It’s Not a War Zone


Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces, And The College Mental Health Crisis Media Coverage Ignores (Media Matters for America)
Officer in viral classroom takedown fired (All In with Chris Hayes)

One of the main influences in both my teaching philosophy and teaching performance is the bad experiences I’ve had as a student  with horrible teachers and unscrupulous administrators. Although I had a number of advantages over the years that most people aren’t lucky enough to get, I also went through things that no human being — and especially no child — should ever, ever have to go through. A good part of the reason why I became a teacher was to do what I can to make sure that other students don’t have to go through the same problems that I went through, to try to repair the damage that their previous schooling has done to them, and at the very least to help them identify and cope with the bullshit that they run into in school. (This includes my own bullshit; as much as I try to rid my classrooms of that kind of stuff, I don’t always succeed, and I believe that teachers who criticize students or their work — which is pretty much all of us — have a moral obligation to be open and responsive to students’ criticism of their own work as teachers.)

I was just entering high school when the whole debate about “politically correct” language in academia was pushed on the nation by figures like Dinesh D’Souza and Rush Limbaugh. These kinds of attacks ebb and flow depending on the political climate and the opportunities that present themselves; one attack on academia launched by a couple of conservative filmmakers back in 2004 led to me launching a separate website to debunk the “teaser” for the full-length film they later released, although time and other constraints forced me to abandon that website ages ago. I’ve been developing a new webseries about teaching issues on and off for the past few months, though, and as I prepare to go into production on that series later this year there have certainly been plenty of academic controversies to pick and choose from here.

The debate over creating safe spaces in classrooms may not be the most prominent of these debates, but I see it as one of the most all-compassing, not only because it touches on the core processes of creating campus and classroom rules and procedures, but also because it touches on larger problems of modern conservative ideology, including passing off privilege as some kind of objective “natural order of things” and the idea that increased power should come with decreased responsibility. This kind of thinking is already wreaking havoc on our nation and world, but for individual students, particularly the young, this can literally destroy lives before they even get a chance to start.

Although there are a number of factors going into conservative attacks on the creation of safe spaces on campus — part of the reason why I need to explore this as part of a regular webseries — the most blanket complaint is that these spaces “coddle” students and don’t prepare them for the “real world.” Broadly, this presupposes that the world is a horrible place where being treated roughly is to be expected, and our country in particular has any number of idioms, from “grow a set” to “concussions build character,” to express this notion. Even if we were to accept that as unimpeachable fact, though, it does not follow that the world has to be a horrible place. One of the most important lessons I learned as I was preparing to teach English for the first time is that when you don’t teach that something is capable of being changed, you teach through your silence that it is incapable of being changed. Change can mean something as liberal as single-payer health care or as conservative as removing all government regulations on health care and letting the free market police itself. Change can mean everything from achieving lasting peace in the Middle East to getting a more kick-ass Call of Duty game next year. Whatever change means to a student, when you shut off the mere possibility to that change, especially in the growing mind of a young person, you are doing that person a huge disservice, and as a teacher you are failing at your job by closing a mind that you are responsible for expanding.

When it comes down to it, these attacks on “coddling” are the most gossamer veneers of an attempt to turn college classrooms into the academic equivalent of the worst that right-wing media has to offer: Shouting matches, a myriad of false equivalencies and the codification of privilege. This is why nearly every conservative “study” of academia explicitly leaves out Christian universities and the rules and practices endemic in those institutions, because they want those beliefs and ideologies to be sacrosanct under the argument that they are intrinsic to the institution’s identity, while not affording that same protection to secular schools no matter how explicitly their values are stated in the university’s charters (such as at one of my alma maters, Antioch College). This is why they demand a fifty-fifty debate on matters as settled as manmade climate change, but demand that Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts be taught as the sole, empirically factual reason for the 1980s economic recovery (as opposed to, say, Paul Volcker’s fiscal policies). This is why they want academia to bend over backwards to make sure that conservative students are never exposed to anything that offends or contradicts their beliefs, but still have the power to systematically deny the basic identities of other students.

Safe spaces in classrooms are especially designed to make sure that unpopular opinions can be expressed and considered, and this includes conservative opinions. When I was getting my English degrees I saw the difficulties that some conservative students had in expressing opinions in classrooms where they were in the minority. On the other hand, my undergraduate minor was in Business Administration, and I saw there how liberal students had the exact same problems dealing with conservative instructors and students. The issue of creating classroom atmospheres where all students can express themselves healthily has been a concern for me since before I even became an English teacher, and I even wrote my graduate thesis on that  subject. This issue is on my mind every time I step into a classroom to teach, and while I don’t always succeed in creating an atmosphere where every student feels free to healthily express themselves, I damn sure try.

