several Australian states that passed mandatory adult helmet laws in 1990. Ironically, helmet laws that discourage cycling may indirectly harm those so discouraged, in view of research indicating that cycling promotes health through the cardio-vascular benefits of vigorous exercise.

Moreover, since many helmet-law proponents are medical professionals with little familiarity with cycling, some cyclists feel singled out among the various groups in society, many of whom — motorists, for instance — engage in arguably more dangerous and antisocial practices. While helmets drastically lessen the severity of head injury to cyclists, helmet-law advocates rarely promote helmet use as part of a comprehensive set of safety, education and facility-development measures aimed at cyclists and motorists alike. The European Cyclists’ Federation estimates that the expenditures required to equip all bicyclists with helmets in a country or state would prevent more accidents and injuries if spent instead for safety education and on improving the cycling infrastructure.”

And that’s the crux of the problem. Without comprehensive plans to eliminate all bicycle injuries, simply mandating everyone to wear helmets will not show a demonstrable decrease in the number of injuries. I mean, if a car hits you at 60 miles per hour, no helmet is going to save you from a severe injury. However, if cars are aware of cyclists and not exceeding reasonable speeds and avoid cyclists through their driving habits or physical barriers, then wearing a helmet will help in the event of that rare, low speed collision or fall…

Or a random fight.

So let’s put it this way:

5: Risk of injury if traffic laws are loose and cyclists are in close proximity to high-speed cars, bad drivers, and not wearing any helmets.

4: Risk of injury if all the conditions above are the same, but the cyclists wear helmets.

3: Risk of injury if all the conditions above are the same, but there are cycling awareness campaigns aimed at drivers to make them safe around cyclists.

2: Risk of injury if all the conditions above are the same, but there are additional programs to make cyclists aware of how best to ride safe.

1: Risk of injury if all the conditions above are the same, but there are also physical barriers to prevent contact between cars and cyclists.

0: Risk of injury in a perfect world. (Spoiler alert: We don’t live in a perfect world.)

Yeah, we don’t live in a perfect world, and the choice of wearing a helmet is very much up to you. If you choose not to wear a helmet because you deny all the evidence that it helps, well, that’s up to you. If you choose not to wear a helmet because you want things to be perfect and won’t do so until they are… Well… You’re going to be waiting a while.

That, and you’ll be the equivalent of the screaming parent who doesn’t want to vaccinate because vaccines are neither 100% safe nor 100% effective.

ps: Spare me the argument about “big helmet.”

Colombia, Day 3

It’s amazing how a nice, long walk can help clear out the cobwebs from a busy day. If you’re a stranger in a strange land, like I am now, it will also help you get to know the place where you are. I went for a long walk and found a nice park about ten minutes from the apartment where I am staying. Not only that, but there were plenty of people of all ages jogging, playing basketball, soccer, and doing exercise. I walked around it once, and measured it to be about a quarter mile. So I think I just found a spot to go for a slog (slow jog) or a long walk in the evenings.

Barranquilla is becoming less foreign to me now. Continue reading