What are you afraid of?

Published on September 29, 2015

On a stone bench outside of the Watson Business and Economics Library, Kyle Dontoh, a Columbia College senior and an outspoken conservative on campus, looks around nervously.

“There’s a level of dialogue that I think would be productive,” he says. “A level of discourse that would be very fruitful for the campus to have that we’re not having because these views are being rejected out of hand.”

Dontoh is in the middle of diagnosing a problem: Columbia, according to him, is silencing fringe voices in favor of political correctness.

Elsewhere on campus, Oladunni Oduyemi, a Columbia College senior and former editor in chief of The Eye, sees things a little differently.

“I don’t know what fueling debate and discourse looks like apart from constant attacks against marginalized communities,” she says. “What really lies behind these ‘debates’ is not a genuine desire to share ideas and cultures or to create discourse.”

From classrooms to College Walk, students have begun to watch what they say. They’ve asked their professors to add trigger warnings to syllabi, made conservative opinions taboo, and extended the reach of the safe space to classrooms, dorms, and dining halls.

Some students say safe spaces are the only places where minority groups have a voice. But others say the rise of safe spaces has left opinions on the periphery isolated. On a campus ruled by liberal opinion, people whose thoughts are classified as “politically incorrect” must choose their words carefully and know when to keep quiet.

The safe space was designed to give a voice to the marginalized, but it isn’t always a place where everyone can be heard.

Defining safe spaces

During the reporting of this article, students were reluctant to go on the record about safe spaces. With only a handful of exceptions, almost every self-proclaimed liberal student student we contacted either did not respond to emails or declined to comment on the record. Students were, it seemed, more anxious about having to describe what exactly they supported than missing the opportunity to advocate for their viewpoint.

Perhaps their reluctance has to do with the dozens of definitions floating around campus: It seems that no two people can agree on what a safe space does and who it serves.

Safe spaces are commonly defined as physical or online spaces free from discrimination, racism, sexism, or any other behavior that is hateful toward a specific person or group of people.

At Columbia, they can take the form of the workshops held after the death of Michael Brown, Nightline’s anonymous peer listening call-in program, or the pink “I want this to be a safer space” fliers passed out last fall. Each flier came with a brief paragraph explaining that safe spaces are necessary “because society values the lives and voices of some of us more than others.”

Kay Ferguson, a Barnard sophomore and the president of GendeRevolution, helped organize the pink flier campaign with Everyone Allied Against Homophobia, in which people could post their flier in their dormitory window to show support for the LGBT community. Ferguson says that this campaign “drastically improved my life, specifically in housing.”

“It opened up discussions between my floor members and I on what a safe space was, and what we could do to make the environment more welcoming for individuals, specifically LGBTQ+ individuals in my case,” Ferguson says.

Still, Ferguson acknowledges that safe spaces can be dangerous when students use them without considering their real purpose.

“I’m incredibly conflicted on the idea of safe spaces,” she says, “I feel that, in a fair amount of the time, places are deemed as ‘safe spaces’ without that place thinking about what that term entails. Are they actively working on protecting the students in that space? Are they focusing on limiting verbal slurs and hateful actions? Are they educated on what a ‘safe space’ really is?”

Ask around, and you’ll find that Columbia is far from reaching a consensus. Some will tell you that safe spaces are places where everyone can be heard; others think that their purpose is to protect vulnerable students from the most offensive voices on campus.

“I think that safe spaces need to belong to those affected by ‘social issues,’ so I don’t think that they are or should be melting pots of people with different politics,” Oduyemi says. “Sometimes you do need to be quiet, listen, stop doing what you’re doing if people are telling you that it’s hurting them.”

To Alexander Tin, a Columbia College junior and media director for the Columbia University Democrats, who agreed to be interviewed with the understanding this his views are not representative of those of CU Dems, the definition of safe space is simpler.

“Safe spaces are nothing more than reminders for everyone to be respectful,” Tin says. “I know personally how painful political ‘incorrectness’ can be, and I think most people on campus get that.”

