According to the New York Times headline, the death toll in Paris from last night’s coordinated terrorist attacks stands at 127, with another 200 wounded. There are things to be said about this attack, not the least of which is that for all that’s been done, to appease religious groups, to sacrifice rights for safety, to put effort and fortunes into ineffective methods for the purpose of preventing them from ever occurring again, it still happened.
There will be advocates using this to further an agenda. And it will reduce the horror of mass murder to an abstraction, a tool to be used to manipulate the unwary and hard of thinking. For now, the only thing to be said is to offer condolences to those whose family, loved ones and friends were murdered. Their deaths are real, and they cannot be undone.
As reports of the murders in Paris spread, so too did reactions from college campuses, angry that dead bodies stole the spotlight from their complaints. A twitter account, @AmherstUprising, which may be an intentional parody or merely a parody in fact, announced that it would be protesting the school’s mascot at its football game today.
We will be protesting Lord Jeff at the football game tomorrow. We cannot be safe when racist mascots represent us. #AmherstUprising
— Amherst Uprising (@amherstuprising) November 13, 2015
The contrast between mass murder and the “pain” of a liberal arts college mascot could not be more stark. While this distinction was the subject of a post yesterday, its relevance was driven home far more quickly than I would have imagined. And they are outraged that murder made their cries of pain seem silly and puny. If choices, like the mascot for Amherst College, made long before you were a twinkle in anyone’s eye, displease you, you can always leave.
It’s sheer coincidence that there is an op-ed in the Times today by Roxanne Gay, an English prof at Purdue. She begins with the rhetorical device of exposing her personal harm as a child, having experienced a “brutal assault.” There are no details, so we have to rely on her conclusory claims.
I am now always searching for safety, and I appreciate safe spaces — the ones I create for my students in a classroom, the ones I create with my writing and the ones others create, too — because there is so much unsafe space in this world.
Flowery prose does not conceal insipid thought. The Bataclan music hall in Paris was an unsafe space. That was because of bullets that struck human bodies, not words or ideas that caused horrible pain and discomfort. To conflate the two is sick and twisted.
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.
That “path of less [?] resistance” is why the coddled infants were allowed to protest without being shot, no matter how puny their complaints.
Feminism is largely responsible for introducing safe space into our cultural vernacular as a means of fostering open, productive dialogue.
How Gay writes that suppressing speech and thought fosters “open, productive dialogue” is no mystery. It’s easy to string words together that produce a nonsensical sentence, and hope that no one capable of thought will point it out.
Safe spaces allow people to feel welcome without being unsafe because of the identities they inhabit. A safe space is a haven from the harsh realities people face in their everyday lives.
Ideas and words that differ from the ones that validate a child’s unduly sensitive whims aren’t quite the harsh realities from which safety is needed. Bullets are a harsh reality. No one bleeds from an unpleasant idea.
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.
Students at Yale, Mizzou, Amherst, are as privileged as they come. The same coddled infants who cry over their unvalued pain enjoy safety beyond measure, food in a cafeteria, a warm bed in a dorm, the use of a public meeting room on campus to plan their revolution.
Rather than use trigger warnings, I try to provide students with the context they will need to engage productively in complicated discussions. I consider my classroom a safe space in that students can come as they are, regardless of their identities or sociopolitical affiliations. They can trust that they might become uncomfortable but they won’t be persecuted or judged. They can trust that they will be challenged but they won’t be tormented.
And they will be the first to judge and torment anyone who utters a word or idea that challenges their vision of the world, despite your self-congratulatory pedagogy.
There is a small group of people who demand that others adhere to their dogma, their outrage at words and ideas that differ from their own. And they will not be stopped from forcing their vision down everyone else’s throat, because they are certain their ideology is right and just, and so anything they do is righteous and justice. They are called ISIS. They made their voice heard in Paris yesterday.
And the coddled infants are whining that it diverted attention from their fury about a mascot, because they too demand to be heard. Thank whatever deity you prefer that no bullet struck a child on a college campus yesterday, so that they could be alive today to complain about their suffering.