Sunday, February 15, 2009

This Blog Is Not a Safe Space, part 1

Obedience in the classroom is scary.
-- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

For several years now I’ve been bothered by some institutional uses of the concept of "safe space" as a tool or goal in education -- particularly in what's called multicultural education. Lately my objections have been multiplying and crystallizing, so I think it's time to try to organize them and set them forth for others' comment, response, and critique.

I’m going to draw here, not on the educational literature on safe space, but on what has been said by people I've known and worked with, in a diversity-management context, including community education in dormitories and GLB panels addressing education majors and others. In the same spirit I will also refer to some things I've read. While I recognize the limitations of this anecdotal approach, I think it covers an aspect of my subject that deserves critical attention: "safe space" as its advocates actually practice it.

I’m not concerned here with safe space in a therapeutic situation, where it might be an appropriate tool. A classroom is not therapy, however. What works in therapy, with its particular agenda and methods, will not work in other arenas. I believe that "safe space" as a concept in education is incoherent and counterproductive, and needs to be abandoned for more constructive approaches, one of which I'll suggest here.

First I had better distinguish between different senses of "safe space": Certainly I don't think students or teachers or anyone else should be subject to harassment or physical attack, at school or anywhere else. But "safe space" is also conceived in more totalistic and encompassing terms, envisioning an environment in which nothing will be said that will offend or upset anyone, or that might conceivably offend or upset anyone. As the therapist Walt Odets wrote (In the shadow of the epidemic: being HIV-negative in the age of AIDS [Duke UP, 1995]: 274f.):
In any well-run group, safety can only mean one thing: any expression of feelings or thoughts will be received and tolerated by the group, and an attempt will be made to honestly respond to it. This will be done without physical violence or undue emotional hurt to other members, and without abandonment of the group. This essential objective is most easily accomplished in a professionally facilitated therapy group, because the group leader will have the necessary skills to mediate and limit conflict to a safe and constructive level. When the idea of safety comes to mean, as it often does in poorly constructed therapy groups and many support groups, that members be polite and "non-judgmental" toward each other, then the prime therapeutic objectives are undermined. Interpersonal interaction -- as opposed to social form -- necessarily involves feelings and judgments about others, and unless they can be expressed and discussed truthfully, the group can provide neither insight nor the meaning that comes of bearing witness....
The function of a group is not to make members "feel better when they leave than when they came in," as one poorly supervised peer facilitator has routinely billed his weekly support group for San Francisco gay men. It is the function of a therapy group, like individual psychotherapy, to help people attain the insight that allows them to make themselves feel better.
As Odets's own complaint shows, though, his idea of safe space is not the only meaning in current use. This third sense, which I shall call totalistic safe space, is my subject here.

In practice, totalistic safe space doesn't really mean that no one is to be offended or upset, since the sensibilities of conservative Christians and others on the cultural right are not only not considered sacrosanct, they are often fair game for mockery and derision by safe space advocates. Epithets like "Bible thumpers" are as routine in these circles as "faggot" is in others. Those who use these epithets often belong to what they consider kinder, gentler, more inclusive religious groups, for which they are ready to demand respect -- indeed, they want a "safe space" in which to deploy those epithets. I recall a liberal minister (and university diversity manager) saying to a class that he didn't like to think of the Christian Right as Christians, since he preferred a more "inclusive" conception of Christianity. Substitute "gay Christians" for "Christian right" in that sentence, and imagine the reaction!

As a gay man who grew up in less tolerant times, I'm naturally inclined to welcome the growing, if still very limited, acceptance of gay people into American society, along with decreasing tolerance for certain forms of anti-gay ideology. But I became wary when I realized the limits of those changes: they were accompanied by a familiar class prejudice, and a demand for conformity to standard American sex roles. Those who try to combat anti-gay bigotry by marking it as low class (or "ignorant"), are just hick-baiting, without really getting at the root problem. ("Redneck" also seems to be an acceptable epithet in genteel diversity-minded circles.)

I was, I admit, mildly shocked when a young gay teacher-to-be, with whom I was speaking on a panel, said that he would not allow "vulgar" words like "gay" in his classroom. "Gay" is not "vulgar," but the unprofessional kind of lace-curtain snobbery this student exhibited is. It has no place in any classroom, from elementary to college. Some social pressure will be necessary and should be used in my opinion, but it must be sharply focused. Bigots should be ostracized as bigots, not by calling them low-class bums. Those of us who are low class bums will take offense.

The same principle applies to race and racism. It's easy and safe to condemn what Allen Chase, in The Legacy of Malthus (Knopf, 1977), called vulgar gut racism. What he called genteel racism is not only more subtle and harder to stop, it still has considerable social acceptance. (See James Waller's excellent book Face to face: the changing state of racism in white America [Insight Books / Plenum Press, 1998], and also Jane Hill’s The everyday language of white racism [Wiley-Blackwell, 2008]).

Totalistic safe space basically imposes a contemporary version of standard white middle class decorum, which has always been a tendency of American schools; but if this oversight were corrected, the result would be a classroom where almost nothing more controversial than 2 + 2 = 4 could be uttered. If everyone's beliefs should be treated with respect, those people whose religious beliefs condemn homosexuality, women's equality, Darwinian theory, or racial equality cannot be exceptions. If someone wants to argue that such exceptions can and should be made, the criteria will have to be made clear and explicit, and I don't think this can be done. Certainly it has not been done yet. If no exceptions are allowed, then a good many educated people of class will be in trouble.

On a GLB panel speaking to a university class in multicultural education for high school teachers-to-be, we were asked about our religious backgrounds. One of the other panelists mentioned that, though raised a Christian, he had not been much exposed to "fire and brimstone, and other Old Testament doctrines." I corrected his misstatement. Eternal damnation in fire and brimstone are New Testament doctrines, a major theme of Jesus' teaching in the gospels. The Old Testament has nothing to say about Hell, and very little about the afterlife at all; to this day Judaism is little concerned with existence after the individual's death. (For comparison, an actual example of an Old Testament doctrine would be "Love your neighbor as yourself", Leviticus 19.18.)

It wasn't a trivial error. What Christians call "the Old Testament" is, in Judaism, simply "the Bible." The speaker was blaming Judaism for a Christian doctrine he found distasteful. Given his evident ignorance about the Bible, he may not have realized this; his was hardly a respectful attitude towards a minority religious faith, especially when you consider that he had his facts wrong. But then, the vilification of Judaism and ancient Mediterranean paganism is standard practice in gay Christian apologetics. I don't know if there were any Jewish students in the class we were addressing, but even if there weren't, is it only wrong to defame a religion if some of its adherents are present? Anti-gay epithets are supposed to be suppressed on the same ground: you never know when one of them might be lurking invisibly nearby.

I myself enjoy mocking the Right; but I don't pretend that doing so creates a safe space, nor that I am tolerant and accepting of everyone, according respect to all belief systems. On the contrary, I think that some belief systems deserve disrespect. The crucial difference between respecting another person's right to hold an opinion, and respecting the opinion itself, is too often blurred.

Whether or not liberal Christians approve of conservative evangelicals, they are going to have to go on living in the same communities with them. Bible thumpers are people too, and some of them have children -- who are not responsible for the lifestyle choices of their parents, and who may attend the same schools and live in the same communities as more deserving children. "Respect for me but not for thee" is a poor strategy for promoting "diversity." It also exposes certain blind spots in "safe space" advocates themselves.