The Safe Space Phenomenon

Students at Emory University recently staged protests because someone wrote “Trump 2016” in chalk on campus sidewalks. The students were “in pain” and no longer felt safe at Emory. Add that to the growing list of student protests over offenses ranging from culturally insensitive Halloween costumes to racist cafeteria food. Yep, students at Oberlin College were deeply upset because the school cafeteria did not make the General Tso chicken sufficiently authentic. Each week it seems like there is a new and even more absurd example of students on college campuses having complete emotional meltdowns over the slightest offense.

Obviously there are legitimate cases of prejudice, discrimination, and general injustice that warrant action. But I am not talking about these cases. I am talking about students wanting a speaker banned from campus because of her or his political views, students (and faculty) threatening physical violence to prevent reporters from entering their safe space, students wanting administrators and faculty to be held personally responsible for the immature and distasteful actions of a few people, students demanding recipe changes to make cafeteria food more culturally sensitive, students destroying all the copies of a school newspaper because they disagreed with an article in it, and students being so disruptive during an invited lecture that the speaker could barely make it through her presentation. These are the cases that are making terms like safe spaces, trigger warnings, and microagressions the punchlines of jokes.

Week after week we read about another instance of an activist culture that is not about helping people in need or fighting real injustices in the world but is instead focused on protecting its own echo chamber. Even President Obama felt the need to chime in by reminding students that it is not the job of colleges to coddle them or shield them from ideas they disagree with. Clearly, this is an issue that is gaining widespread attention. And it deserves attention because the consequences of this behavior could be severe.

The Safe Space Can Harm Others

As Christina Hoff Sommers (the Factual Feminist) and others have pointed out, student activism is becoming more self-centered and thus less focused on those who are worse off. Students are fighting for safe spaces for themselves instead of for safe environments for the many people around the world who don’t have access to clean water or don’t have the right to own property or even go to school. There is a lot of suffering going on in the world. American college campuses are pretty desirable places to be. I am sure many people in war torn regions, nations under oppressive dictatorships or theocracies, or even in impoverished parts of America would be more than happy to change places with American college students who must endure the hardship of crappy Chinese food, conservative speakers, and obnoxious drunk frat boys. When students focus on their own microscopic experiences of discomfort they are not thinking about those who are actually suffering.

The Safe Space Is Not Safe for Everyone

One interesting feature about the safe space movement is that evidently only a small group of like-minded individuals are entitled to feel safe. Anyone who disagrees with a very particular set of views is fair game for ridicule, verbal abuse, and sometimes even threats of physical violence.

This is problematic because it may further the already existing lack of political diversity on college campuses. Psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt have highlighted the need to increase ideological diversity in the social sciences as most of the ideas and research being generated and published come from liberal academics. But how are we going to get more diversity at the PhD level if we are dissuading conservative-minded young people from even attending college. I have read a number of articles by conservative writers telling teens to skip college. It is true that not everyone needs a college degree and I agree completely that the financial cost of college needs to be weighed against the return. That being said, the decision of whether to attend college or not should not be influenced by the culture on college campuses. Everyone should feel personally welcome and challenged, but not ideologically safe. College campuses are supposed to be places of intellectual exploration and debate. The safe space movement is becoming a way to silence divergent voices.

Conservative bloggers, quit telling kids to skip college. That is not going to help change the situation. 

The Safe Space Promotes a Narcissistic Worldview

Numerous studies reveal that narcissism and narcissistic-like characteristics are a growing problem among young Americans. The research indicates that younger generations are more self-focused, more materialistic, less community-oriented, and less empathetic. Younger generations are also more inclined to feel entitled and to have unrealistic expectations. This does not mean every young person or even most young people are narcissistic. Most of the young adults I meet are kind, caring, thoughtful, and energetic. But narcissism is a growing problem.

The safe space mentality reinforces the narcissistic characteristics of entitlement and superiority. The student protestors are essentially arguing that they are entitled to have the world bend to their will and that their worldview is superior to others. Challenges to their worldview are decried as hate speech or attempts to defend prejudice and discrimination. Narcissists don’t care about free speech. They care about their speech. They see it as the only speech that matters.

Anyone who studies psychology will tell you that a narcissistic worldview is not a socially healthy one. It decreases empathy towards others and increases hostility and aggression. In an appearance on The Daily Show with John Stewart back in 2005, Christina Hoff Sommers prophetically forecasted this growing problem when she argued that American schools were becoming too focused on promoting self-esteem and protecting children from experiencing any distress or failure in life. Social psychologists such as Jean Twenge have been warning us for years of the dangers associated with narcissism in America.

The Safe Space Hinders Psychological Growth

Not only does self-focused activism misappropriate the youthful idealistic energy that could make a real difference in the world and contribute to a narrow and narcissistic view of the world, but it also prevents college students from fully developing psychologically. If these students expect to not be challenged with different ideas and experiences in college, how are they going to handle life after graduation? And how are they going to be able to work and empathize with people they disagree with on social and political issues? Part of psychological growth is learning that the world is full of diverse ideas and people, that good people can disagree on lots of topics, and that life can be difficult and unfair.

I used to teach martial arts classes. It was common for a father to sign his adolescent or teenage daughter up for lessons because he wanted her to have the ability to defend herself if needed. This happened enough that we started offering self-defense classes designed specifically for girls and women. These lessons were focused on teaching techniques they could use to disable larger and stronger attackers. I am sure these fathers would have preferred that their daughters lived in a world where such skills were never needed, but they knew the world is not always a safe space and they wanted their daughters to be prepared for that fact.

I am not suggesting that every young girl train to be a ninja, though that would be pretty awesome. This post is not about martial arts (or is it?). My point is that it is the job of parents, teachers, professors, and mentors to prepare the next generation for the world that exists, not the one we wish existed. Plus, if we want the next generation to improve the world, they need to be able to handle it. We should also remind students that American college campuses are already some of the safest spaces on the planet.

Psychological characteristics such as humility, compassion, open-mindedness, exploration, and wisdom are being increasingly recognized as important for personal development and growth. These characteristics are not forged in safe spaces. They come from facing adversity and failure and being exposed to ideas and people that you do not agree with.

A Positive Outlook

All that being said, I remain optimistic. Faculty and administrators at universities (and parents) need to stand strong and use these instances as teaching opportunities. We need to help students do some perspective-taking and challenge them to channel their energy towards the many pressing problems that exist in the world. We need to teach the value of service to others. We also need to emphasize the importance of being uncomfortable from time to time. And we should make it clear to them that the world is not always a safe space and it never will be.

I think it is also crucial to remember that these instances stand out because they receive a lot of media attention but only represent a tiny fraction of day to day life on college campuses. In fact, some have observed that safe space activism is ironically more likely to occur on the more expensive and elite college campuses. We are not seeing a lot of protests at community colleges.

The overwhelming majority of college students in America are just quietly going about their lives. They are attending classes and trying to plan their futures. They are working jobs to pay their way through school or trying to figure out what degree will lead to the best job prospects in this difficult economy. They are trying to make their parents proud because they know the sacrifices they have made for them to get a college education. And some of them are just trying to pass their classes and afford beer. And none of these folks are concerned about finding a safe space. They really just want degrees and jobs, and maybe some more beer.

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