Slow Tracks and Safe Spaces

Someone must have pointed out that Justice Scalia’s suggestion that black students would be happier in “slower-track” schools is a segregationist’s version of the theory that minority students need “safe spaces” where they won’t have to confront the racism and classism of majority culture. It would be obtuse to oppose Scalia to social-justice campaigners in this regard; in some way they want the same things, only they want them for different people (Scalia being, manifestly, in search of a paternalistic rationalization for preserving the University of Texas as a “safe space” for well-heeled white youth). Let’s not miss the point.

The point has to do with different kinds of space: public, private, the space where you test your claims against the best available resources of critique and rebuttal versus the space where you have only to explain what it’s like to be yourself. Indeed, if I may universalize for a moment, everybody needs a space where they can decompress, put their burdens down, explain why they sense themselves as outcasts. For us all to do so successfully, we need those spaces to be safe, in the sense of not being exposed to hostile attention. As Jonathan Holloway points out, though, the omnipresence of social media, making snitches of us all, renders the formerly operative distinction between private conversation and public speech blurry at best, moot at worst.

I suggest that we start pioneering a dual mode of conversation in universities (since it’s universities that have been the main testing grounds for communicative inventions since the Middle Ages). Let’s mark the classroom as the place where any kind of argument, no matter how stupid or counter-intuitive, is allowed to appear, on condition of being debated and rebutted and put in a larger frame of discourse.* If you want to advocate for offensive Halloween costumes, by all means do it, but you’ll have to stay to listen to the reasons and stories of the very people who would be offended by them. (I am assuming, of course, that the classroom is available and welcoming to the people who would be offended– not kept outside the gates by discrimination or discouragement. That is in fact a condition of educating the thoughtless: bringing them into direct contact with people who will say, “Do you realize what that means to me?”) The classroom is the space for a public that has accepted certain procedures as shaping discussion and its consequences (e.g., lots of logic and evidence, no intimidation or retaliation). In other corridors, let us ask and give consent to say what is on our minds, as in a therapy session or a conversation among trusted friends, with everyone ready to agree that what is said in such rooms goes no further.

Thus two kinds of “safe space” would be instituted in an institution of learning. The classroom is a safe space for the exercise of communitarian deliberative reason; the other kind of room (let’s call it the green room) a safe space for the expression of community-disrupting feelings like anger, resentment, disappointment. The whole campus can’t be a greenroom, unless we are all assumed to have exactly the same point of view on everything– which we don’t and shouldn’t. Those who want the campus to be identical with a greenroom are in fact dallying with Scalia’s model of college life. If universities want students to do well without repressing themselves, they need to offer both kinds of space, both kinds of deal.

And the quad? The street? These are liminal spaces between the university (which we’re differentiating into two kinds of discursive space) and the world (where certain general laws and customs apply, under the proviso that people can change them). If you perform a public expression of the greenroom set of feelings, I guess you are ready to deal with the often ignorant and uncomprehending reception of those feelings. Knowing that there’s a greenroom where you won’t be called to account has to help you in that often lonely and frustrating place.

* And, once they had been through the mill, adequately rebutted stupid ideas would stay out of the sphere of possible discourse (all right, now you see, dear reader, my helplessly utopian commitments).