This may come as a surprise, but I'm a supporter of "safe spaces." I support safe spaces because I support freedom of association. Safe spaces, if designed in a principled way, are just an application of that freedom.
That's why I didn't flip out last week when someone announced they were building "Pillowfort," a friendlier version of the social media site Tumblr. The announcement was met with swift jeers from the usual suspects. Folks derided the idea of a social media site that, even more than the famously left-dominated Tumblr, lets you limit with whom you interact and control who sees your content. But why? Pillowfort would be self-selecting. Nobody goes into the fort who doesn't want to be there. It's not like somebody is wandering onto your social media account and building a fort around you and telling you how you can interact with others. Pillowfort represents something that conservatives used to support in other circumstances: a private club, run by its own rules, with admission limited as its members see fit. If I'm not a member of the club, how its members regulate discourse within it is of little interest to me. Similarly, though organized Twitter blocklists are troublesome to some people, they don't bother me. They, too, are an application of freedom of association. Do I think some lists are organized around silly principles? Sure. But people are like that. Freedom of association is the right to organize ourselves in silly ways.
In short, I support people creating "safe spaces" as a shield by exercising their freedom of association to organize themselves into mutually supporting communities, run according to their own norms. But not everyone imagines "safe spaces" like that. Some use the concept of "safe spaces" as a sword, wielded to annex public spaces and demand that people within those spaces conform to their private norms. That's not freedom of association. That's rank thuggery, a sort of ideological manifest destiny.1 It's the difference between saying "I shouldn't be forced to go to a talk by this controversial figure" and "this controversial figure should not be allowed to speak at my school."
This week's example of safe-space-as-sword comes, like many bad ideas, from Yale. Gallons of ink have been spilled already; consider the coverage at The FIRE or Reason or Simple Justice. I won't repeat it all.
There are two remarkable and dangerous things about the notion of safe spaces imagined by Yale students.
The first is the location of that space. It's not a self-selected community or an exercise of freedom of association, because it lacks the element of voluntary entry. It's the safe space of an occupier: students demand that everyone in the dorm, or college, or university conform to their private-club rules. Your right to swing your fist may end at my nose, but their asserted right to safety surrounds you.
The second remarkable thing is the definition of safety. For the moment, let's accept for the sake of argument that some speech can make people genuinely unsafe. Imagine, perhaps, speech advocating for the physical abuse of minorities or urging vulnerable people to commit suicide. But the Yale incident demonstrates that this core concept, once accepted, can be expanded to cover anything. The argument seems to be that because we can imagine truly threatening speech, we must therefore accept uncritically other people's subjective beliefs about what speech is threatening. The speech at issue here was an email acknowledging that ethic Halloween costumes could be hurtful but discussing whether it should be the role of a university to tell students whether to wear them. This is safety as Ouroboros — it is unsafe to question what is unsafe, unsafe to discuss the concept of safety.
The Yale incident is being portrayed, reasonably, as an example of liberal abuse of the concept of safe spaces. But conservative culture is not innocent here. What is the "War on Christmas" but a sort of safe-space argument, an assertion that we have a right to be congratulated for our religious beliefs by corporate America even out in public spaces? And conservatives have long matched the imagined right not to be offended with an equally fatuous right not to be called offensive. There's a difference between calling someone an asshole and calling for someone to be fired or expelled or otherwise silenced. Eager to score points in a culture war, some folks conflate classic more-speech remedies like criticism with actual censorship. That doesn't encourage a principled approach to speech by anyone, let alone college students.
- I was going to say lebensraum, but that's a little too trollish. ▲
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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