Safety Schools

An article in my home newspaper raises again the topic of college life and the “safe space” that figures prominently in student conceptions of education today.

The Hartford Courant reported last month on a successful effort at Hartford’s Trinity College to cancel an appearance by rap artist Action Bronson, whose violently misogynist lyrics offended many. A petition bearing 1,000 signatures – hefty participation in a college of just 2300 – asserted that Bronson’s performance on campus “would create a psychologically harmful and drastically unsafe space” for women, LGBT students and survivors of sexual assault. The student concert organizers who booked the performer agreed to rescind the invitation, apologizing, in a campus-wide email, for not doing “a thorough enough check” of Bronson’s lyrics and videos. Apparently they first considered allowing him onstage as long as he refrained from performing certain songs, including one called “Consensual Rape.” Ultimately, though, they decided that “the very act of bringing Action Bronson to this campus runs counter to the college's obligation to protect the emotional and physical safety of its students.”

A Trinity senior who co-authored the petition described feeling “relieved,” and remarked that “people are kind of feeling their faith in humanity has been restored. We all came together and made a decision — hey, we don't think this is OK.” As for the administration, a letter from a dean informed alumni and parents that the rapper’s prospective visit “caused a great deal of hurt and alienation in our community;” that his lyrics “are not in line with Trinity's mission or what we stand for as a community;” and that banning him was “the right decision.” “The learning that has taken place,” the dean wrote, “has focused on the importance of dialogue that leads to a safe, respectful, and caring community.”

Regarding Bronson, it’s fair to say that “Consensual Rape” is vile stuff.  But do such violent vulgarities prima facie constitute hate speech? The argument can be made – has been made -- that they’re actually a ham-fisted attempt to condemn hateful speech. Bronson says that the song expresses “a general sentiment of violence towards woman [sic] which I never meant to represent who I am but rather to depict a story,” and that “I don’t always intend the stories that I tell, the characters that I play in them or the lyrics I lay down to be taken literally.” In a CBC radio show discussing the rapper’s banning in Toronto, one music critic maintained that Bronson is himself “a caricature” -- “a comic-book super-villain... [whose] intentions are shown right in his name” -- and that his “absurdist, dada-ish lyrics” should be viewed through that lens. He’s not a social pathology, in other words, but a critique of one.

That argument strikes me as shaky, but I’m more interested in Bronson’s relation to campus discourse and the prevalence there of therapeutic concepts such as trigger warnings, microaggressions and the safe space. How well do such concepts suit the mission of liberal humanistic education? I’m both steeped in, and committed to, the view that a liberal education is meant to be unsettling; that it proposes a scrimmage of ideas and values in which students learn, in part, precisely by being subjected to adverse ideas; and that preemptively banning such ideas, rather than engaging with them, runs counter to this project. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff noted in the Atlantic essay I discussed last fall, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” even if we accept the notion that an idea, image or text can “trigger” extreme discomfort, the proper response to this discomfort – therapeutically – is to encourage not avoidance, but controlled exposure.

And isn’t liberal education pretty much just that -- exposure to challenging ideas in a setting controlled by rules of discourse and the presence of learned and humane mentor-guides? Do we ban Celine or Heidegger, because their anti-semitism and Fascist sympathies unsettle us, or do we read them and discuss those leanings? Do we disinvite a speaker whose politics we consider retrograde, because his views make us feel “unsafe,” or do we listen and engage? When I was a teenager, a “safety school” was a school you knew you could get accepted at. Now it’s one where you know you will be kept protected from ideas, images and texts that might distress you. The new “safety school” puts an emphasis on purity and unanimity, and on shelter rather than challenge.

Return to the Trinity senior who wrote the petition, and her comment about how “we all came together and made a decision [that] hey, we don't think this is OK.” I get that; I don’t think Action Bronson’s clownish hatefulness is OK, either. If I were a student, I’d push back against it, and against him. But might there not be a way to do this other than by banning him?

The liberal way of rejecting Action Bronson might go like this. Days before Obnoxious Speaker comes to campus, students write newspaper opinion pieces giving their view of why his speech is misguided, harmful or just plain wrong. At the speech or performance itself, placard-bearing students protest outside the venue, even as others are inside listening. Afterward, students debate the speaker’s message, informally and/or in an organized forum. Professors incorporate the matter in a relevant class, or hold a special symposium. It’s dialogue and disagreement, in other words. Those who would preemptively ban obnoxious speakers from campus risk foreclosing this process -- a process that is liberal education.

