Friday, December 2, 2016

Safe Spaces: Refuge for the Identity Liberal

(Trigger warning: this content may include material that is innocuous or – worse – boring)

You can run, but you can’t hide.

In today’s world this would seem to be a truism. If a surveillance camera or drone doesn’t have you in focus, your smart phone is probably leaving an electronic scent trail.

Yet in spite of this, or perhaps in part because of it, college campuses in America and the UK
have seen a burgeoning demand for so-called safe spaces and trigger warnings about academic course material to protect students from thoughts and ideas that might seem controversial, anxiety-provoking, or perhaps merely novel.

The traditional role of schools as safe spaces for free speech and intellectual inquiry would appear to be taking a dark turn. Even freedom of the press on campus has been under assault.

But what is a safe space? The phrase is a shibboleth malleable enough to cover a lot of ground. It could be a dedicated room like Harvard’s Room 13 that offers cookies and counseling 7:00am to 7:00pm.  Or a room equipped with pillows, bubbles, Play-Doh, coloring books, puppy cuddling, or even a “massage circle” – a sort of ad hoc first responder base for students “traumatized” by, say, a debate about a hot button topic like campus sexual assault. Several universities, for example, offered such services to students distraught over the news of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. (I could have used a ton of Play-Doh myself.)

Because of the taboo in academic circles against “blaming the victim,” the reasonableness, much less sincerity, of a student’s emotional state is seldom called into question when he or she testifies to feeling threatened and invokes the right to redress and/or safe space, especially if the student’s emotions speak to the his/her identity group. Thus, the mere testimony of threat mandates a remedy – such as dis-inviting a public figure from a scheduled campus appearance (at least 240 such campaigns since 2000) or the censure/ resignation of faculty or administrators.

Besides a particular room, a safe space could be a building such as an ethnic or cultural center – black student union (e.g., Northwestern’s Black House), Hillel house, Catholic or Christian center – or a designated (usually temporary) outdoor area of the campus. On occasion, students have demanded the entire campus be turned into a safe space – topically, of course, for the benefit of the group in question.

Many institutions now offer programs that train “allies” for, say, the LGBT community, upon completion of which the student or faculty graduate receives a colorful decal to put on a locker or to designate an office as a safe space for members of that identity group.

Paradoxically, safe spaces, which may be segregated by race, identity group, or even subgroup, are not necessarily themselves free of risk. Students at a “safe space” at Claremont McKenna College in California shut down an Asian woman who was describing racial harassment by a black man, booing her when she declared, “black people can be racist.” People of all sexual preferences are more likely to discriminate against self-identified asexuals as compared to other sexual minorities, potentially leading to their exclusion from, say, an LGBT safe space.

As to what’s behind the safe space craze, many factors are doubtless at play, not a few of which seem  regrettable (see Appendix). Even so, the safe space tsunami has washed up some colorful flotsam and jetsam, in some instances so ridiculous it’s downright hilarious:

Students at Harvard Law School asked various professors not to teach rape law or even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest they cause students anxiety.

The Affirmative Action Office of Indiana University–Purdue University, Indianapolis, found a white student guilty of racial harassment for merely reading a book titled Notre Dame vs. the Klan. A picture of a Klan rally on the book’s dust cover had offended one of the student’s co-workers – himself a janitor as well as a student.

While correcting a student’s grammar and spelling, a UCLA professor noted that the first letter of the word "indigenous" had been wrongly capitalized. Lowercasing the capital I was deemed an insult to the student and her identity group.

At Yale, English majors demanded that classes featuring white male poets be abolished.

Asian students at Oberlin College complained that the General Tso’s chicken wasn’t up to their standards – a case of misfired “cultural appropriation," you might say – ironic in that the meal was originally standardized in America as a way of introducing Americans to Asian food.

In another “cultural appropriation” contretemps, a San Francisco University coed attacked a white man wearing dreadlocks because “It’s my culture,” not yours!

When the University of Michigan Ann Arbor announced a new campus-wide policy allowing students to select their own “designated personal pronoun” – informing the campus community they were expected to adhere to those preferences – one student chose “His Majesty” (as a satirical joke, fortunately).

At the University of New Hampshire, the word “American” was (briefly) deemed problematic. The school’s online “Bias-Free Language Guide” wherein this claim was made, however, didn't last long.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has published a jolly gender pronoun guide. You might want to keep this one uploaded to your Google Glass because, well, you never know...

So where does all this leave us?

America’s political azimuth having taken a sharp swing to the right, some pundits now proclaim the end of identity liberalism, the vis a tergo of the safe space phenomenon. Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. Even if identity liberalism, understood as safe space-addled, narcissistic disconnectedness to anything outside one’s identity group, regresses so far that, bereft of other distractions, it ends up, however implausibly, oblivious even to itself – and thus defunct – liberal birds-of-a-feather, squabbling all the while, will still flock together. And as traditional safe spaces or sanctuaries dwindle, especially on campus (due to the onslaught of identity conservatism, for example) new ones will have to be found.

But found where? Or with what?

During the latter days of his dotage, my great grandfather Nachmann “Knack” Podhoretz – who was admittedly prone to collecting, nay, hoarding, even the most woeful of misconceptions – once commented (rather too offhandedly, I thought), “every idea comes in handy sooner or later.” With this aphorism of his in mind, though, I’d like to venture a suggestion for coping with the safe space/liberal identity crisis, a possible everyman (conservatives, too!) solution you could keep in your garage and perhaps even trail behind your car – namely, the orgone accumulator.

Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Energy Accumulator circa 1940, “Ghosts in the Machine”
, New Museum, New York, 2012. In today’s social milieu, it’s easy to
imagine the accumulator repurposed as safe space.
First introduced around 1940 by a Viennese psychiatrist, one Wilhelm Reich, the orgone accumulator was perhaps his greatest achievement. Amongst other fixations, Reich was a believer in salvation through "apocalyptic orgasm." He claimed to have established the basis for this idea – and indeed, for everything! – with the discovery (in a pot of beef stew, of all places) of orgone, the universal life force that accounts for, inter alia, the color of the sky, gravity, galaxies, and, yes, a good orgasm.

Tossing meat, potatoes, vegetables, and a few other ingredients into a pot and cooking it for half an hour (not unlike how I do this blog), he siphoned off some of the broth and observed it under a microscope. There, contained in vesicles called "bions," he first discerned the orgone energy.

[Left] Diane Keaton and Brian Avery exit the orgasmatron in the 1973 Woody 
Allen classic, Sleeper. [Right] In a  dystopian world, the orgasmatron proved to 
be the safest space around, although Miles Monroe (Allen), seen here enraptured 
by a go in it, is readily apprehended by security police.

It didn’t take long for Reich to determine that he could trap orgone in a specially constructed cabinet called an accumulator, closeted within which patients could experience cures for just about any medical disorder – and perhaps a good orgasm to boot.

But if you were ensconced in an accumulator too long, it turned out, you could potentially end up overcharged (with orgone, not necessarily by Reich), though whether this might lead to, say, an orgasm cataclysm, one just doesn’t know.
Safe Space alla Rustica. Unlike
the Reich accumulator, this design
and the Moderna (see below)
function more as disposal units.

In 1956, Reich was thrown in jail on US federal charges of fraudulently selling accumulators across state lines, whereafter the device disappeared from view for awhile. Film director Woody Allen re-introduced an up-graded version of it, the orgasmatron, in the 1973 movie classic, Sleeper, though this one suspiciously appears to require an electrical plug-in.

Safe Space alla Moderna
Yet now I wonder if the time has come for still another upgrade to the accumulator: to wit, the Orgaz-Go-Safe, a composite device that in addition to the amenities of previous models, would also function as safe space.

I have no idea exactly what it would look like, but some prototype ideas are depicted herein, along with an example or two of historical interest.

The unit would probably be bulletproof, tear gas-proof, soundproof, idea-proof, and of course childproof or at least offer such features as popular options. Wireless Wi-Fi and a year’s supply of Play-Doh, though, would come standard. For affluent buyers, the Orgaz-Go-Safe might also be available with designer branding (think Orgaz-Go-Safe, Eddie Bauer edition).

Campus rape would likely  plummet.

And if you ended up using yours for a convenient voting booth, too, what harm could it possibly do?

Artist’s conception of a novel orgonic safe space, 
the Gaz-Go-Safe, rendered here in Georgian 
Colonial style.  The boeuf-sur-toit offset  finial is 
an homage to the village green of  bygone days.


There are doubtless many factors at play in the safe space craze.  For whatever reasons, today’s undergraduates seem more immature and emotionally fragile than their predecessors, making it easier for schools to slip into an in loco parentis role and treat them like vulnerable children. Students, in turn, then expect to be treated as such. Given the astronomical cost of a college education, especially at elite schools, an experience uniquely tailored, not just to a student’s academic needs, but also to his or her emotional ones, is now presumed to be part of the package.
Institutional Safe Space Program

Indeed, students’ emotional needs are a growing concern. In a 2013 survey by the American College Counseling Association, a majority of campus mental-health directors reported an increase in the prevalence of severe psychological problems among students. Perhaps this explains, at least in part, students’ inordinate sensitivity to things like “microaggressions,” small actions or words that seem innocuous but are taken as attacks. Asking an Asian or Latino student “Where were you born?,” for example, would be considered a microaggression. So would spelling the word history as “history” instead of “hxstory” – the former being considered sexist and patriarchal: “his”+ “story.”

Outmoded Safe Space
Imaginary Safe Space
If you run about this emotionally discombobulated, on hair trigger setting for every occasion, you can’t be very comfortable with yourself. No wonder you’d want a safe space.

Another reason for the safe space obsession – and associated student assertions of feeling unsafe – may have to do with changes in two civil-rights statutes, Title VII and Title IX,  that require campuses not be “hostile environment[s]” for women and minority groups. If students demand censorship on the grounds of feeling unsafe – i.e., that their environment is hostile – they’re more likely to be heard than if they do so on other grounds. In other words, the almost knee-jerk concession of safe space, along with any censorship, is understood simply as compliance with the requirement for a non-hostile campus environment.

Ironically, diversity itself could be a contributing factor. Today's Millennials, young adults ages 18 to 33, are the most racially diverse generation in U.S. hxstory, and this is reflected on college campuses. Most college students prefer a campus “where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints,” including offensive and biased speech, over a campus where such speech is prohibited.

Yet achieving consensus for normative behavior and discourse in the face of such diversity could plausibly be difficult (like the Tower of Babel) and lead paradoxically to the sort of minimalist campus neo-orthodoxy that tries above all else to ensure nobody’s feelings get hurt and minority groups, especially, are “safe.” As a consequence, almost any idea could potentially be deemed threatening and subject to censure. These days, even professional comedians avoid appearing at college campuses because campuses have become just that PC.

Finally, today's campuses are dangerous in ways that are all too real. More than one in five female undergrads at top schools, for example, suffer sexual assault, and the response of school administrations to such crimes has tended to be lackluster. Moreover, merely knowing that you could be caught up in a shooting rampage on campus surely ups the ante for any notions of safe space. Who can forget the 2007 nightmare at Virginia Tech?

Horizontal Safe Space

                                       "You have to let the inmates out of the asylum once in awhile. 
                                        Otherwise, things get dicey. The trick, of course, is to get them 
                                        back in."

                                                                                                — Quinlin Blemish, Esq.

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