College campuses aren't supposed to be intellectually safe. They need to be intellectually dangerous
The constant calls for "safe zones," "trigger warnings," and for harassment of journalists on college campuses won't advance the cause of social justice. They will only set it back.
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but It truly was the best of times and also the worst of times. Over the past week, students at the University of Missouri rose up in response to both a longstanding history of racism and a series of very recent, very disturbing incidents in which black students have been harassed, both verbally and physically.
They did something amazing -- students at Mizzou reminded the rest of America what can be accomplished through the power of collective action and non-violent protest. The actions at Missouri introduced us to a new young hero, Jonathan Butler, who went on a hunger strike until the president of the state's university system resigned, which he ultimately did. They were aided in this by the university's African-American football players, who brought matters to a head in our pigskin-obsessed society by joining the crusade of Butler and Concerned Students 1950 and pledging to boycott future games until Tim Wolfe was out.
Let's be clear: Wolfe -- whose response to blatant racism on campus was too little and too late -- deserved to go (and don't worry, I'm sure he'll get a lucrative lobbying gig or something, since those types always take care of their own.) The conniption fits that the Mizzou protests caused among right-wingers were worth the price of admission alone. But these actions by students at Missouri also produced something real, something positive. Because of their efforts, I'm certain that the campus in Columbia, Mo., will be a more diverse, more welcoming, and better place than it would have been if students had instead embraced silence.
But then, to paraphrase the great Frank and Nancy Sinatra, they had to spoil it all by doing something stupid: Claiming a zone of taxpayer-funded, public property as some kind of "safe zone" where others, but particularly journalists, would be denied the fundamental rights of freedom to move about, freedom to shoot video and pictuies and freedom to ask questions, the rights that are enshrined in the 1st Amendment in our Bill of Rights.
As students blocked journalists from a tent city on public university grounds, Concerned Students 1950 wrote on its Twitter feed: "We truly appreciate having our story told, but this movement isn't for you" -- unconsciously and hopefully unknowingly echoing the white racists like Alabama's Bull Connor and allies who'd labored hard and sometimes successfully to block journalists from covering the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Even worse was a so-called "communications" professor with an appointment in Missouri's nationally prestigious journalism department, the prosaically named Melissa Click, who called for "muscle" to physically harass and block journalists of the kind that she allegedly teaches.
In the last day, there have been positive developments; Concerned Students 1950 has backtracked and expressed a willingness to deal with the media; Click has apologized and severed her ties with the journalism department (which still isn't enough in my book; if Tim Wolfe had to go, and he did, then Melissa Click should be one-click deleted from the university roster.) But the one-day brouhaha ripped open a wound involving colleges campuses and free speech that has been festering for some time.
In Missouri, at least, students with laudable goals fell back on some deplorable tactics. At Yale, hundreds of students have joined a protest that is hard to even summarize other than that it's bat-guano crazy -- what started as a legitimate if perhaps overwrought discussion about Halloween costumes then devolved into an embarrassing mass verbal-harassment campaign against an adult residence-hall "master," riddled with foul language and with one student shouting: " It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It's about creating a home here."
Arguably even more troublesome are the events at Wesleyan University, where the campus newspaper had the gall (I'm being sarcastic) to publish an op-ed that mildly questioned the Black Lives Matters movement; in response, students first threatened to block delivery of the paper and then the student government cut the paper's funding. Godwin's law prevents me from saying what I truly think about that.
In the thousand or so think pieces that have been launched by Mizzou, Yale and other eruptions, a common theme is that social media from Twitter and Facebook to Snapchat and YikYak. and dozens of apps that those of us over the age of 22 have never heard of, have made the conventional media unnecessary for a social justice movement like Concerned Students 1950 or Black Lives Matter to reach folks. That's probably true -- but this isn't about anyone's damned audience reach, it's about fundamental rights.
Even if a newspaper like my beloved Daily News has only six readers left -- and trust me, we're getting there -- we have a right to be in a public space, take pictures and ask question, just like activists have the right (and have accomplished amazing things in exercising it) to Film the Police on a public sidewalk. Indeed, ask yourself how you might feel if the cops declared they needed "a safe space" to arrest (and maybe rough up, since you're no longer watching) protesters.
To see the two things that I've always fought for as a writer in the public arena -- social justice, and unfettered free expression -- at war with each other is something that I find heartbreaking. I've been a fervent, sometimes overzealous defender of the Black Lives Matter movement, literally from the August 2014 weekend when an unarmed Mike Brown was gunned down in the streets of Ferguson -- and I've been continually harassed on social media and in numerous hate e-mails for doing so. And I find racist, sexist or homophobic Halloween costumes utterly repulsive. But those aren't the principles at stake here. Hostility toward free speech and a free press might buy you an hour or two of "safe space" but they won't win the war against social injustice. It will only set things back. And it's about more than just the media.
What we need, not just on college campuses, is dialogue and debate that is sensitive, that expresses opinions, even strong ones, in ways that are careful not to needlessly offend others. What we don't need: The excessive use of "trigger warnings," which are meant to minimize exposure to trauma but can have the consequence of minimizing exposure to reality. I shudder to think what might have happened if the state violence against black people in Birmingham and at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma had come with trigger warnings -- unwatched for fear of traumatizing folks. Would the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have even passed?
What we also don't need, again, are excessive "safe zones" -- which are, in effect, a retreat from the battlefield of ideas. Anybody who wishes to make a college campus "a home" -- like that misguided, obscenity spewing student at Yale -- needs to know that the best home for ideas is a messy one, a non-stop Thanksgiving feast of family members who love one another but quarrel constantly, over matters great and small. Anyone who doesn't think that college is about "creating an intellectual space" needs to get out and make room for a deserving kid who actually wants an education.
The folks who want to shut down campus newspapers and create "safe spaces" have been tagged "liberals." Maybe so, but what they are doing is completely antithetical to a real progressive movement that seeks both social justice and personal freedom. In a time of rampant inequality and corporate hegemony in America, we need a revolution -- and we need to be producing "street fighters" of ideas, not coddled retreaters to their intellectually spotless "home." For America to someday be the great nation it can truly be requires intellectually dangerous spaces, not safe ones.
Off campus, you're not going to be dealing with wishy-washy emailing professors or 19-year-olds wanting to shoot some video for the college newspaper, but actual determined enemies -- racist and reactionary bozos and heartless billionaires who'll ship your job overseas before they give you a raise from $8 an hour, and deport your parents just for the hell of it. And when these bad guys fight back, and they will, trust me -- you're not going to want a safe space. You're going to want the whole world watching.