Friday, November 13, 2015

University protestors create segregated "Safe Spaces"

In a move that fits the very definition of "ironic," student activists belonging to the University of Missouri protest group Concerned Students 1950 separated into seven different groups at a meeting at the school's student center, including six groups in which white activists were excluded.

On Wednesday night, supporters of the activist group gathered in the University of Missouri student center after poor weather conditions led to the cancellation of a planned protest march. At some point during the meeting, white activists were asked to leave the room. Activist Johnetta Elzie posted a tweet stating that the group was split to create a  "black only healing space." The segregated groups were also confirmed by activist Steven Schmidt and local reporter Jared Koller.

The backlash that ensued across various forms of social media reveals the strict divide in public opinion on the recent wave of college protests across the country. Upon reading this article, I was taken aback by how casually the activists seemed to dismiss the nature of what they were doing. Personally, I have absolutely no idea why a "safe space" is needed to discuss topics in the open, especially one in which students of a specific race are barred from taking part in. It would seem that these students are so absurdly afraid of the presence of opinions contrary to their own that they demand a "bulletproof" zone in which any criticism of their point of view is completely taboo. Evidently, the black activists felt that the presence of white students posed a threat to their way of thinking.

We briefly touched on civil rights cases today in class, and though this story is a couple of days old, I felt like it could definitely be brought up in class as a worthy topic of discussion. What do you guys think? Is the creation of "safe spaces" to shield oneself from opposing opinions a legitimate course of action? And more importantly, was this modern example of segregation justified? Do you feel that to truly protect a certain groups' line of thought, other groups must be discriminated against if the situation allows for it?

Daily Caller
Opposing Views


Sameer Jain said...
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Sameer Jain said...

We spent a pretty large portion of class on Friday talking about the events at the University of Missouri, and I think that it's important to consider the context of the event that Grant described in the original post. This timeline is a pretty good summary of has been going on for the last month or so. I think October 4 on the timeline is a good place to start.

It’s hard to say what matters more: protection of the first amendment or the protection of safety.

Naturally, I’d want to say that the protection of students ought to be everyone’s first priority. Especially at a university, how can students obtain the full value of their education while living in constant fear of people that are “exercising their first amendment” in the form of racism and hate speech? The answer is, they can’t. If students do not feel safe in their homes, where can they feel safe?

That being said, students at universities come from all sorts of backgrounds. As a result, the range of peoples’ tolerances is very large. For example, an African American student that lived in a very privileged part of the country prior to attending school in Missouri may have much less exposure to bigotry and unpopular opinions than a student with less privilege has. One can argue that the privileged student needs to get a wake-up call, and understand that the world is not as protected as it may have been when that student was growing up.

The line between free speech and personal safety is hard to draw because of the subjectivity of personal safety. If tolerance can be measured, and the school worked to protect the students using the standards of the person with the lowest tolerance, then that would essentially become the censorship of unpopular opinions. However, if the school worked according to the standards of a person with a very high tolerance, that campus would become very dangerous to the vast majority of the other students.

The first amendment protects the freedom of speech, and that includes the presentation of unpopular opinions. However, there is a point where such unpopular opinions become harmful, and therefore detrimental to the safety of the students. It’s up to the university to decide where this line is. I believe that it varies from campus to campus, depending on the community.

Huayu Ouyang said...

According to the organization Advocates for Youth, a safe space is "A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person's self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others."

I think that the reason why minority groups such as the African-American activists in this case want to create a safe space free from white activists is because they feel that white activists can never fully understand the experiences that black people go through, so they want to be able to talk in an environment where everyone will fully understand them and not judge them. I don't think safe spaces are necessarily created for the purposes of debate or discussion but to provide an environment to share their feelings.

While I understand the reason for safe spaces, I agree with Sameer that there is a very fine line between creating an environment where everyone is comfortable and creating an environment where all opposing opinions are shut down. On some level, the concept of safe space is impossible to achieve, because if you want everyone to feel comfortable and welcome and respected, then you will inevitably be shutting out people with opposing or even hateful opinions, and then that person will feel unwelcome.

For example, I saw a video of a safe space at Claremont McKenna College, where a woman from Asia told her experience of being an immigrant in America. She recounted one experience when an African-American person told her to "go back to where you came from." Her conclusion was that black people can be racist as well and that we should look at people individually. When people in the "safe space" heard this, they started arguing against her and stopping her from speaking. This is an example of how safe spaces in the most idealistic definition can't really be achieved, because with her statements, she might have been making people unwelcome, but by silencing her, she is made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome as well. This also relates to our class discussion about the definition of racism because I think the issue in this case, and in many other disputes about race and police brutality nowadays, was that she had a different definition of racism from the other members in the safe space. But I don't really know the proper solution to the issues on these college campuses, or the broader issue of race in general. Both sides have valid arguments, but it's just a matter of finding the right way to balance the two.

Daniel Jun said...

Contrary to popular belief, race does matter. Why? Because people of race "A" are more likely to have cultural, educational, and recreational elements in common compared to someone from race "B". Thus, unintentional racial divides are completely natural, should they occur without someone from race A saying "Let's exclude all those Bs!"

But in this case, a racial divide was actively created. And this, in my opinion, is justified because, when you come right down to it, only African-Americans know how it feels to be excluded for being black. Only African-Americans can truly understand the shackles of racism based on the hue of their skin, the socio-economic disadvantages that come with being born with darker skin than their Caucasian peers. As humans, we are better able to empathize, complain, and heal if we do these things with others who have gone through the same experiences.

