Thursday, February 19, 2009

This Blog Is Not a Safe Space, part 2

A few years ago our campus GLBT group began producing and distributing Safe Zone stickers, which declared that "bigotry, harassment, and ignorance will not be tolerated" anywhere they were posted. The word "ignorant" bothered me, because everyone is ignorant, not least the people who designed the stickers. People who believe that they aren't ignorant may be among the most dangerous.

(I haven't got an image of the local Safe Zone stickers, but I've found a number from other universities around the country. I was struck that most of them promise safety explicitly -- and exclusively? -- for gay people, as though other people didn't have problems and weren't entitled to be safe too.)

The same organization sponsored a showing of If These Walls Could Talk 2, a lesbian themed made-for-TV movie. The showing took place in the campus Latino center, which was well-papered with Safe Zone stickers. The audience was about evenly divided between male and female undergraduates, almost all presumably GLB. As the video rolled, several of the young gay men in the room began groaning loudly in disgust whenever two women kissed on the TV screen, or when a bare female breast was exposed. Among these young gay men was the newly-elected president of the GLBT organization, a fervent booster of Safe Zone stickers. No one spoke up, no one intervened -- including me. At the time, I found their behavior merely childish and annoying. Only later did I realize how homophobic it was, and how incompatible with the Safe Zone in which we supposedly were sitting. In any case, it was the officers of the sponsoring organization who should have spoken up. But none did, and of course one of them was one of the offenders. Who guards the guardians? Who will protect us from our protectors? This same organization later sponsored viewings of Queer As Folk, the soft-porn cable TV series about gay men. I wonder if anyone made disgusted noises at the series' male to male kissing and exposed male skin -- and if so, if they got away with it?

Some readers might object that the people I'm discussing had no qualifications or training to create a safe space. That’s right, and that's the problem. "Safe Zone" stickers were distributed promiscuously to anyone who would accept them. To put a Safe Zone sticker on one's door is to declare oneself a person for whom enforcement isn't needed. On the night I just described, "bigotry, harassment, and ignorance" were not only tolerated, they were perpetrated by the very people who proclaimed themselves to be above such things.

Who, however, is qualified to create and maintain a safe space? Who is qualified to train others to do so? How are safe spaces enforced, and by whom? On another occasion, the GLB speakers' bureau I coordinate received a request for ... not so much a speaker as a sacrificial victim. The event was a weekend-long workshop on homophobia, sponsored by the campus gay-straight alliance. The workshop leader, a graduate student in counseling, wanted the subject to be present while the participants thought of anti-gay epithets, which would be written on slips of paper, and the slips of paper would be attached to the subject's clothing. Processing would follow. No rationale was offered for this bizarre exercise, but we were assured that it would be "facilitate[d] in a safe, caring way", in a "safe environment," and all participants were "already very sensitive and empathic." I was very uneasy about asking our volunteers to consider it; fortunately the other coordinator thought it was a great idea and offered to be the victim.

The word "doublethink" comes to mind. War is peace. Ignorance is strength. Bigotry is sensitive and empathic. Abuse is safe and caring. Given the nature of the exercise, why not use a heterosexual volunteer as the victim? Why was a gay person even needed? In the years since this request came before me, I've seen numerous announcements of programs on various hot topics, at IU or connected to it, assuring prospective participants that they will be in a "safe space", and I wonder if the term is being used in the same Orwellian sense. That's apart from the hubris involved in anyone's thinking they can deal with religious or sexual issues without offending or upsetting someone.

The core problem with totalistic safe space is that no one is capable of maintaining one. No one is so enlightened or free of prejudice as to be able to guarantee a space where no one will be offended. I'm probably better informed and more thoughtful than most of the diversity managers at my university, and for that very reason I would not presume to designate myself as an authoritative arbiter and enforcer of safety. (Indeed, I want the world to be less safe for bigotry.) Those who do so are not people I trust. Totalistic "safe zones" tend, from what I've seen, to produce complacency and self-righteousness in those who claim to know how to create them.

Diversity management professionals naturally present themselves as proponents of reason and tolerance against the superstitions of the ignorant many, but professionals don't have such a great track record. Professionals conceived and ran the Satanic Ritual Abuse witch hunt of the 1980s and 1990s; professionals think they know what proper sex roles are, and feel competent to force them on small children, even unto surgery and electroshock treatment (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “How to Bring Your Child Up Gay: the war on effeminate boys” in Tendencies [Duke, 1993]; Phyllis Burke, Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male and Female [Anchor Doubleday, 1996]). Psychiatrists and psychological professionals have embraced the belief that homosexuality is "genetic" or "biological," just at a time when the scientific evidence for that position is collapsing. More whimsically, I still recall with amusement how an education professional, my first-grade teacher, ordered me to use a red crayon to color Robin Redbreast's breast. Not knowing any better, I insisted that an orange crayon was closer to the actual color. Fortunately my mother backed me up, and I was allowed to be diverse.

From castration and sterilization of the mentally ill and retarded in the US before (and even after) World War II, to the abduction of "half-caste" children from their aboriginal families in Australia and North America, to lobotomy and electroshock, to infant genital mutilation in the US today, to the unnecessary institutionalization of children with Down Syndrome to the "war on effeminate boys", professionals have shown that they don't always know what is best for the people who are put into their care. The word "ignorant" is a popular term of derogation for those with views we dislike -- see above on the IU "Safe Zone" stickers -- but I am talking about programs conceived and implemented by educated people with advanced degrees. There is evidence, in fact, that professionals tend to be less tolerant of difference than the general population.

I'm not saying this to demonize all professionals, let alone teachers. And compared to lobotomy or electroshock, totalistic safe space is fairly tame stuff. I am saying that professionals, including teachers, should be very tentative about imposing anything on their students, no matter how innocuous or even noble it may seem. A great deal of intolerance and hostility leaks out from the paternalistic façade of safe space, and I think that's cause for concern. And simply from an educational standpoint, totalistic safe space is counterproductive. Far from teaching kids how to live in a diverse society, it will stifle diversity by refusing to acknowledge it.

Though the professionals who want to produce safe spaces generally seem to see themselves as progressive, and some of their values may be so, their approach is profoundly conservative. It fits into a familiar educational tradition which sees children as empty vessels, to be filled with knowledge by the wise. But there are other traditions. One approach, advocated by Gerald Graff among others, is "teaching the conflict." This recognizes that students are capable of reflection on issues that affect their lives -- and also that teachers not only may not have all the answers, but are not themselves impartial, outside the fray.