November 23, 2015

DAVIS | The Weaponization of Safe Space

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By ADAM DAVIS

In the news lately, we have witnessed the rise of a political movement based not on facts and logical demands, but emotion. Some members of this movement certainly have noble intentions: they seek to “protect” those they deem “vulnerable.” But they have chosen to do this in a way which infringes on the freedom of others, all in the name of creating a “safe space” for themselves and others like them.

I am talking, of course, about the anti-refugee backlash in the wake of the recent terror attack in Paris.

Of course much has also been made lately about those other “safe spaces” so many campus activists seek their creation as places where marginalized students can seek refuge from racism, classism, homophobia and various other forms of bigotry. This concept has fallen under particular scrutiny recently due to the protests that have sprung up at college campuses throughout the United States, from Yale to Missouri to just down the road at Ithaca College. In a piece for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf claims that the “safe space” has been “weaponized,” citing an incident at the University of Missouri in which protesters mobbed a press photographer, shoving him out of the way and preventing him from exercising his right to take pictures in a public space.

The idea that freedom and liberalism are under attack has become a popular claim of critics of the recent protests. Another favorite trope is that of the “overly sensitive” college student who is acting out of pure fear and emotion instead of real rational thought.

At this point we should turn back to the recent anti-refugee backlash, because those two tropes which are so often thrown out to discredit demonstrations on college campuses apply all too well to this movement too. Acting out of emotion and fear? I don’t know a better example of this than the xenophobic reaction that inevitably follows every Islamist terror attack perpetrated in a Western nation. The reaction this time is a particularly egregious example: despite the fact that it has yet to be confirmed that a single Paris attacker was a refugee and that entrance to the United States as a refugee would be far from the easiest way for a potential terrorist to enter our country, reactionaries have immediately seized on the opportunity presented by the attack to push an anti-refugee agenda. As time has gone by following the attack, they have certainly tried to use (usually poor) logical arguments to defend their position on the refugee crisis. But no matter how you look at it, the fact remains that this backlash was triggered by emotion and fear in the wake of an attack that had little to nothing to do with Syrian refugees and is sustained largely by those same petty and dangerous emotions.

And what of the claim levied against recent student protests that “freedom” is under attack? This claim is even easier to apply to the anti-refugee reaction. Those who have raised their voices the loudest in the wake of the Paris attack stand ready to deny the most basic freedoms — to live in safety and with dignity — to thousands of people. If denying a cameraman his right to document an event in a public area in order to protect your safe space is a troublesome attack on freedom, denying thousands of refugees their right to live in order to protect your safe space is downright terrifying.

The anti-refugee movement is just one example of a tendency to shun those unlike us based on our fear of the other. Just look at the Trump campaign and its strategy of stirring up a white, middle-American victimhood complex in order to mobilize it against some imagined invasion of Mexican migrants. Trump and his followers even want a physical wall to protect us — to protect our safe space, that is. And a quick examination of Europe shows that we’re not alone in the West when it comes to these xenophobic tendencies. In Poland, for instance, far-right fear and anger against refugees even feeds into anti-Semitic paranoia about some internationalist plot to undermine the nation. For those Polish demonstrators, the nation must be ethnically and religiously homogenous, and the “true” Poles are “threatened” by anything but such homogeneity. Meanwhile, many other European nations have seen a surge of right-wing populist movements, such as PEGIDA in Germany or the National Front in France, which rely largely on the fear of immigrants to mobilize their bases.

Conor Friedersdorf wants to lament the weaponization of the safe space when he looks at recent protests on college campuses. Fair enough in the case of the incident he cites; I certainly won’t be an apologist for the use of force to attack the freedom of the press. But right now I can think of no greater weaponized safe space than the modern Western nation-state, which defends its homogeneity against the feared “others” with walls and guns.  

None of this is meant to shield campus protests from healthy criticism, as this would be its own kind of infantilization, and would benefit neither those movements nor society as a whole. Instead, we should always push against irrational and freedom-limiting tendencies, whether they represent human flaws in noble movements or dangerous tendencies in fundamentally wrong-headed movements.

But it’s worth remembering that when student activists act brashly or out of emotion, it makes people feel uncomfortable or, at worst, makes someone powerful and affluent lose his or her job. When our government officials act brashly or out of emotion, it puts thousands of the most vulnerable lives in danger. If all of those who have spoken out against the actions of American student activists truly care about rational thought and freedom, it is time for them to speak even more loudly against the actions of our politicians who seek to shun refugees.

Adam Davis is a sophomore studying Industrial and Labor Relations with minors in history and Spanish. He blogs about politics, ideas and current events. Adam’s posts appear on alternate Mondays this semester. He can be reached at awd54@cornell.edu.