The key word there, though, is “healthily.” There is a gulf of difference between arguing in favour of ending affirmative action programmes on the one hand, and calling racial minorities “moochers” and “freeloaders” on the other. You can argue about the societal construction of marriage without constantly reminding other students that your holy book says that they should be killed for whom they love. You can debate the causes of economic inequality without accusing other students of trying to instigate class warfare. You wouldn’t know this is you spend all your time in the right-wing media bubble, but again, it is possible, and ultimately necessary, to create and enforce guidelines to keep class discussions respectful and sane.

To be blunt about it, what conservatives are trying to do here is codify the ability of right-wing students to act like assholes on campus, either through dominating class discussions with irrelevant and venomous personal attacks or by systematically “weeding out” students who either can’t, or don’t want to, endure perpetual hostility on campus. Although we have laws against murder and robbery and the like, there aren’t any explicit laws against simply acting like an asshole, and there are pretty good arguments to be made that we shouldn’t make any laws like that. What I have a problem with are the conservatives who act like assholes and expect to endure no adverse consequences for their actions. That is fundamentally and perversely unfair, it galls me not just as a person but specifically as a teacher and as an American, and it has become all too common in an age where right-wing media has redefined “public discourse” to the point where insipid soundbites and vapid ad hominem now passes as “intelligent debate” for too many people.

If you’ve seen the recent House Republican foolishness in hearings about Planned Parenthood and the 2012 consulate attack in Libya, that is pretty much what these conservatives want to turn classrooms into: A place to spew phony “evidence” and soundbites ad nauseum, to come to conclusions first and try to contort the facts to fit that conclusion afterward (while dismissing any and all evidence that contradicts those pre-drawn conclusions as conspiracy), and to preclude any possibility of reasoned debate by dominating discussions through every means available to them (especially the verbal bullying tactics they’ve picked up from right-wing media). No student should be able to do that — conservative or otherwise — and part of the reason for creating campus safe spaces is to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Conservatives claim that safe spaces and the like are “politicizing” education, and on this they are both right and wrong. There is a political dimension to creating academic safe spaces, but to imply that this is somehow adding politics to higher education is a fallacy because higher education, like all human constructs, is inherently political. The decision to create rules to ensure healthy academic discussion is no less of a political decision than to allow class debates to become no-holds-barred verbal smackdowns. Right-wingers attempting to pass off their ideologies as somehow apolitical is nothing new, as can be seen by their constant decrying of adding literature written by people of colour into academic programmes as “left-wing propaganda” while claiming that the teaching of only white European (and almost always male) authors for centuries was just “natural” and not the effect of slavery and other forms of racial oppression. The fact that conservatives keep pushing so strongly to have their privilege accepted as a “natural fact of life” just goes to show how insecure they are that they can win a war of ideas if they admit that what they are trying to do to academia is just as political as what the rest of us are doing.

It would be bad enough if this discussion were merely confined to the academic content of classes, but the incident earlier this week at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina has drawn a similarly polarized response, with conservatives trying to justify Deputy Ben Fields’ actions with everything from hearsay to naked racism. This should be no surprise coming from the same people who advocated for the creation of the school-to-prison pipeline for African-Americans and who want to keep African-Americans in this 21st century evolution of American slavery. There’s a reason why what happened this week in South Carolina echoes what we’ve seen for over a year now starting with what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson and continuing through so many African-Americans being beaten or killed by police officers on video. It’s just another form of conservatives weaponizing their privilege to strike down people they don’t like.

I was bullied by students, and oppressed by teachers and administrators, so systematically at school that I attempted suicide on campus when I was just thirteen years old. If cyberbullying had been around back then I’m fairly sure that I would have tried to end my own life more times than that. Many of those wounds haven’t healed over twenty years later, and I doubt that they ever will. No one should have to go through what I went through — and on top of cyberbullying and dealing with “compliance officers” and the repressive regimes they enforce, many students have had to deal with things far worse than I went through — and if I have helped just one of my students over these past ten years to deal with their own horrible school experiences, and to understand that the world doesn’t have to be the dystopic hellhole that so many conservatives want to turn it into, then I’ve done a lot more with my life than most of the bullies I went to school with.

If you think that makes me political then you’re right, but no less political than any of the conservatives trying to force their ideologies into academia. If you want to try to make it easier for right-wing bullies to turn classrooms into their own personal echo chambers then go ahead. Just don’t expect that the rest of us are going to stand aside and let you hurt other students like we’ve been hurt.

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