This piece was written by a University of Pennsylvania junior, Alec Ward, back in April, long before campus speech became such ykrhrbsark
a major national story. He found himself puzzling over the same thing I was pondering the other day: If students are unhappy, uncomfortable, or offended, isn’t that a very different thing from feeling literally “unsafe?” And yet “unsafe” is the word being used. Why?
This ran in the Daily Pennsylvanian, the college paper:
Reconsidering the rhetoric of safety, by Alec Ward
On Monday of last week, conservative writer David Horowitz gave a speech on Israel at the University of North Carolina during which he claimed that two U.S.-based pro-Palestinian campus groups, the Muslim Students Association and Students for Justice in Palestine, had connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.
I have absolutely no idea whether or not that’s true or even supportable. What I do know is that a number of students who objected to Horowitz’s comments began a social media campaign around the slogan “Not Safe UNC” which, through a tumblr page, published — among other things — claims that Horowitz’s comments, because they made Muslim students feel targeted and marginalized, represented a threat to those students’ safety at the school.
I only heard about the incident by following a link from an unrelated article, and I probably wouldn’t have given it much thought except that I had noticed a slideshow in the ARCH building earlier that day which featured pictures of a number of students and quotations from them about “[their] safe space at Penn.”
I’d seen references to safety in academia twice in a few hours and now it was on my mind. I remembered that students who advocate for so-called “trigger warnings” when potentially offensive material will be covered in classes often talk about safety in the classroom. Half an hour’s Googling reveals instances in which students who oppose a speaker’s position claim that their views make a campus unsafe are far from a rarity.
I can’t help but think that the language of safety and unsafety just isn’t the right terminology for this conversation. I don’t doubt that students sometimes do experience intense and sincere negative emotional reactions to ideas which contradict or defy their own deeply held beliefs. Such emotional discomfort, however, doesn’t rise to the level of a threat to life or limb, which is the inevitable implication when we say that something is unsafe. Moreover, attaching rhetoric of unsafety to ideas which offend suggests that the proper reaction to such ideas is suppression or removal. After all, when a playground is unsafe for children, we tear it down….
Critical inquiry and intellectual progress toward truth — the philosophical cornerstones of the academic endeavor — demand the ability to challenge deeply held beliefs about right and wrong, truth and falsehood….The notion that such a process represents a danger, and the accompanying implication that it should be suppressed, has no more place on a college campus than the Torquemadean idea that we should ban scientists from looking into microscopes to try to better understand the structure of matter, lest what they find contradict our beliefs...
Read the rest here. And consider my earlier thought: That perhaps growing up in a culture that deems NOTHING is safe enough for kids, the kids grow up believing it. Like the TSA, they can’t distinguish between a nuke and a gnat, and hence are on red alert all the time.
Or here’s one other theory that just dawned on me (and perhaps I’m slow): As I was searching for the image of a “safe space” to illustrate this story, up came many logos for gay pride. I can understand gay and transgendered students feeling like they could be targeted for real, physical violence. So maybe they sought a “safe space” where they could be themselves — be “out” — without fear of getting roughed up. And then that search somehow spread to the larger community of college groups. I really am just not sure. – L