Sneering at safety

Have you noticed how the desire for safety is coming to be seen as an intellectual or moral weakness?

I ask this partly due to the ongoing discussion – incredibly, yes, in 2016 – about the Safe Schools Coalition, which supports sexual and gender diversity in schools. There are other articles out there that talk more about the whole hoopla around the anti-bullying program, memorably described by alleged MP and definite homophobe George Christensen as the equivalent of “paedophile grooming”, and by noted Slovenian psychoanalyst Cory Bernardi as a program that “indoctrinate[s] children into a Marxist agenda of cultural relativism.”

I find it quite refreshing, to be honest, that these august cultural commentators aren’t resorting to a slippery slope-argument: as far as Christensen and Bernardi are concerned, we have already felt the wind in our hair and blood on our lips and now look, bruised and tear-streaked, back up the hill holding the remains of our broken sleigh.

The gender fluid horse has bolted, and now all we’re left with is this mixed metaphor.

Somewhere along the way these rumoured men and others of their – typically straight, white and legislative – ilk have come to believe that ‘diversity’ is code for ‘minority’, and everyone of course knows minorities should just buck up and not cause a fuss if they have any decency. Safety is a luxury they don’t deserve, because somehow safety is a zero-sum game (insert the worst part of two decades of Australia’s asylum seeker policy here).

The Australian debate (did I say “debate”? I meant “shrill-fest of oceanic proportions”) ties in very neatly with a global tendency to sneer at concerns of psychological and emotional safety – particularly in educational environments. There’s no shortage of voices declaring that safe spaces and trigger warnings, for example, are antithetical to intellectual engagement (warning: things get a bit meta behind that second link).

There’s the TIME article, which asks

What will students do when they come to a situation in real life where there is no pre-arranged safe space with counselors into which to retreat when someone challenges their worldview?

Hey, good news, kids: the minimum three years of your life you spend at university juggling work, family duties and study commitments while a shrinking job market and soaring accommodation costs periodically kick you in the guts is not real life! Nothing that causes you grief, pain or uncertainty is real because you’re a student, and not even a real person yet! Sweet!

And of course you can follow this piece of wisdom:

 Students who are genuinely unable to cope with incidental references to [their] trauma might not be ready for the window into the breadth of human experience that education is supposed to provide.

Just refrain from peeping out at society until you stop being emotionally affected by things, because god forbid we stick a trigger warning on the classics.

But safe spaces aren’t there to stop people having to think critically: they’re there so people can feel safe when they do. Or, in the words of a student cited in The Telegraph:

“People say, ‘In my day we were tough’,” said one female Harvard student, who asked not to be named. “Well no: your generation was racist and sexist. We are changing things – this is what progress looks like.”

Of course, people who whinge about safe spaces are notoriously excellent at dealing with “someone challenging their world view”.

What I find most amazing, though, are people who do actually know what safe spaces are meant for, and even sympathise with them, but who still think they’re just a cute , ultimately unsustainable experiment unfit for the real world:

In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions — subtle displays of racial or sexual bias — so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity. As long as all parties consent to such restrictions, these little islands of self-restraint seem like a perfectly fine idea.

Agreeing to refrain from ridicule, criticism and microaggressions sounds like a great idea! Let’s all do it! …But no, to do so would require too much self-restraint as to be implausible anywhere but in multilaterally negotiated islands.

I’m not suggesting the idea of safe spaces hasn’t been or can’t be used over-anxiously. I do suspect, however, that the spikes in tension between academic staff and students over the issue (in the US in particular) are more symptomatic of the pressures of the university environment as a whole – if you are squeezed for all you’re worth by the higher education system and hardly have time to breathe and suddenly your students are asking you to restructure your whole unit it’s going to be a whole lot easier to just decide they’re being unreasonable. So yes, there are various complications around how to make campuses and classrooms more inclusive and it’s not just a case of crusted-on professors refusing to move with the times.

But aside from all that, think about how depressing a view of human life you would need to have to genuinely object to safe spaces – whether out of ideological vehemence or the sheer exhaustion from resisting committing microaggressions day in, day out. The underlying objection to safe spaces is not that they stifle debate but that they redefine the debate. They force you to consider perspectives you may never have done before. And if it’s too darn hard to do that – well, let’s not even try, and instead patronise those who do.

Life, after all, is nasty, brutish and short; in the real world people are mean and inconsiderate – no matter what social justice warriors in hotbeds of Marxist cultural relativism might like to think – and to try to change that would be a slippery slope…

(pictured: hotbed of Marxist cultural relativism)



One thought on “Sneering at safety

  1. Pingback: On straw men, cowardice – and proving them wrong | definitive knots

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