The Political Correctness Piñata vs. Safe Space in Higher Education

Presently, in these discommodious times, when citizenship is difficult if not impossible to achieve if you’re a colored person or trans or say, just plain blind (for that is my alterity) one principle rhetoric of demand is to call for “safe spaces” especially on college campuses. Students everywhere from Yale to the University of Missouri to Syracuse U (where I teach) are demanding agora free from racism, ableism, homophobia, and fear. It is predictable that these demands by students and staff who are fed up with second class citizenship, who believe in Jeffersonian hope—who expect the pursuit of happiness within higher education to be more advanced and inclusive—should be met with countervailing hostilities.

The usual suspects (The National Review, Fox, et. al.) are dragging out the piñatas of “political correctness” which always look a little like John Foster Dulles and Anita Bryant though they’ve been patched and can still be pointed aloft. “Political correctness” is simply (was always) “newspeak” from the right. It always meant, sneeringly, the forced elimination of awkward ideas, according to its first adopters, as if calling people the “N” word or denying the dignity of women are defensible political positions. And that of course is the problem: for the angry and shrinking white population that feeds the narrative maw of our public discourse (their anger plays well in a louche and deterministic cash crop media) the right to call someone by a slur is equal to, if not superior to, my right to live free from prejudice. One forgets that minority students at the University of Missouri have endured name calling from students passing in trucks, offenses in public spaces, and systemic inattention from the administration. One forgets that Yale students of color have always felt like third rate citizens—hell, there’s even a college in New Haven named for a slave holder.

Calling the demand for “safe space” a matter of political correctness run amok, or a kind of coddling is easy. It’s also reactionary and deflective. And there’s the rub: do Americans have the right to utilize hate speech? Of course they do. They also have the right to burn the flag. (At least for now.) They have the right to stand in the middle of college campuses and shout ugly religious ideas. We own these rights. So where does safe space start? What does it actually mean? If a university is a place where free expression is expected, than shouldn’t whatever is the opposite of safe space be countenanced? Of course it should, shouldn’t it? (The Dulles piñata drifts in the wind…)

I disagree. Think of a laboratory. In this imaginary lab we are growing retinal tissue gathered from mice. Our goal is to see if we can create new retinas. Some day we hope to cure blindness. This laboratory is a safe space—it’s sterile, quiet, protected from heat, traffic fumes, spit, and dirty shoes. Intellectual space is safe space, which is to say it’s controlled space. We might want to introduce a virus into the mouse lab. We might be searching for a way to make artificial retinas stand up to diseases. We can introduce something unhealthy. But we do so because it’s part of productive learning. Can hurtful words be employed in a classroom? Yes. And they always should. If you want to learn about the Harlem Renaissance you better get used to the “N” word. If you want to read about the history of women’s rights you better be able to withstand writing about sexual violence and a host of oppressions. Discussions in a classroom differ from hurling expletives on the quad. And of course the reason is that the latter is not aimed at knowledge, the former is designed to further our understanding.

When the piñata waving National Review crowd starts to influence the New Yorker (as I think it has) then we have a deflective and ill informed story about what is at stake. Asking for safe space is the same thing as calling for citizenship. It is not political correctness ballooning out of control like some vast tomato attacking Los Angeles.