Safe Spaces at Universities

Go without a coat when it’s cold; find out what cold is. Go hungry; keep your existence lean. Wear away the fat, get down to the lean tissue and see what it’s all about. The only time you define your character is when you go without. In times of hardship, you find out what you’re made of and what you’re capable of. If you’re never tested, you’ll never define your character.
Henry Rollins

“Safe spaces” have been cropping up at US universities for a while. Apparently students can’t handle adult topics and cannot take a meta-perspective anymore. To cope they need sheltered spaces (or see this article):

The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.

Even worse, apparently invited speakers who go by actual data are threatening now and get protested or boycotted.

An example is Christina Hoff Sommers speaking about feminism at Oberlin. She’s a “dissident feminist” (actually arguing for freedom feminism) and does highly interesting videos for the American Enterprise Institute on YouTube, e.g., this one. Given a rather biased interpretation of her work (she looks at actual data and is not swayed by hysterics), a few students at Oberlin apparently had a dire need for safe spaces (note: this “love letter” is extremely biased regarding her work, the best things on that site are actually the comments, esp. the one by “Heywood Y.”):

Dear Oberlin Students,

Don’t you think that it might be better to go listen to Sommers’ presentation for yourselves, rather than metaphorically sticking your fingers in your ears and screaming “la la la la la” to drown out a viewpoint that differs from your own?

The purposes of a college education are to learn how to learn, and to seek the truth. Achieving these goals requires you to develop mental discipline, intellectual curiosity, and emotional resilience, all of which are hallmarks of well-adjusted adulthood. College should not be a glorified (and expensive) therapeutic day care facility for fragile 18-22 year old children in adult bodies, where the currently fashionable opinions are memorized by rote and regurgitated on demand. The people who wrote this appeal are turning themselves — and you — into hothouse flowers incapable of surviving in the real world.

Muster up the tiniest shred of the courage your grandparents exerted daily, and go listen for an hour to someone with whom you disagree. Sit quietly, bite your tongue, and ponder the merits of your opponent’s views. You might learn something that will come in handy after you leave the smothering cocoon of groupthink that is Oberlin College.

An Adult
Heywood Y. at

Brilliant comment — others are very good as well.

But it’s strange to believe that the people protesting against an invited speaker actually are students. Students who will one day make decisions that matter. They could have just not gone to the lecture. Or they could have gone and listened and perhaps learned something. But no, protest letters, boycotts and safe-spaces.

On the positive side, well, it led to this amazing piece of art (uploaded by HotelEarth, no idea who created it, but very well done, not only for the links they provide on the YouTube site):

Simply beautiful. 😉

Well, the form is, the content … brilliant satire.

But unfortunately, safe-spaces and censorship also seem to be spreading. For example, see this brilliant article (and the illustration, waow) about censorship in England. I mean, seriously? Frankly, there’s something to be said for this rant when it comes to trauma. And as for safe spaces, let’s have dangerous spaces. And as for the chronically offended, this article nailed it.

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7 Comments on Safe Spaces at Universities

  1. Margaret Mead // May 9, 2015 at 8:13 pm //

    Actually, I liked your blog better while it held true to its title rather than seizing any opportunity for (as I perceive it) destructive criticism against people whose opinions differ from yours (in your terms, the “hysterics”, “chronically offended”, etc.). To me, a well-adjusted creative mind is characterized by generosity rather than a desire to enhance itself by criticizing others. The “Heywood Y.” comment reveals an appalling lack of empathy, and I’m probably as appalled by your undifferentiated endorsement of it. There’s also quite a lot of downsides to the glorious old times.

  2. Daniel // May 9, 2015 at 8:38 pm //

    This blog was more focused in the old times, but I take the long view and have broadened its focus. There are still tips and tricks, but also societal issues — for good reasons. I think we see an authoritarian position trying to control freedom of expression. And it’s all nice to give tips and tricks to deal with highly focused issues on creativity, but I think I would do creativity a disservice in the long run. Not mentioning these issues would be like giving tips to arrange flowers on the Titanic. And I think there are too few people standing up and criticizing ridiculus and oppressive behavior. These chronically offended SJWs are in the minority, but their loudness gives them more influence (at the moment, I notice a shift) and their demands affect other people (e.g. those who want to broaden their minds).

    As for destructive criticism — how is it destructive? Protests and boycotts are destructive, this is satire. This is showing these people their faces in the mirror. One of the original artforms. If they can’t stand what they are looking at, that is their problem. Because the thing is, these people are adults. So why not demand they act this way? If you never demand any adult or professional behavior from them, how can they learn and grow? So, who is doing these people, and the ones (later) depending on them, a disservice?

    Interesting thought on generosity, have to think on that. Personally, I think criticism is part of creativity and “the only sure weapon against bad ideas are better ideas”. And safe spaces and boycotts are terrible ideas. Not to mention that “be generous” can also be interpreted as “let me exploit you”. I’ve made my experience with people who lack the concept of reciprocity in my private life, I’m not going there again (in contrast to this blog, where I had perhaps 95% positive interactions). But generosity in general … well, stupid is stupid, generosity doesn’t make it smart. And I wouldn’t post this if I did not think that some can learn and much can be prevented. Isn’t investing my time for this noble cause generous? 😉

    As for “There’s also quite a lot of downsides to the glorious old times.” … not sure what you mean here. Do you assume I am a traditionalist? Nothing could be further from the truth (well, a few other terms could be). I am an egalitarian, but in rights and responsibilities. And I expect adult behavior from adults. Frankly I grew up with Star Trek TNG … safe spaces do not get us there.

