by Guy Walker
There’s no where to go. We’ve been corralled into padded white rooms of academic pedantry, from floor to ceiling, glittered with papyrus-font quotes from Maya Angelou and nondescript Chinese Proverb like starry haphazard reminders of an idealism more akin to a prudish hell. Everyone is so polite. Their skin is glossy. All the women have long armpit hair dyed green. All the men have cracker bones and speak in frail submissive voices. We’re locked in a series of Safe Spaces, forever, screaming for all white masculine-types to die, protesting that flowers should be gender fluid, accosting the sun to be nicer to our skin.
Safe Spaces—predominately found on college campuses—are those brittle fortresses of political correctness that resemble something between a nunnery and a madhouse. They are where the smarmiest of young adults go to die.
College campuses are supposed to be small ambrosial cities of twenty-year-olds in cargo shorts and fading pimples all congregating around a professor’s lectern, listening like it were a nasalized campfire story, their four years of puttering optimism slowly eroding into the spiteful trenches of reality, their student-debt now soaring, their intellectual aptitude barely better than it was before. The puerile fertility of the boys reeking down hallways and frat houses with the urgency to hose the world down with their semen. The girls bursting like a huge Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Mostly, kids just hang on until they are let go, trading in their parent’s savings account for a sheet of biscuit-colored paper, shuffling in and out of the place like duteous bovines who just experienced the best four years of their life.
Why? we ask ourselves in lulls of sobriety. Why do we march en masse into such institutional mediocrity? The obvious and banal answer is that parents or society presses it upon us, or because of boredom, or because it is a perquisite to our desired profession. But there’s something even more routinely ideological about higher education, like some cold hubristic measure of our learned inability that we crave to flaunt under the stelliferous cynicism of our era. Walter Benjamin said “ideological class education starts with puberty,” and he’s never wrong. The bourgeoisie’s “mark of shame,” he argues, is that they demand unwavering discipline from all children, thus hampering the creative mind into the dull peasantry of modern man.
The politics of getting into a university is class struggle; it’s a cloistered pubescent frenzy to get into the right group of buildings with the right name printed on its gilded gates. We besiege their shiny edifices with varying degrees of expectation, whether they be to learn, to fuck, to play sports, to get drunk without curfew. Whatever the expectation, we expect liberalism. We expect our thought and discourse to be free.
But the Benjaminian critique of education isn’t just a neo-Marxist attitude that the bourgeoisie is bad. It is meant to massage the teet of humanity, to liberate the intrinsic ingenuity of child and man alike. Benjamin thought all school children should act in the theater because only through unrehearsed performance does the creative critical mind developed as it should, that in doing so, man achieves his humanity through the “wild liberation of the child’s imagination.” Only through “wild liberation” is any socio-political revolution possible, something of a catalytic component for women, gays, and minorities today.
But Safe Spaces are a weird and recent phenomenon—bursting onto the scene only in the last couple of years, they have quickly grown out of the religiosity for a brutish and paranoid form of social justice, already having converted masses of former unbelievers to speak in tongues, to grow out all their body hair, to protest guest speakers at universities who have different points of view. The ideal state for Safe Space people presumably is S.S. buildings the size of mega churches littered across the world with feminized Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn types commanding the use of a decent lexicon to their congregation, attendees’ eyes rolling back as their bodies convulse violently upon upon the floor. They have what are called ‘trigger warnings,’ microaggression innuendos that send the very sensitive into cataclysmic shock. There are certain topics, phrases, words, that mustn’t ever be discussed in the classroom in fear it will offend someone.
If applied, Hegelian dialectics and its philosophical lineage would be banned from academia, from thought itself, like a Fahrenheit 451 of our own miserable minds, of our perverted subconscious whisperings, of our tribalistic tendencies, into a single neural highway that roars across roads of pristine virginal marble. The dictatorial idealism of the S.S. people extracts only the emotional brazenness out of the Sophists’ methodology of aretē (quality, excellence, especially that of the oratory mold) and abolishes everything that Socrates was after in the first place: truth, truth by means of logic and rationality, by the dialectic of reason, rather than by emotion.
Safe Spaces are churches for the intolerance of reason. By definition, they are spaces that have banned all constructive discussion. This goes against all that liberalism stands for, against the utilitarianism John Stuart Mill mapped out to be applied to society and the state—essentially, that we do what we do as long as it doesn’t hurt others, that the greatest good for the greatest whole is liberty. However, the Safe Space people predominately identify with the political left, something seemingly contrary to the social identity of liberty itself. They are groups that American psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the ‘illiberal left,’ a seemingly new group of actors who oppose civil intellectual discourse. In a podcast with Sam Harris, he goes on to explain that when asked why women are underrepresented in the STEM fields for example, he is not allowed to respond with the reasonable theory that “prenatal testosterone actually influences what children enjoy doing,” out of fear of retaliation from the illiberal left. It has to be a social justice issue even if it’s not.