Columbia students first experience the safe space during the New Student Orientation Program in Under1Roof, a workshop that aims to promote diversity and open exchange. Columbia’s website describes it as “the exciting beginning of a sustained dialogue that will last throughout a student’s education here and beyond.” The description is filled with high-minded goals and terms like “bridging differences” and “diversity education” that should create a place for minority opinions.

Students on Columbia’s campus who deal with discrimination and profiling on a daily basis need places where they can temporarily escape.

But safe spaces also have unintended consequences—particularly when fewer spaces are allowed to be dangerous.

“Consensus is not a golden rule”

Two years ago, Dontoh attended an event in Lerner Hall called the Family in Modern Society Conference, which was billed as an open conversation about the role of traditional marriage in modern society. Dontoh went to hear different opinions on gay marriage. But the CU Dems members who attended interrupted the event with picket signs, which Dontoh said effectively shut down conversation.

Though Dontoh supports gay marriage, he thinks the CU Dems missed the point of the conference. In a Spectator editorial called “Prejudgement Skewers Debate,” he writes that by refusing to actively participate, students stop campus conversations.

Our University benefits from pluralism, a free exchange of ideas, and the constant intercourse between competing schools of thought,” he writes. “Sometimes, a moral consensus emerges—such as the heartening decision of many of the Ivy League Democratic and Republican associations to endorse marriage equality. But consensus is not a golden rule; It is not fixed. It should not be immune to debate.”

What Dontoh is advocating for—a discussion about an issue like whether gay marriage is “right”—is unlikely to ever happen in a safe space. It’s a dangerous issue, politically incorrect on every level and bound to trigger those who have been affected by homophobia.

It’s not a subject for a safe space. The question is whether Lerner and other public spaces on campus should be safe.

Last year, Oduyemi joined a group of students at an open forum with college deans to demand that the administration cancel Orgo Night, a comedy event organized by the Columbia Marching Band at the end of each semester.

According to Oduyemi, the band’s often racially-charged humor is triggering and violent for marginalized groups on campus. In a Spectator editorial called “If you go to Orgo Night, you’re part of the problem,” she describes how the tradition leaves some students feeling triggered and miserable by the band’s humor, which ribs current events on campus and outside the gates.

Oduyemi writes that students of color are excluded from the festivities before the evening even begins.

Last year, CUMB posted fliers advertising the event included one featuring Nicki Minaj with a frog transposed over her face and another with the phrase “FLY LIKE PAPER, GET LOST LIKE PLANES.” Oduyemi points out that the first flier targets a black woman, while the second uses the deaths of hundreds of Malaysians in a plane crash as a punch line.

“My issue with Orgo Night and with people I’ve disagreed with on campus isn’t whether or not they’re politically correct—it’s whether or not it’s racist,” Oduyemi says. “I think that some perspectives and viewpoints—which both liberals and conservatives like to pretend are stifled by radical people who demand safe spaces and intentional language—are unacceptable, not correct, and actually lead to violence against marginalized communities.”

According to Oduyemi, Butler Library is a public space that should remain safe. When the University allows it to become unsafe, minority groups are marginalized and excluded out in the open.

“A predominantly white group and a predominantly white administration cannot be the ones to determine what is acceptable and what spaces are safe,” Oduyemi says.

Moderating and muffling

Isaac Bautista, a Columbia College sophomore and operations director of the Columbia University College Republicans, understands that safe spaces protect some students from hostility. But, he says they can simultaneously squash debates that should be happening.

“It’s pretty clear that there are some opinions that aren’t welcome,” Bautista says. He continues, saying that it wouldn’t be acceptable, for example,“for a debate on gender identity politics to take place in a safe space.”

John McWhorter, an American linguistics professor at Columbia, author of numerous books on race and language in America, and outspoken commentator on American politics, is adamant that Columbia has not been immune to the dilution of debate and discourse that seems to have come along with the rise of political correctness.

