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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


What if Everyone Actually Agrees About Safe Spaces?

I think we’re having a semantic argument, and yet I also think the argument will persist.

September 6, 2021

I am encouraged.

I believe that I can make an argument demonstrating that those of us who believe higher education institutions should be safe spaces for students and those who believe safe spaces are antithetical to learning are largely -- as in like 95 percent -- in agreement.

As the anti-safe space argument is often presented, I believe the differences appear to be semantic rather than truly substantive.

I am skeptical.

While I believe that I can show the mutual agreement of these seemingly disparate groups, I don’t believe it will result in much change, because I don’t think what separates these groups is truly a difference over pedagogical approaches or emphasis.

Unfortunately, and as usual, we’re talking about power, and that is a much thornier issue. However, maybe if I’m successful in my first proposition, we can move beyond what has been a largely circular and fruitless discussion to one that gets at the roots of the thing.

I don’t know that this will necessarily result in progress toward a goal, but at least we can start having the argument for real.

To argue my first proposition, I’m going to work from a recent tweet thread by Jennifer Frey, a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, but it’s important to know that my argument isn’t specific to Frey, and that I’m attempting to use her tweet thread as an example of an attitude that I believe is common among the “no safe spaces” crowd.[1] I also believe this group has a significant overlap with self-identified “heterodox” scholars who are invested in what Jonathan Haidt calls the university telos of “truth,” which he believes is at odds with a mission of “social justice,” explicitly arguing that we must choose one or the other.

For these scholars, “safe spaces,” as they define them, interfere with the pursuit of truth. On the other hand, I think they’re essential to the task.

Frey’s thoughts were spurred by a statement from her university’s diversity, equity and inclusion office, which she believes is inconsistent with her role as a professor and the pedagogical necessities of studying philosophy:

I am informed by my university DEI office today that every student has a fundamental right to "feel safe." The way I would describe doing philosophy is feeling like the ground is moving out from under you. Nobody "feels safe" doing philosophy if they are doing it correctly.

In the next tweet she equates safety with “comfort,” arguing that intellectual inquiry requires us to be unsettled or discomforted.

In the tweet following that, she makes her claim that since we cannot define this feeling of safety/comfort, by definition it will infringe on what Haidt would identify as the university’s telos:

All of this talk of a right to feel safe obscures this. I challenge anyone to define this "feeling" in such a way that doesn't cut against free and open inquiry and the dogged pursuit of truth. I have yet to see anything close to a helpful definition of this "fundamental right"

I think Frey is incorrect for two reasons. One is that she has miscast what those of us who believe in a “safe” atmosphere mean when we use the term. The other is her insistence that safety is a subjective feeling rather than a state of being.

First, it may be helpful to shift the terms a bit, and rather than saying that students must be safe, let’s use the word “secure.” I prefer “secure” because it is more clearly associated with a state of being, rather than subjective feelings. When we are secure, we can experience things that feel challenging and unsafe without risk of dire outcomes. To me, actual security is a prerequisite for taking intellectual risks that may feel unsafe.

We can have our wits scrambled by a roller coaster, scaring us all along the way only because we trust that we are quite secure once the harness clicks over our shoulders.

Or consider something like rock climbing, which can feel very scary, which is why there are many safety measures put in place before doing it.

For an answer closer to home for academics, let me suggest tenure as a tangible example of establishing the security necessary for intellectual inquiry. This is the kind of safety the vast majority of us who support safe spaces are envisioning when we use the term.

Reading Frey’s thread reminded me of an old post of mine where I declare that my explicit pedagogical goal is to make students “uncomfortable,” but in order to do that, they must also feel supported and secure. To illustrate how and why I want to make students feel uncomfortable, in my syllabus, I share a quote from an interview of Cornel West:

I want to be able to engage in the grand calling of a Socratic teacher, which is not to persuade and convince students, but to unsettle and unnerve and maybe even unhouse a few students, so that they experience that wonderful vertigo and dizziness in recognizing at least for a moment that their world view rests on pudding, but then see that they have something to fall back on. It's the shaping and forming of critical sensibility. That, for me, is what the high calling of pedagogy really is.

