Two news stories at the beginning of the 2016 fall semester reignited an ongoing debate about the importance of safety in higher education. The first was a letter sent to incoming students at the University of Chicago by John Ellison, Dean of Students in the College, upon their arrival to the school in late August. After congratulating students for earning a place in this “community of scholars,” Ellison describes how the institution’s “commitment to academic freedom” means they do not support trigger warnings on syllabi, the creation of safe spaces on campus, or the cancellation of visits by invited speakers who address controversial topics in their work.
Ellison’s letter aligns concerns over safety with public debates in higher education focused around the intersection of academic freedom, free speech, inclusivity, and diverse perspectives. Much of the discourse has been framed by a popular article published in the Atlantic written by staff writer Conor Friedersdorf who argues that student activists have “weaponized” safe spaces. “Safe spaces” emerged when LGBTQ communities sought out places to gather without retribution or retaliation. According to Friedersdorf, its weaponization occurs when students use them to exclude others with force in order to feel protected and safe from viewpoints and opinions that seem to attack their own personhood. Student-led movements like #ConcernedStudent1950 at the University of Missouri demand that colleges and universities be more inclusive by excluding what they deem as sexist and racist viewpoints. The fiery protests at the University of California, Berkeley, which led to the cancellation of a talk by Milos Yiannopoulous was for many (including @realDonaldTrump) confirmation that liberally-minded students are trying to rid college campuses of diverse perspectives in the name of diversity and inclusion. According to proponents of such arguments, trigger warnings and safe spaces are part of a disturbing trend towards self-imposed censorship and politically-sanitized forms of expression.
It’s important to note in this context that triggers stemming from a traumatic experience are not the same thing as controversial issues causing emotional discomfort in students. This misrepresentation ends up marginalizing people living with trauma by equivocating psychosomatic distress with the uneasiness that may be experienced when confronting a difficult issue.
A second news story that brought the debate about safety into the fore was the “Cocks Not Glocks” student protest that took place during the first week of classes at the University of Texas, Austin. Students distributed free dildos to carry on campus in place of a concealed weapon, a symbolic gesture to protest the campus carry law. The protest was geared towards the actual weaponization of public university campuses across the state with legislators passing a law that allows licensed gun owners who are at least 21 years old to carry weapons at school. While Texas legislators seem to suggest that the campus carry law will make universities safer by allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons, the reaction of student protesters suggest they believe this law actually makes college campuses more dangerous.
The passing of the law and subsequent student protests illustrate how the very meaning of safety is under negotiation. From one perspective, safety is affective. It’s the feeling that results from making sure all of the possible ways harm could come to a person have been addressed. All necessary protocols are in place. And, just in case, violent images have been censored from movies. Dangerous viewpoints have been removed from the syllabus. This is the understanding of safety that Ellison wants to reject in his letter to incoming students. It’s also the kind of safety that commentators like the author of the aforementioned Atlantic article suggest that student activists, people of color, women, and other like-minded protesters are asking for in their campus demonstrations. Campus carry laws in Texas and other states imply that the feeling of safety stems from an ability to defend one’s self against harm through the use of force, if necessary. The personal security someone may feel from carrying a gun overrides any institutional measures taken, or the threatening learning environments that result from students packing heat.
In an ironic twist, Ellison at the University of Chicago and Texas legislators agree on a certain level with the premise that colleges and universities are unsafe. For Ellison, the lack of safety is rhetorical in nature. Colleges and universities are unsafe places where individual expression and intellectual autonomy are necessary to maintain academic freedom and institutional integrity. For Texas legislators, the lack of safety stems from a belief that there is an imminent threat in the public spaces of a college campus. The campus carry law attempts to preserve the gun owner’s safety through the personal freedoms afforded by the second amendment. This binary between intellectual and bodily safety is an untenable paradox. The ability to access the unsafe spaces of critical inquiry is contingent on the safety of one’s own body, while the perception of bodily safety for some enabled through legislation like the campus carry law creates an atmosphere of unsafety for everybody else.