My only concern is that we really aren't given enough context. This is just like one of those videos of white police officers beating up a black teenager, except we don't see the beginning half of the video where the teenager tries to grab the officer's baton. We need the full story. The source "opposing views" says what happens, but gives absolutely no information on why. "Daily Caller" says there was violence from the protesters on reporters earlier at the University of Missouri. Were the attackers black? White? Were the reporters overly intruding? Did racial tension cause this violence? The Daily Caller doesn't say. This lack of information shows that we lack a full picture. This article (and this is NOT an indication of Grant's failings, but rather the failings of the news sources themselves) is incomplete.

I looked at several other articles, all of which say an average of 100 words on "oh, it's such terrible irony that there was segregation." Yes, it's ironic, but what if there's an actual, legitimate reason for this segregation?

Christopher Duan said...
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Christopher Duan said...

I disagree with Sameer's stance that at times, one must restrict their freedom of speech for someone else's feelings, because protection of their feelings,and of them in general, is more important than someone else's freedom to voice their own views. Though it might advantage someone to be friendly to others, the first amendment allows for freedom of speech, but nowhere in the constitution does "freedom from hurt feelings" or anything of that sort. Simply, that already shows the dominance of free speech over "safe space".
Elaborating, the demand of creating a "safe space" by students is asking the college or university, to allow a space in which only certain opinions are permitted, and censoring "unpopular" opinions that some people of a certain group would not agree with.
As Professor Christakis at Yale, where ongoing efforts to create a "safe space" have led to demonstrations, said, "if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society." By restricting speech to not offend anyone, the situation of who to listen to and define these spaces also becomes an issue. is a certain group's opinion the only one that maters? Citing Sameer, "if the school worked according to the standards of a person with a very high tolerance, that campus would become very dangerous to the vast majority of the other students. " If it was not inciting violence or physical harm to others, I don't see how this would cause harm to the "vast majority" or students. Clearly, not the vast majority or students at Yale are calling for the creation of "space space" over Halloween costumes, even if we defined "vast majority" as 51% of the population of Yale. Furthermore at Yale, it is not distinct racism or hate speech that is calling for formation of "safe space". In contrast, it is over an email from a professor asking to allow more freedom of expression from students over these costumes, and freedom to wear these costumes. This just goes to show the petty insecurity on which these spaces are formed.
Although I agree that if certain speech or activism leads to violence or imminent harm to others, it may be restricted, as seen in certain SCOTUS cases, but not every opinion that is "disliked" is harmful.
In addressing how one can "fully appreciate the value of an education in an environment where their feelings are hurt", I can only reply is that this is college, not kindergarten, and frankly, I expect that people in college and university understand the idea that there are people in the world with different opinions than that of their own, and that's not going to change. I don't feel it is right to take one's freedom of expression away on a college campus, occupied by adults, because someone "feels insulted".
In response to only allowing black people to voice their opinions, because they are the only ones who can speak from experience, i believe that this also creates a segregated space, in which the ability to voice one's opinion is based on your race. How is that at all a "fair" or even constitutional decision?
Just over 50 years ago, students at UC Berkeley protested for the right to freedom to demonstrate and voice their opinions on the campus. This became known as the "Free Speech Movement" at Berkeley. It ended with "a vast enlargement of student rights to use the University campus for political activity and debate", among other concessions.
Now, students are calling for a reversal of this, and a denial of freedom of speech on public school campuses, just to save themselves from having their feelings hurt.

Virginia Hsiao said...

I agree with Huayu’s point that the need for separation of groups of individuals within the safe space results from a need for a feeling of security that is established from a connection derived from a sense of shared experiences and identity. While I understand the sentiment, I also feel that denying a certain group from expressing thoughts undermines the spirit of the safe space. From my understanding of the articles, by setting up the safe space on campus and thus making it a public discussion on the university grounds, I think there is an expectation for the students to include other members.

Back to the issue itself, I think the heart of the issue rests not just in how we determine the line between free speech and hate speech but also how we as a society determine how to address systemic and institutional racism. Although I think that the way in which some of the protesters reacted (or at least the way the media has portrayed the behavior of some students) was slightly unprofessional, the hurt resultant from historic and present marginalization of minority groups, whether it be direct confrontation, threats, or underlying microaggresions, still remains – no matter how subtle or seemingly banal. While the backlash from the email may make the students seem like coddled children crying out because of their sense of entitlement, I think the momentum of the movement represents how prominent racial issues are in our society and how they have impacted individuals quite significantly – increasingly made present by current police brutality issues and the ethnic distribution of US inmates. Even though the first amendment does protect individuals who elect to throw racial slurs, I do not think that excuses the rest of society from ignoring what is systematically wrong. To walk away from the issue hands in the air and to blame minorities for feeling wronged or insecure because of the presence of racism seems to me as if we are somehow missing part of the picture.

To me, I think the solution rests not in these safe spaces since, like Huayu and Sameer pointed out, safe spaces often do not reach their optimal goal in reality. Rather than create a place of censorship in the name of safety where people must tread cautiously, I think this can be solved through a space of intellectual exchange (which Christakis advocated for) and acceptance in which individuals focus on truly understanding cultural differences and, perhaps, the central issue of the opposing sides. As such, I believe it is possible that being aware of the racial issues present and exercising the provisions of freedom of speech do not have to be mutually exclusive if we elect to focus on understanding; however, I do acknowledge that the Yale student perspective, which hinges on the need for administrators to help facilitate a culture of understanding, touches upon a fairly reasonable point as it is often difficult for just one individual to change an entire culture dictated by invisible barriers. After all, as much as we’d like to say that college students need to just grow up, doesn’t the government provide regulations and securities for the members of the sophisticated world of adults as well?