“There’s an assumption that conservative views, truly conservative views,” McWhorter says, “are not just controversial, but that they’re wrong. That they’ve been proven wrong in the same way as we know how gravity works or that we know that water is H2O. And that therefore such views have no place in intelligent discussion.”

Safe spaces, he says, are “based on the predication that certain things are beyond discussion because they’ve been settled, but they haven’t.”

He understands the role of safe spaces as retreats from the onslaught of everyday life, but takes issue with the assertion that it’s necessary to create formalized safe spaces to have that respite.

To conservative students like Dontoh and other members of CUCR, safe spaces and an obsession with political correctness go hand in hand. Ideas and opinions that in “the majority of the country would be considered an acceptable part of political discourse, are considered to be offensive, and in some cases even dangerous,” Dontoh says.

Even Tin, who supports safe spaces, recognizes the consequences of them when taken to the extreme.

“Taken too far, it risks the most valuable part of our college education: free, intellectual discourse,” he says. “When it comes to political debates on social issues, you cannot elect to avoid fraught and hazardous topics, and I completely understand how it can end up eroding the discourse we should so treasure.”

Time for a check-up

Though we champion free speech and open expression in theory, discourse is in decline on liberal campuses across the country. In the past few months, figures ranging from Jerry Seinfeld to President Barack Obama have warned students of the dangers of widespread political correctness on college campuses.  

Journalist Judith Shulevitz shares one consequence threatening colleges like Columbia in her New York Times op-ed “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas” from March 21, 2015.

The idea, she writes, “that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.”

Safe spaces, according to Shulevitz, prove difficult to contain. Their standards and constraints almost inevitably extend to places that have traditionally been the sites of lively discourse, namely our classrooms.

The extension of safe spaces has most recently and notably taken the form of trigger warnings.

Last May, four students from the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board wrote an op-ed in Spectator calling for trigger warnings in Literature Humanities, which helped propel the issue to the national stage.

“Students need to feel safe in the classroom, and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities,” the students write. “The MAAB has been meeting with administration and faculty in the Center for the Core Curriculum to determine how to create such a space.”

Ferguson says that trigger warnings before difficult conversations make her feel more secure and capable of engaging with issues.

“As a sexual assault survivor, it is incredibly important for my mental well-being to be aware of when a specific topic is going to come up,” she says. “When sexual assault is mentioned in class without warning, I am not prepared to deal with my physical and mental reaction to the topic. When I am notified beforehand, I feel calmer, more able to deal with the topic and comfortable in my space.”

“I think trigger warnings have a definite place in classrooms—more than in almost any other space—because I feel that everyone should be able to feel safe and deserves an equal opportunity to learn without being being put in a difficult situation,” Ferguson adds.

While a handful of professors have added trigger warnings to their syllabi or verbally given a trigger warning in class, many more have opted not to—including English professor Julie Crawford, who is also the chair of Lit Hum.

Responding to MAAB’s call for trigger warnings, Crawford said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “At no point did [we] consider trigger warnings as being something that could be productively or intellectually mandated, or made structural.”

Derald W. Sue, a professor of counseling psychology, says professors have two main goals. The first is “to create a learning environment that allows all students to learn and profit equally from their educational experiences,” and the second is “to educate ourselves and find solutions that make us better educators.”

Sometimes, Sue suggests, that may mean warning about exceptionally explicit content that could trigger post-traumatic stress disorder or cause similar extreme psychological reactions.

But other times, that means facilitating tough conservations—political debates included—that aren’t happening on campus right now.

Beau Shaw, a professor in the Columbia philosophy department, believes that “Any academic space should be a safe space.”

However, he recognizes that protecting others comes at a cost to the free flow of ideas.

“Of course, this often involves outlawing honesty,” Shaw says. “Speaking about ideas and experiences that some might find deeply troubling. I believe that students have to decide what they value more—absolute safety or honesty.”