This safety paradox is about more than feeling protected or a sense of security. It’s also about determining who is allowed to participate in the conversation–who gets to have a voice. Here, safety aligns with visibility and access. The inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States raises the stakes, again. People of color, immigrants, international students, LGBTQ individuals, and many women fear for their safety. Those who voted for Trump fear their conservative viewpoints will be further marginalized on liberal college campuses. These fears are not the same, but the safety paradox all too often conflates them. We need to acknowledge the very real connections between academic inquiry and physical safety. We must also acknowledge the cultural impact of important dialogues about racism and sexism that many of the campus protests and U.S. presidential election have unearthed; this critical engagement with culture should not be stalled by the anticipation of a student’s emotional discomfort in the name of safety or a teacher’s fear of institutional backlash from offending students on either side of the political spectrum.
As a professor, I have a stake in trying to figure out this safety paradox. It’s interesting because marginalized perspectives have often been viewed as threatening to the status quo. These perspectives challenge the legitimacy of certain modes of knowledge; from bell hooks, “Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity.” Now, by demanding multiple perspectives be heard, students are supposedly curtailing the opportunity for open dialogue. The message is clear. You need to stop talking so everyone else can speak.
The safety paradox reminds me of the essay “Fear (The Spectrum Said)” by Brian Massumi written in response to the terror alert system created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security authorized by President George W. Bush. Massumi argues this system was designed to control how much fear people should feel following the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001. The rationale for a particular threat level, however, was based on the promise of evidence that needed to remain classified in order to protect us. Those who disagreed with the war on terror didn’t have all of the information, which rendered these oppositional viewpoints incomplete and ineffective in the national press. In his example, the affective state of fear framed the national conversation about war. Following this logic, trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses act as a kind of security system. The debate over their use isn’t really about making campuses safer for people living with trauma. It’s about using the idea of safety as a rationale to suppress difference (in the name of diversity).
Now, the safety paradox is framing another conversation. It’s about accessibility in higher education, and more broadly, the ability of all citizens to access healthcare, jobs, information, and justice. College students and faculty are not out of control as Ellis and other legislative bodies contend. They are institutions embedded within patriarchal and racist systems. My job is to work with my students to reveal, undermine, and excise these inequities to make learning accessible to everyone in my classroom. In the United States, the mandate to make college campuses more accessible for marginalized persons is supported by civil rights and anti-discrimination legislation. These laws are the closest things we have to guarantees in terms of equal access in higher education. Safe spaces and trigger warnings were created as tools to help facilitate this process, but when they are understood as technologies to preemptively control the affective states of students they lose their political potency.
Without disclosing specifics, over the past year I was in a situation while travelling abroad where securing the bodily safety of my students was next to impossible. Unable to resolve the safety paradox, we started to consider the social barriers that enabled and disabled our access to specific places. By understanding the cultural contexts informing the rules of entry into those spaces, students started to feel more secure. We asked questions like, how is a particular environment designed for certain people? What are the rules of entry into a space, and the consequences for violating them? And, how does the severity of those consequences impact our willingness to challenge those rules?
Dr. Ellison’s letter to the incoming students at the University of Chicago and popular commentary about campus protests need to acknowledge that the concerns about the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces is as much about who has access to participate in intellectual debates on college campuses as it is about, well, feeling safe. What factors determine whose voices are heard? Who gets to be part of the community of scholars, and why? We need to interrogate whether or not campus carry laws create more accessible spaces in higher education, or inhibit accessibility by creating hostile work environments for teachers and students. We need to examine the rules of entry to the community of scholars that academic freedom preserves, and the consequences for violating those rules.
Administrators, faculty, and staff are bending over backwards trying to make sure the other side is heard lest they be condemned as unfair and unbalanced to diverse student bodies, but the actual voices they’re referring to often belong to people of influence who have always had access to the conversation whether or not they accepted the invitation. In 2014, Anita Sarkeesian who openly critiques the representation of women in video games canceled a lecture at Utah State University because, after receiving a death threat, the university told her they would continue to allow citizens carrying firearms to enter the venue if they had a valid permit. Where was the President’s tweet about the need to preserve free speech? Why didn’t the university develop a contingency plan to make sure her voice was still heard? Perhaps I missed the public outcry in the Atlantic about the coddling of gamer youth, or a national debate about the physical safety of speakers at institutions with campus carry laws. Student protests (especially those that result in injury) are seen as threats to free speech, but death threats are rationalized as an unfortunate byproduct of open communication.
It’s not the liberalism of student activists that’s the problem, but a general unwillingness to admit that academic freedom has only ever been an aspirational goal. In order to advance that goal, colleges and universities must recognize that students have a stake in who is part of the community of scholars it hopes to protect. Otherwise, the safety paradox will trap us in a feedback loop of our own design.