My friend Dan posted this New York Times opinion piece by Judith Shulevitz on safe spaces on college campuses, attempts to stop the free exchange of ideas and creating sets of rules about how certain subjects- race, gender, sexual assault, etc. can be discussed. While I’m no longer a college student it was only about ten years ago since I was one, and I had an opportunity to see some of the early days of this movement at a politically liberal school in a very liberal city on the east coast. As a resident adviser we had to go through training on safe spaces, how to create a welcoming environment for residents and how to approach some of these potentially sensitive issues. But frankly, I’m surprised at the degree it has morphed into something else entirely that now threatens the free exchange of ideas and academic speech.
As I commented on my friend’s link to the article on Facebook, and as regular readers here know, I’m not a stranger to triggering ideas. I’ve come across things, whether on TV, in books, etc. that have been “triggering” for me when it comes to things like suicide, alcoholism, etc. It can be unsettling or upsetting but for me the answer isn’t to isolate myself from those things (though changing the channel, putting down the book or even walking out of a room are sometimes necessary in the moment). The reality is of course that the world will upset you from time to time and I’ve found that the best way to deal with it is to wrestle with the discomfort. What specifically is bothering me and how does it manifest itself- an anxiety attack, a bad memory, etc.? What can I do to address it? Am I being targeted or am I bringing my own baggage to the situation? The example I’ll use here is the “you should probably kill yourself” joke. Nobody is literally suggesting suicide- it’s making fun of the seriousness people attribute to mundane problems. But it’s kind of uncomfortable for me if I’m being honest. So I work through it. Nobody is targeting me, the intent isn’t that the comment is meant to be taken literally, so it makes me uncomfortable because I know that killing yourself (or rather trying to) is a deeply painful experience in both a physical and mental way that comes from an even deeper pain and even though that’s not what the joke is about, that’s what I associate it with.
And I get that my experiences are only my experiences and I don’t know what it’s like for a rape survivor or someone who’s experienced ugly racism, sexism or homophobia. But it’s precisely because of our differing experiences that I know shutting down academic freedom or withdrawing from engagements isn’t in the collective interest. There are some people who will confront these things and grow from them and there are people who won’t. There are people for whom a traumatic event is too recent and too raw (and they get to determine when that is for themselves) and aren’t in a place to confront or engage yet. But there are people who will heal by confronting it, explaining it and even sharing their experience.
Is there a middle ground here between safe spaces and the freedom to have open and honest conversations on college campuses about sexual assault, racism, mental health, etc? Maybe the answer is with college leave of absence policies. If you want a safe space free of any triggering events you can take a leave of absence without academic/financial penalty. To paraphrase Walter Sobchak, the academic world does not stop and start at your convenience but if you need to take some time off to deal with a problem and get yourself to a place where you can function in a world full of triggering events, the option is available to you without hurting that free exchange of ideas that is a necessity in the academic world.