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Professor Giroux has a great interview/conversation in yesterday's New York Times. There he touches on his usual themes of violence, national amnesia, the culture of cruelty, and how the American people have become numb to horrors such as the Orlando Massacre. Dr. Giroux is masterful, as always, in his discussion of those topics.
As a leading voice in critical pedagogy, his comments were especially potent on the question of "safe spaces" and how the modern corporate university is doing students a disservice by shielding them from uncomfortable ideas and voices. Giroux writes:
B.E.: Mindful of this, there is now a common policy in place throughout the education system to create “safe spaces” so students feel comfortable in their environments. This is often done in the name of protecting those who may have their voices denied. But given your claim about the need to confront injustice, does this represent an ethically responsible approach to difficult subject matters?
H.G.: There is a growing culture of conformity and quietism on university campuses, made evident in the current call for safe spaces and trigger warnings. This is not just conservative reactionism, but is often carried out by liberals who believe they are acting with the best intentions. Violence comes in many forms and can be particularly disturbing when confronted in an educational setting if handled dismissively or in ways that blame victims.
Yet troubling knowledge cannot be condemned on the basis of making students uncomfortable, especially if the desire for safety serves merely to limit access to difficult knowledge and the resources needed to analyze it. Critical education should be viewed as the art of the possible rather than a space organized around timidity, caution and fear.
Creating safe spaces runs counter to the notion that learning should be unsettling, that students should challenge common sense assumptions and be willing to confront disturbing realities despite discomfort. The political scientist Wendy Brown rightly argues that the “domain of free public speech is not one of emotional safety or reassurance,” and is “ not what the public sphere and political speech promise.” A university education should, Brown writes, “ call you to think, question, doubt” and “ incite you to question everything you assume, think you know or care about.”
This is particularly acute when dealing with pedagogies of violence and oppression.
While there is a need to be ethically sensitive to the subject matter, our civic responsibility requires, at times, confronting truly intolerable conditions. The desire for emotionally safe spaces can be invoked to protect one’s sense of privilege — especially in the privileged sites of university education. This is further compounded by the frequent attempts by students to deny some speakers a platform because their views are controversial. While the intentions may be understandable, this is a dangerous road to go down.
Confronting the intolerable should be challenging and upsetting. Who could read the testimonies of Primo Levi and not feel intellectually and emotionally exhausted? Or Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, not to mention those of Malcolm X? It is the conditions that produce violence that should upset us ethically and prompt us to act responsibly, rather than to capitulate to a privatized emotional response that substitutes a therapeutic language for a political and worldly one.
There is more at work here than the infantilizing notion that students should be protected rather than challenged in the classroom; there is also the danger of creating a chilling effect on the part of faculty who want to address controversial topics such as war, poverty, spectacles of violence, racism, sexism and inequality. If American society wants to invest in its young people, it has an obligation to provide them with an education in which they are challenged, can learn to take risks, think outside the boundaries of established ideologies, and expand the far reaches of their creativity and critical judgment. This demands a pedagogy that is complicated, taxing and disruptive.I have encountered and fought against the principle of "safe spaces" both as a student and later on (at no small amount of personal and professional cost) as a college lecturer. One of the (un)expected complications of the well-intentioned albeit wrong-headed move by some "liberals" to protect students from "scary" and "uncomfortable" words and concepts is that such efforts cede territory to conservatives and other forces who see the university as an enemy to their agenda. Moreover, the modern American university is already a "safe space" for the neoliberal project where tenure and intellectual freedom are being destroyed in the interest of profit maximization. It is also increasingly a "safe space" for reactionary conservatives such as David Horowitz who compile enemy lists to harass and get removed professors who they deem "too liberal" or "politically correct" and that "indoctrinate" students, i.e. train them to be critical thinkers and citizens.
[As one of my dearest friends said about her community college students, they often complain that it "hurts" to "think". What a potent description of a medicated, zombie citizenry.]
The entire conversation with Dr. Giroux is worth reading and reflecting upon. But what of the central paradox: in a society where the culture of cruelty is so rampant and omnipresent how did a counter-narrative of safe spaces, helicopter parenting, and coddled (white middle class) millennials come into existence?