The key to the passage for me is West’s use of “something to fall back on.” This is an articulation of a state of security. In practice, that includes respecting and supporting the unique identities of every individual student, of making them know that they will not be judged for who they are, or their backgrounds or core beliefs. They will not be treated as inferior or made to feel as they do not belong at the institution. It is knowing that they are welcome in the community, and will be respected by others.

For me, if a student feels unsecure/unsafe -- culturally, academically, economically, socially -- we cannot do this work that Frey and I both agree is the high calling of intellectual inquiry.

Frey argues that we cannot honor or prioritize feelings of safety. I agree. What we can do, however, is put the conditions into place where everyone is sufficiently secure. What do those conditions look like? Let me quote a philosophy professor from the University of South Carolina:

Imagine if universities called their students to have the courage and determination to pursue the truth together as a common end? Imagine if they reminded students that this requires mutual respect, civility, and other virtues?

Respect, civility and justice (which Frey adds in a subsequent tweet) sound like pretty good preconditions for security. [2] It’s not so hard to define what safety consists of after all.

So, at the root, I believe we are in agreement about the conditions we should seek to foster.

Why, then, are we arguing? Why have we been having this argument for six years now, ever since Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote their original attack on the use of trigger warnings and the concept of microaggressions in The Atlantic?

I think one of the arguments we’re really having is over what we mean by “civility” and “respect” and whether or not those values flow in all directions.

I think far too often “respect” means respect for authority, not mutual respect. This is apparent in Haidt and Lukianoff’s work, which posits that protesting students are in the grips of a psychological pathology.

“Civility” is frequently a shield for the maintenance of the status quo, as opposed to an exchange of views across a divide.

Consider how Haidt and Lukianoff frame complaints about microaggressions as essentially uncivil, a violation of norms around being able to handle discomfort and difference in academic contexts. This fundamentally disrespects the lived experiences of minority students on campuses who have sound evidence to demonstrate our institutions are in fact fundamentally hostile to their core identities, that they have good reason to believe that their university does not have their backs, does not give them something to fall back on.

How else to explain the rise of an entire scholarly organization that is dedicated to making academia more welcoming for conservatives, while denying that microaggressions are something we should take seriously? Is this respectful? Is it civil?

The University of South Carolina at Columbia, where Frey works, has a student population that is 10 percent Black in a state that is 28 percent Black. Is it possible that microaggressions as reported by Black students and faculty are an indicator of a deeper, fundamental hostility to minority students, and rather than dismissing them as an affront to intellectual inquiry, we instead should be listening to and respecting those testimonies?

Every time one of these arguments flares, I cannot help but see the irony in a professor engaging in some special pleading over the necessity to discomfort students who fails to grapple with the fact that professors too must be prepared to be discomforted.

In that opening tweet, it’s important to recognize Frey’s specific phrasing, “The way I would describe philosophy is feeling like (emphasis mine) the ground is moving underneath you.”

“Feeling like,” but not actually collapsing. This is safety. This is security.

In my experience, often when people say they do not feel safe, it’s because they aren’t. When they communicate that they do not feel welcome or respected, it is with good reason. I suppose we can dismiss those feelings, but when they are reflective of a genuine underlying material condition, we are betraying our shared values of respect, civility and justice.

Where people like me differ from organizations like Heterodox Academy is that I believe there’s a category of students for whom feeling that there is no ground underneath you is not a feeling, but is instead reality. That Frey cannot conceive that some students may not have that sense that there is a solid foundation under them is a failure of imagination, of empathy, of respect and civility, too.

This is not to suggest that specific diversity initiatives are beyond criticism. If they were, we’d have made much more progress when it comes to diversity. But Frey has chosen to mock the very core of the work as unworthy or unserious.

Is it respectful to spin a statement from your university’s DEI office into a straw-man argument?

I believe that the desire for safe spaces is nothing more than what tenured faculty already (for now anyway) enjoy on many campuses. If that kind of security is conducive to their work, what is the objection to providing it to everyone, including students?

[1] The tweet thread was quoted approvingly by many scholars I associate with that group, as well as criticized by people (like me) who fall into the opposing group.

[2] I would add fed, housed and with sufficient access to resources to dedicate appropriate time to one’s studies, but these are issues at the institutional and societal level, rather than the individual pedagogical level.


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