Many, myself included, wonder whether the required skillset of a university dean is the ability to rationalize the most ridiculous things with a straight face. Or is Northwestern University’s president, Morton Schapiro, a moron? Exhibit A, Schapiro’s attempt to rationalize “safe spaces.”
Some writers ask why our campus is so focused on how “black lives matter.” Others express a mixture of curiosity and rage about microaggressions and trigger warnings. And finally, what about those oft-criticized “safe spaces”? On this last topic, here are two stories. The first was told to me privately by another institution’s president, and the second takes place at my institution, Northwestern University.
Oh good, a feelzsplainer. Trigger warning: this essay would muster a pity C at best from a college sophomore, and will kill brain cells. Proceed with caution.
A group of black students were having lunch together in a campus dining hall. There were a couple of empty seats, and two white students asked if they could join them. One of the black students asked why, in light of empty tables nearby. The reply was that these students wanted to stretch themselves by engaging in the kind of uncomfortable learning the college encourages. The black students politely said no. Is this really so scandalous?
Seriously? Students talk like this, saying they want to “stretch themselves”? And you let them into your university? But being a charitable sort of fellow, I won’t let the absence of any attempt to show the veracity of this ridiculous story stand in the way of accepting, arguendo, that it happened. You’re welcome, President Schapiro.
First, the familiar question is “Why do the black students eat together in the cafeteria?” I think I have some insight on this based on 16 years of living on or near a college campus: Many groups eat together in the cafeteria, but people seem to notice only when the students are black. Athletes often eat with athletes; fraternity and sorority members with their Greek brothers and sisters; a cappella group members with fellow singers; actors with actors; marching band members with marching band members; and so on.
Friends hang with friends. It’s not a hard concept to grasp. And if a bunch of black kids want to hang together, so what? Well, one could challenge the conflation of fraternity brothers, a voluntary association based on friendship, with skin color, but let’s assume that the shared experience of being black is a good reason to hang together. Big deal.
And that brings me to the second aspect: We all deserve safe spaces. Those black students had every right to enjoy their lunches in peace. There are plenty of times and places to engage in uncomfortable learning, but that wasn’t one of them. The white students, while well-meaning, didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.
Deserve? Because . . . why? That doesn’t mean they can’t want safe spaces, but entitlement doesn’t arise from the ether. Did you really think you would slip that past everything?
But the white students didn’t “unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.” They asked. They didn’t put guns to anyone’s head and tell them, “let us sit or die.” And they were turned away. Problem solved. On what planet does asking morph into a unilateral decision? And the black kids went on to enjoy their lunch in peace. Is this really the sort of story that University presidents tell each other?
But more importantly, Schapiro was writing to persuade, to explain, so that he had the ability to cherry-pick the best possible anecdote to make his case. And this was what he came up with? Not that anecdotes prove anything, ever, but even so, knowing that the shameless use of anecdotes works wonder with the shallow, Schapiro couldn’t find a better tale of woe to promote the safe space cause? That’s pathetic.
Yet, Schapiro wasn’t done, as he had a second story to tell.
Now for the story from Northwestern. For more than four decades, we have had a building on campus called the Black House, a space specifically meant to be a center for black student life. This summer some well-intentioned staff members suggested that we place one of our multicultural offices there. The pushback from students, and especially alumni, was immediate and powerful.
Powerful? Did you miss that day in frosh writing where they taught, “show, not tell”?
It wasn’t until I attended a listening session that I fully understood why. One black alumna from the 1980s said that she and her peers had fought to keep a house of their own on campus. While the black community should always have an important voice in multicultural activities on campus, she said, we should put that office elsewhere, leaving a small house with a proud history as a safe space exclusively for blacks.
Putting aside the fact that “one black alumna” is now the measure of powerful (because it’s not like he couldn’t get Google to find out why Black House was created), what part of this provides a rational justification for “safe spaces”?
A recent white graduate agreed. She argued that everyone needed a safe space and that for her, as a Jew, it had been the Hillel house. She knew that when she was there, she could relax and not worry about being interrogated by non-Jews about Israeli politics or other concerns.
Well, a Jew. That nails it, even though we’re back to one person’s anecdote as an inductive explanation. Schapiro really has to expand beyond anecdotes and try his hand at actual reasoning.
But then, even the anecdote fails. Hillel House doesn’t have a foreskin detector at the front door. Non-Jews aren’t barred from entering. They don’t come in for the same reason that non-religious Jews stay away. They don’t want to. It’s a place dedicated to “inspiring every Jewish student to make a meaningful and enduring commitment to Jewish life.” Oh, sounds like a thrill a minute. But there’s no sign that says goyim will be shot on sight.
I hate to be the one to break it to you, President Schapiro, but if these are the very best stories you have to support your thesis, then you’ve got nothing. But then, let’s be honest. You pulled your core contention, that “everyone deserves a safe space,” out of your ass. Good things do not always come from Uranus.
So we’re left with the initial question. Were you forced to publish this lame effort to rationalize the demand of the snowflakes for safe spaces, or is this really what the President of Northwestern University feels, and the best logic he can offer? If the latter, can you at least tell me where to send my application for president, because I wouldn’t be nearly as pathetic in selling my intellectual cred for your salary, and I could whip out a far better, albeit totally bullshit, philippic in no time.