Philosophy, science, art, music, all fields of human ingenuity advance because of the discourse had through that medium. Imagine a young churlish Wittgenstein hunched over his schoolbooks with a runny nose, reading Schopenhauer, becoming squeamish and psychologically pained over the author’s writings on Wille zum Leben, demanding the teacher provide him a Safe Space where he can mash globs of Play-Doh against his forehead and drink glasses of warmed whole milk. Imagine schoolboy Samuel Beckett aghast at the pornography in Joyce’s writings. Imagine Sibelius collapsing to the notes of Anton Bruckner, curling into the fetal position and screaming for the music to stop, ponds of coruscating drool and tears pooling together around his flaccid sweaty body.
But Safe Spaces are not merely rooms of worship for the obsessively prudish types. And they don’t just obstruct freedom of speech in some hapless mediocre way (at some institutions it is plainly defined as blasphemy for one to question affirmative action, for example). It’s more dangerous even. It is the laws and nimble skills of debate, and the manifold processes of thinking that make debate possible, that construct new truths and attitudes of our era—these are in jeopardy. Safe Spaces are about manufacturing the simulacrum of decency. They merely turn words into taboos, thus creating the facade of humanity.
It is through this disabled intellectualism that the Safe Space people want to force us all to soak in the same tepid cauldron of orthodoxy, everyone paranoid they’re going to fuck up one day and say ‘retard’ or ‘black’ or ‘person of Hebrew faith’ or ‘hrímpursar’ or ‘pudenda’ or ‘thank you’ or ‘how do you do?’. There’ll be ladies in hair curlers circling around students’ desks, scribbling frantically on their notepads about the content, analysis, and the actually-intended offensive meaning of their language. The five-year-old with bucked teeth at desk 101 said “my tummy hurts”, which is clearly a derogatory slur against the stomach organ. White girl in polka dot dress is combing her straight hair in the presence of other girls with curly hair. Blonde boy raises his hand to ask a question, but it could have also been the Nazi salute.
When the advocacy of unrealistic pettiness is shoved into the general public, it’s never accepted as the new golden standard of morality. It generally has the opposite effect, igniting a stubbornness to submit to the new rule, becoming far more hostile than before. When California teen McKay Hatch started The No Cussing Club, and wrote a book with the same title, he was expectantly trolled and bullied by school peers yelling “fuck!” “pussy!” “cheese dick!” and other rosebud paeans of profanity far louder than they would have if unprovoked. The hacktivist group Anonymous published Hatch’s home address and telephone number online, resulting in mass quantities of pornography and pizza deliveries to his family home, and prank calls with torrents of obscenities. We humans don’t like to be told how to behave. When told, “we can’t discuss affirmative action” in the classroom, it is expected to evoke a certain kind of animosity against the evangelists of this taboo even if we wholeheartedly agree with affirmative action.
The justification for Safe Spaces applies Adorno’s logic around morality and conflict—that the gentlest of things “culminate in unimaginable brutality”—to the pettiness of day-to-day language, posturing that only a negative dialectic exists. It suggests that we are en route towards a barbaric shit-throwing contest, that we began as philanthropic culturally diverse Victorians and are agents of the entropic collapse of humanity, that soon we’ll just be apes grunting obscenities and racial slurs at each other, while the few rogue hyper-sensitive leftists faint from the trauma of it all.
There are undoubtedly grotesque examples of professors or student peers being callous and vicious towards minorities, or gays, or women. And where those cases occur they should undoubtedly be dealt with in their necessary ways. But the momentum of our cultural tolerance is rapidly headed in the right direction: from the abolition of slavery, to child labor laws, to women’s suffrage, to the Civil Rights Movement, to gay rights, the West’s trajectory is towards equality. And given the human timeline—most of which looks like an extravagantly buttered hell—our relations with one another are becoming more hospitable than they ever have.
In Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, he maps out the long historical decline in violence, from the evolution of hunter-gatherer societies to settled centralized civilizations, through the Enlightenment, through the less frequent and less violent wars, to where we are today: amidst what he calls the Rights Revolution, the domestic advocacy for gays, minorities, women, and so on. But in the Benjaminian application of the thought and tenor behind this modern-day revolution, the Rights Revolution won’t be able to sustain itself without the “wild liberation” of a child’s imagination, one that the Safe Space people, by their very nature, wish to inhibit even more than already has through the current educational construct.
If they had it their way, the S.S. people would dictate cats always be kittens, the color yellow be softer on the eye, all Richard Wagner would be edited to resemble Erik Satie, bricks be turned to bubble wrap. But the libidinal ferment of millennials wants to fuck in paradise. We want to whisper dirty words under enormous night skies. And I gather we want these things more than to sit quietly in the classroom too afraid to discuss our differences.