Micah Fleck, a sophomore in the School of General Studies, believes trigger warnings can constrain academic curiosity.

“I tend to agree with the adage, ‘real life doesn’t come with trigger warnings,’” Fleck says. “I do believe trigger warnings, when used excessively, can negatively affect campus discourse because they run the risk of stifling free intellectual debate and growth, which I would argue is what education institutions are all about—fueling debate and discourse.”

Of course, even without trigger warnings, classroom discourse is in danger of falling silent.

Ideas incognito

In class, Dontoh chooses his words carefully when he speaks at all.

“You don’t want to not only alienate yourself from your classmates, but you don’t want to alienate yourself from your professor who you are assuming has certain viewpoints,” Dontoh says. “It’s very easy to conform to what you think the professor wants to hear.”

During his four years as a Contemporary Civilization professor, McWhorter sympathized with the silent opponents to classroom discussions.

“There were always a couple of Republicans in the class, but you’d have to wait a long time before they’d say it,” he says. “Often they’d only say it to me, and they tended to keep their views quiet because unless it was somebody uniquely combative, who wants to get screamed at? That is the reality around here.”

Sue warns against this antagonistic atmosphere.

“Saying that you feel offended by something should open up the door,” Sue says. “But the immediate reaction is that the [perceived aggressor] denies it, and they get defensive. You don’t have dialogues, you have monologues going on.”

Political science professor Justin Phillips wishes that his conservative students would speak up more.

“When I teach a big lecture class, it doesn’t really matter,” he says, “But in small seminar classes it’s much more interesting to have many layers of diversity.”

At the very least, Phillips says it would make for a more interesting hour and 50 minutes.

“Myself and my colleagues are very conscientious of ideological diversity because it creates for a more interesting dialogue,” he says. “A seminar where everyone agrees with each other is boring.”

But self-selection also plays a role, he adds.

“There aren’t a lot of conservatives lining up to take my class on gay and lesbians in American politics.”

The final word

“I never felt I had to watch what I say,” Bautista says, “until I came to Columbia.”

“Now, when I’m talking to my friends, I can’t help but think, ‘what if someone were to overhear me?’” he adds. In order to avoid public backlash from students for voicing an unpopular opinion, Bautista keeps his opinions to himself—even in private conversations.

“People are afraid of saying something that’s going to earn other people’s disapproval,” Dontoh agrees.

The intolerance of conservative views on campus is, according to Andy Truelove, a Columbia College junior and the president of CUCR, indicative of a greater trend that stretches all of the way up to “our political issues in DC.” A lot of the ongoing political issues, he says, “come from people not crossing the aisle. … Sometimes on Columbia’s campus, we have the same problem.”

As president of CUCR, he encourages students of all political affiliations, but especially conservatives, to proactively pursue conversations, not arguments, with people who hold opposing views.

Crawford thinks that students should pay less attention to the artificial slogan of political correctness and instead focus on “real issues of injustice or suffering.”

“It truly bemuses me,” she says, “that students with your resources, getting the education you’re getting, with access to all the amazing kinds of conversations and activisms going on both on campus and in New York City more broadly, capitulate to a kind of BuzzFeed-y, media-produced ‘controversy’ rather than turning your attention to an exposé or examination of the history and perniciousness of this discourse.”

And while conservatives or other students may come off as thinking they are persecuted, Dontoh wants to be clear that that’s not what they’re trying to say.

“We believe that we can benefit from a broader discourse, and that by having this discussion, we may be wrong,” he asserts.

It worries him, he says before our conversation ends, “that people feel like we cannot or should not [discuss politics].”

“There seems like there’s a vested interest in not having the discussion,” he laments.

When it comes to complex issues that really matter, he says, we need to try harder.

Crawford adds: “If we are educated or willing to be, respectful and non-provincial and open in our interface with the world and the people talking to us in and from it, then we will do well.”

“That is life. That is a conversation,” Crawford says. “That is the public sphere.”

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