Tuesday, November 17, 2015

From Safety to Where?

"This past week, the news media has energetically discussed student unrest at Yale and at the University of Missouri, where students are protesting administrative insensitivity or inaction in the face of troubled racial climates. At Mizzou, in particular, student activists have demanded safe space. A student journalist, Tim Tai, was denied access to the protesters’ tent city in a public area of the campus. The protesters didn’t want to be photographed or interviewed, possibly not trusting journalists to tell their story accurately.
The next day, they rightly changed their stance, opened their space to the media, and a debate on free speech and safe spaces found new life. Quickly, the student protesters were accused of not tolerating free speech in regard not only to Mr. Tai, but also to those who use racial epithets and otherwise engage in hate speech. They were accused of being weak, of being whiny for having the audacity to expect to attend college without being harassed for their blackness.
As a writer, I believe the First Amendment is sacred. The freedom of speech, however, does not guarantee freedom from consequence. You can speak your mind, but you can also be shunned. You can be criticized. You can be ignored or ridiculed. You can lose your job. The freedom of speech does not exist in a vacuum....
And so the students at Mizzou wanted a safe space to commune as they protested. They wanted sanctuary but had the nerve to demand this sanctuary in plain sight, in a public space. Rather than examine why the activists needed safe space, most people wrapped themselves in the Constitution, the path of less resistance. The students are framed as coddled infants, as if perhaps we should educate college students in a more spartan manner — placing classrooms in lions’ dens.

...All good ideas can be exploited. There are some extreme, ill-advised and simply absurd manifestations of the idea of safe space. And there are and should be limits to the boundaries of safe space. Safe space is not a place where dissent is discouraged, where dissent is seen as harmful. And yet. I understand where safe space extremism comes from. When you are marginalized and always unsafe, your skin thins, leaving your blood and bone exposed. You live at the breaking point. In such circumstances, of course you might be inclined to fiercely protect yourself, at any cost. Of course you might become intolerant. Of course you might perceive dissent as danger.
There is also this. Those who mock the idea of safe space are most likely the same people who are able to take safety for granted. That’s what makes discussions of safety and safe spaces so difficult. We are also talking about privilege. As with everything else in life, there is no equality when it comes to safety." 
- Roxanne Gay, The Seduction of Safety, On Campus and Beyond, New York Times

"Framing free speech and political correctness as opposing forces is a false dichotomy intended to derail uncomfortable but necessary conversations, a smokescreen ginned up by the ethically lazy. The fact is, political correctness doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. But for marginalised groups, rather than the status quo.
On the campuses of Yale University and the University of Missouri last week, the weariness and anger of black students coalesced into protests that have inspired much anti-PC handwringing and infighting in progressive circles. In Missouri, student protesters forced the resignation of university president Timothy Wolfe, who they said had allowed a racist campus culture to flourish. At Yale, black students clashed with white professors over whether or not discouraging kids from wearing blackface on Halloween was an authoritarian silencing manoeuvre. Yale protestors were filmed screaming in the face of Silliman College master Nicholas Christakis, demanding his resignation; at the University of Missouri, protestors shut out and shoved (which, yes, absolutely crosses a line) a news photographer who was attempting to document their hunger strike. Videos of the screaming and the shoving have been used to discredit the protests, downplay systemic racism, frame protesters as frivolous whiners (especially in the Yale case) and argue that college activists are not simply ignorant of the first amendment, they’re openly hostile to it.
But here is the thing: white students parading around campus in blackface is itself a silencing tactic. Telling rape victims that they’re “coddled” is a silencing tactic. Teaching marginalised people that their concerns will always be imperiously dismissed, always subordinated to some decontextualised free-speech absolutism is a silencing tactic.
Framing student protests as bratty “political correctness gone mad” makes campuses a hostile environment for everyone except for students who have no need to protest. Blandly discouraging minority groups from full participation in civic life is such an old, entrenched tactic that it doesn’t register. It’s like furniture. Meanwhile, it’s Chait’s demographic that holds the real institutional power; the Chaits of the world who make up the majority of finance and entertainment and government; Chait and company who have the short-sightedness to imply that black Americans being shot in the streets by agents of the state are the real puppetmasters of an authoritarian regime. Right.
If you’re genuinely concerned about “free speech”, take a step back and look at what’s actually happening here: a bunch of college students, on the cusp of finding their voices, being publicly berated by high-profile writers in national publications because they don’t like what they have to say. Are you sure you know who’s silencing whom?"

-Lindy West, Political Correctness Doesn't Hinder Free Speech- It Expands It, The Guardian

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