As with many thorny issues, it’s hard to be absolutist here – especially when you read Bronson’s crassly violent lyrics. Maybe Bronson meets the criteria for hate speech, and deserves banning. All I’m saying is that the threshold for doing that should be high. And that doesn’t seem to be the way we’re headed at today’s safety schools.

 

Postscript: After I published an op-ed on this issue in the Courant, I got an email from an acquaintance who teaches at Trinity, and who had signed the anti-Action Bronson petition. She disagreed forcefully with my take on the situation, insisting that

in the context of Trinity College, where campus rape culture is a real and pressing problem, Action Bronson's lyrics are more than "obnoxious," and more than offensive, they are incendiary. They are sure to ignite a spark in a campus that is waiting to blow. His songs are not "challenging ideas" that should be debated - that's ludicrous. They are an open invitation for men to assault, rape and murder women. I wish I could explain to you how difficult it is to teach on a campus where so many of my female students are sexually assaulted, to the point where they can't come to class.... The very idea of trying to maintain a liberal arts education in this context, without addressing campus rape culture, is laughable. So please don't call these lyrics obnoxious, as if the survivors of sexual assault are so sensitive to be "offended." And certainly don't call them "challenging ideas," until you are in my shoes and you have to teach the victims of sexual assault daily. 

Chastened by this alarming email, I emailed back to assure her that I’d never gainsay the pain of students traumatized by sexual violence, or begrudge them any accommodations that would make them feel more secure. And – obviously – anyone who commits rape should be arrested. But I think her email tilted at something more; the notion of rape “culture,” after all, is no mere recording of discrete transgressions, but a comprehensive diagnosis. This raises the disturbing specter, implied in her email, of rape as epidemic on college campuses; Jon Krakauer has written a book on this topic, and just yesterday the Times reported on the removal of Kenneth W. Starr as President of Baylor University, for his failure to address accusations of sexual assault against members of the football team.

But I was trying to get at something else altogether in the op-ed I wrote. Where my friend was using “safety” and “unsafe space” literally, to refer to the plight of students who fear being violently brutalized, I’m referring to the use of therapeutic terms as metaphors, as a way of marking certain ideas or forms of discourse as unduly threatening, and thereby setting the borders of college discourse. To whatever extent the trend on campuses is to deploy such metaphors in order to bar or preempt offensive ideas -- well, these are impulses I think we should treat skeptically.    

I might have chosen a better test case than Action Bronson, whose hateful lyrics (as I noted in the piece) even a procedural-minded Enlightenment liberal like me might find worth banning. Hate speech doesn’t merit protection.  But how, and where, to set the bar? I’ve written about the incident at Wesleyan, where the student newspaper published an op-ed, written by a conservative-minded student and Iraq War vet, critical of the Black Lives Movement -- and sparked a petition attacking the paper and recommending defunding it for “neglecting to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color.” Then there was the Yale brouhaha last fall, in which a professor and dorm advisor wrote an email questioning administrative guidelines on what constitutes inappropriate Halloween costumes. As with the Wesleyan op-ed, her arguments were easy enough to take issue with -- but instead of reasoned discourse in response to those arguments, what ensued were loud calls for her to lose her dorm position,  the ugly prospect of her husband and fellow academic being shouted down by students hurling profanity, and so on. All, again, in the name of "safety."

As I tried to insist to my Trinity friend, I agree that hate speech shouldn’t be tolerated. But I believe the default bias has to be toward engaging with adverse or obnoxious speech rather than preempting it. And I sense that increasingly this isn't the case on campus today. Certain anecdotes stick in one’s mind. A young friend of mine at Yale Divinity School described a group discussion session last fall at which students of color were invited to share with divinity grad students their impressions of what was going on in the campus protests sparked by the Halloween costume flareup. After one African-American woman spoke, another woman, a Latina, offered what my friend described as a "mildly but thoughtfully critical" response. My friend insists that the response was wholly within the spirit of an exchange of views, that it wasn’t even particularly judgmental. Yet the first woman immediately said, "I don't feel safe discussing this. This conversation is over."

There’s evidence that such instincts are becoming routine on campus. In his and Lukianoff’s Atlantic essay, Jonathan Haidt cites calls for warnings about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (“describes racial violence”) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (“portrays misogyny and physical abuse”), “so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might ‘trigger’ a recurrence of past trauma.” Haidt describes a class of his own at NYU, in which, “to prepare students for a class discussion on wisdom, I assigned a magazine article that described the dilemmas a physician faced as one of his patients was dying of cancer.” After turning in a homework assignment on the article, a student complained “that I should have included a trigger warning, so that students who had lost a relative to cancer could steer clear of the article.”

Are such responses telltale signs of the direction liberal education is headed in? If so, it’s pretty discouraging.

 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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