  3. Luc Beaulieu // May 14, 2015 at 12:11 am //

    Brillant Daniel.

    I did not know of this trend, maybe it did not reach my university yet. At some point, I would not be surprise, if like the McDonald peanuts bag warning (in the US at least there is a warning that tell you that the nut bag may contain nuts!!!), to see warning before each class and conferences.

    It seems that common sense, basic logic and a minimum of curiosity are lacking in many part of society now. We, collectively, need to elevate the debate for sure but that is not easy. The trend, in particular, against science and evidence-based decisions is heavy, particularly in the USA and politically it works.

  4. Luc Beaulieu // May 14, 2015 at 12:12 am //

    Oh, I actually thought that “Heywood Y” letter was well balanced and crafted.

  5. Yep, and that’s part of the problem. Even reasoned voices are quickly labeled as harassing, or showing an “appalling lack of empathy” and you get criticized for endorsing it (“appalled”). And these interpretations are then used in other places to paint a pretty negative picture of these reasoned voices. It no longer matters what was said, but what people who “disagree” felt, their interpretation. And these people want to make their subjective interpretation a societal (and “objective”) reality. They want to be the arbiter of truth. Pretty scary.

    Not sure yet how large the group of SJWs are who feed on this outrage and use it to try to control and censor society. But my guess is that it’s spreading. These things rarely stay local, even if most of the issues currently happen in the US (and to a smaller degree in the UK, latest facepalm story was this one — waow, first redefining racism/sexism to exclude prejudice against a specific group and then using it to exclude said group, this dehumanizing strategy is not that new).

    And it’s sad not only for academia, but for society in general. Esp. when it comes to keeping people as victims. Recently had a discussion where a prof refused to discuss a grade with a student, not even with others present, because she found him intimidating. You find people defending her “narrative” and “feelings”, instead of seeing that his person a) has a personal problem that damages her ability to teach, and b) that her behavior is unprofessional. Got accused of ignoring threats and discounting women’s feelings (there were no threats and her feelings have no basis in reality, but apparently, they cannot be wrong).

    Similar things happen with GamerGate (it criticized collusion/corruption in the media, so how does the media react to it?) and a few other topics. Hopefully there will be a push back to reason. This whole victim mentality … hard to see a future for mankind if that prevails (and personally, the students and colleagues I know, male and female, are better than that).

  6. Margaret Mead // May 26, 2015 at 4:23 pm //

    I still don’t see why a little more empathy and consideration wouldn’t benefit everyone. What’s the big deal in putting a little effort into weighing your words a little carefully? I’m sorry, but this rings a questionable “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” ideology bell. I’m not that sure your own view (or any other you consider “reasoned”) is so much more balanced than the ones you criticize, and I definitely don’t think you are as much above any ideology as you might want to make believe. Filter bubble phenomenon?

  7. Hmmm, “What’s the big deal in putting a little effort into weighing your words a little carefully?” … does this also apply to what you write? But more constructively, the “big deal” is who decides what should be “weighted” or “watched” more carefully — and who decides what is too much, what should be avoided. Essentially this is an issue of freedom of speech and freedom of expression — and the control thereof. Do you really think it will stop with trigger warnings? Or with uninviting speakers who have controversial positions?

    I love quotations, and your comment reminded me strongly of:

    “Up until now everything around here has been, well, pleasant. Recently certain things have become unpleasant. Now, it seems to me that the first thing we have to do is to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant.”

    A really interesting movie, I’d highly recommend it.

    (BTW, before you use “slippery slope”, I think trigger warnings are already in the gutter, i.e., they go to far. But unfortunately, they are only the first step.)

    Back to the topic, have a look at the examples again — do you really think that students as group cannot handle mature topics? Cannot handle emotionally demanding topics? Cannot handle controversy?

    Sure, some individuals cannot — and these students should learn to deal with it. The university should not try to prevent any eventuality or any issue. And yup, this would be the consequence. Or do you really think that it’s only topics like sexual harassment or rape which lead to “strong emotions”? These topics are frequently cited and protested against, because some people have an interest in controlling the discussion. No conspiracy here, just jobs depending on the topic. But you could easy create a … let’s say moment of negative surprise when reading about snowplow if that student has just lost a person he or she loved due to a freak accident.

    If a student has a problem, he or she can leave. But to treat all students as children and university as extended day-care is the wrong way. It’s university, expect mature themes. These are people who need to make decisions that matter, not toddlers in need of a safety blanket.

    But I guess the difference of opinions here boils down to a different view on adults and what we can expect from them. The person who made your name/pseudonym famous once wrote:

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
    Margaret Mead

    And I agree with that quotation. I strongly favor competent individuals who are able to deal with complex issues. And who are able to deal with unforeseen moments when their emotions flare up. That kind of emotional control I do expect from adults. Even if the strategy is just “sorry, need a moment of air” and then deal with whatever freaked the person out later. I prefer individuals who do not demand special compensation based on real or imagines psychological scars or fears but move beyond that.

    What I don’t want are outrage-mongers who want to “protect” others and decide which words have to be weighted. Who want to control which issues are to be dealt with in which manner, and which topics have to be handled with kid gloves.

    So we might have fundamentally different views on students that make this discussion — in the end — unresolvable. And as for ideology — I’ve frequently said that I have faith in science. Not that it will necessarily always ensure mankind’s survival, but that it’s the best way. And this requires students who are able to think. Hell, this requires a population that is able to think.

    And yup, I think universities should be places where students can learn to think, even if — or rather: especially if — the topic is uncomfortable for them.

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