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February 09, 2015

College Should Be the Ultimate Unsafe Space

I like the approach – in the face of demands for censorship, one college student has made the point that the best way to combat bad ideas is to expose them to the light of day and refute them rather than establish an orthodoxy that cannot be challenged.

At Columbia, the Ivy League, super-supposedly-liberal university in NYC, one student rebelled against a request that he, and every other student, hang a sign in their dorm-room windows declaring that their living quarters were ‘safe spaces’ in which ‘homophobia, transphobia, transmisogyny, racism, ableism, classism and so on’ will not be permitted and everyone who enters will be expected to ‘not be oppressive in [their] interactions’. Most students dutifully displayed the Safe Space sign, but one Adam Shapiro, a junior majoring in history, refused. In fact, he hung up a different sign, his own one, declaring his room an unsafe space. ‘People call them safe-space zones, but actually they’re censorship zones, that’s exactly what they are’, Shapiro tells me. ‘Students need to fight back and have dangerous spaces.’ Towards the end of last year, Columbia — home to some of the most PC, word-watching students in the modern West — had at least one ‘dangerous space’: Shapiro’s room. Instead of hanging up the sad ‘safe space’ sign shoved under his and every other students’ dorm door, Shapiro wrote and displayed a sign headlined ‘I do not want this to be a safe space’. His room, the sign said, is a place where all who enter will be expected ‘not to allow identity to trump ideas [or] emotion to trump critical thinking’. ‘Whether you’re black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, bi, transgender, fully abled, disabled, religious, secular, rich, middle class or poor, I will judge your ideas based on their soundness and coherence, not based on who you are’, his sign declared. Then there was the sign-off, in bold, a warning to anyone who thought they could pop into this student’s room and arrogantly expect that certain things would not be thought, said, or argued out: ‘This is a dangerous space.’ ‘I came to university because I wanted to be in a dangerous space in which controversial ideas could be explored’, Shapiro tells me. But safe-space policies, he says, mitigate against such open-ended, free-wheeling and, yes, sometimes difficult thought-excavation by chilling what can be thought and discussed. ‘The idea behind them seems noble: to be kinder to each other — I’m all for that. But the underlying principle is that there are certain rules that you can’t break and certain things that, if you say, the discussion will be closed.’ Once a safe-space is created, he says, anyone can say to anyone else ‘That’s really offensive, and shut an idea down and not engage with it’. So what is presented as a morally upstanding stab at keeping students safe from harm is in fact more about cushioning them from controversy, from ideas. ‘That isn’t what I came to university for’, Shapiro says.

The idea of the university is that ideas should be rigorously examined and debated. That isn’t just good ideas or ideas that make folks comfortable – that is all ideas, as a means of determining which are worthy of acceptance. One of the hallmarks of an intellectually bankrupt institution ruled where rigorous thought is rejected is that it puts certain views off limits as somehow heretical. Bravo, Adam Shapiro, for having the guts to stand for that idea.





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