Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Banning Safe Spaces in the Name of Active Debate Misses the Mark

The University of Chicago is making headlines with a letter sent to incoming students. The letter, which can be viewed in its entirety here, highlights the University's "commitment to academic freedom," a commitment that has ostensibly led to three targets: 1) "trigger warnings" on classroom content, 2) canceling speakers with controversial views, and 3) "safe spaces" created on campus. All three of these practices have been deemed a threat to the University's desire for "the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas."

It's that third target that I want to take a closer look at as a rhetoric scholar. What of these "safe spaces"? Do they really threaten the exploration of ideas?

Called upon as a bastion of liberal "social justice warriors" who can't handle rigor and debate, safe spaces are being vilified as sites of intellectual weakness where those who have had their feelings hurt can shut themselves away from the real world and create an alternative where they do not have to be challenged. Presented that way, you can connect the dots to a view where safe spaces act as escape hatches, giving people the option to ignore alternative viewpoints and retreat into an echo chamber where they do not have to face opposition or think about anything that upsets them.

Not every space can be a safe space, to be sure. Classrooms, in particular, are often sites of debate and competing ideas, especially if they are to be effective places for learning. Public forums, the hallways, and most spaces where students have their day-to-day interactions are not "safe spaces" by the very nature of being populated with a variety of people expressing a variety of thoughts (whether they do so with an aim for debate or not).

This is the "real world," opponents of safe spaces proclaim. There are not safe spaces out there, in this imagined reality. You are subject daily to the barrage of all mankind until you retreat into your own private sphere. In the public, in real life, you can't be a special snowflake whose ego is easily bruised or you won't make it, so here, in college, we'll toughen you up so that you may survive.

I like arguing. I have a long, documented history of this hobby (just ask my mom. On a side note, I seem to have passed on this trait to my own daughter who, at four, casually said to me, "Mommy, may we have an argue?" on the way home from preschool. She meant that she wanted me to take an opposing side on some topic. We spent the ride with her defending cats as the best pets and me defending dogs.) I believe that rigorous, sometimes painful debate is an important part of a life lived honestly and fully as well as a cornerstone feature of a democracy. I wrote a dissertation about agonistic rhetoric, and I attempt to practice what I preach by actively seeking out opinions that differ from my own and engaging in debate when the opportunity arises. I've written before about how cooperative approaches to the world are limited and limiting, and we need conflict and competition to thrive.

I still believe every word of that. I still believe that ideas must be tested through opposition. I still believe that retreating into echo chambers is dangerous and that we must be willing to be uncomfortable to learn.

But along the way, I also wrote about how agonism requires an oscillation between belief and doubt and that cooperative enclaves (or "safe spaces") serve an important rhetorical purpose.

Patricia Roberts-Miller, rhetoric scholar and author of one of my favorite books (Deliberate Conflict), has this to say about safe spaces:
"people need a friendly and supportive place to think through ideas—an enclave—but it is actively dangerous if they do not have to think through those ideas with a hostile audience as well."  
She also writes this:
"Conflict at an early stage, while one is still doing the thinking, is assumed to be paralyzing; once one’s position is already determined, then considering a hostile audience can help one think about issues of effectiveness.” 
She also says this:
"Remaining entirely within enclaves is dangerous, as it never allows ideas to be tested, but having no access to enclaves is equally stultifying, in that it does not give people a place where they can explore their own partially articulated ideas."
"Having no access to enclaves is equally stultifying." Think about that. Ideas, especially controversial, complex ones that challenge our own status quo, do not come to us fully formed and prepared for intellectual battle. They come to us in spurts and sputters. They come to us half-formed and whispered. They come to us in the middle of the night or the middle of a fight when we are not prepared for them, when we do not yet know what to do with them.

And that is why safe spaces matter. If we want to take these ideas out into the world, to test them, to put them up against others and see if they have merit, we have to first develop them and be prepared to back them up. And we can't do that without safe spaces to practice and build.

Proponents of safe spaces say that they are juvenile and inconsistent with the real world, but that's not really true. As John Warner notes in this post, the "real world" is full of safe spaces:
"The teachers’ lounge at a high school is a safe space to vent about students. AA meetings are safe spaces for addicts. Fraternities and sororities are safe spaces (for members). Churches are safe spaces. 
Private clubs are safe spaces, often zealously defended from intrusion, as Augusta National Golf Club kept their members safe from the presence of women all the way up until 2012. 
Supporters of Donald Trump explicitly say how they appreciate that his rallies make it safe to say things as they “really are,” which they’re not allowed to do in their everyday lives anymore. 
Safe space. 
Who among us doesn’t appreciate the opportunity to escape to a space that allows us to rest and recuperate from the challenges of life, to be ourselves, to know that we are accepted by those we are with? 
I think of safe spaces as something like the sideline of a football game, a place you get to go and catch your breath surrounded by your teammates before getting back into the fray."
Safe spaces, in other words, don't threaten intellectual rigor, they ensure it. If you do not give people the space to step outside the conflict zone of debate and develop their own ideas before returning, you are not getting their best arguments, which means that your ideas aren't really being tested at all.

And think about where "safe spaces" usually exist on college campuses and who frequents them. They are places where students at the margins of the academy can come together and share their experiences without judgment. LGBT students often fight for safe spaces. Multicultural centers often exist as safe spaces for racial minorities. Women and gender studies classrooms often attempt to be safe spaces for women. In other words, the people who fight for safe spaces are most often those whose ideas are not readily presented in the mainstream, those who need the time and space for development in order to make sure they are giving their own point of view a fair shot in the debate.

As history professor Kevin Gannon writes for Vox, the issue of safe spaces is not really one about freedom, but about power:
"Underlying much of the hand-wringing about the state of the academy is a simple desire to have the gatekeepers remain in place. The perception of the threat is entirely out of alignment with the reality on the ground. For every ginned-up hypothetical scenario of spoiled brats having a sit-in to protest too many white guys in the lit course, there are very real cases where trigger warnings or safe spaces aren’t absurdities, but pedagogical imperatives."
If you remove the opportunity for people with ideas that challenge the norm to retreat and strengthen their argument, you ensure that the norm will remain in place. It's that simple. If you want true "academic rigor," you have to allow those who disagree with you the space to practice and strengthen their argument. It's not a fair fight if you win a boxing match against someone who hasn't eaten in weeks, and it's not a fair fight to win an argument against someone who hasn't had the chance to develop their argument to its fullest potential.

Agonistic rhetoric teaches us that we must move back and forth between cooperation (safe spaces) and antagonism (the fray). We must oscillate between positions where we are believed and positions where we are doubted. But if we remove the opportunity for that oscillation (whether that is because every place is "safe" or because no place is "safe"), we shut down true debate, we shut down the potential for growth, change, and learning.

And if there is a place where growth, change, and learning should be the primary goals, it is on a college campus.

Images: Susan Smith, Shaktiman Sethi, walknboston

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