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In safe spaces, hidden dangers

  • Published at 11:36 am October 6th, 2018
Are you OK with confronting ideas you find distressing? BIGSTOCK

There is no safe space for a mind which wishes to understand the world

Few great social changes are wholly positive. “Safe spaces,” for example. 

Most popular in universities, they’re meant to provide a feeling of security for those who feel vulnerable, a place where students can avoid issues that might cause them distress.

The downside of the safe space initiative is its weaponization, its use to exclude so that criticism, opposing opinions and alternative analyses are not confronted and argued over, but prohibited.

Jim Sidanius, a professor of psychology and African American Studies at Harvard, is among those -- like the writers of recent books such as William Egginton’s “The Splintering of the American Mind” and Greg Lukianoff and Jonathon Haidt’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” -- who find it concerning. 

Sidanius did a study of safe spaces constructed by students of different ethnic backgrounds -- and says that for minority who joined these groups, “the more likely (they) were to feel that they were in this zero-sum relationship with other ethnic groups on campus.” The safer within the group, the more hostile to those outside.

Others protest that they’re needed. RaeAnn Pickett wrote in Time magazine in August 2016 that she sought such spaces while suffering from post-partum depression. Finding one, she writes that when received by a “safe space,” “I felt the weight slowly start to lift from my chest. All the pent-up anxiety I had felt was dissipating.” Pickett argues that a commitment to free speech is less important than the question -- “whose speech is being protected by these policies?”

That question has taken on a new relevance beyond university campuses. Now it should be asked whether the most famed liberal magazines are seeking a “safe space” for themselves, one in which they don’t confront people whom they, or their readers, deem to be intolerable. 

Last month, the weaponizing of the spirit behind safe spaces struck down one distinguished editor and struck another, temporarily, dumb. The first was Ian Buruma, the New York Review of Books editor and a writer who for over four decades has collected awards for his writing and tributes to his liberalism.

Buruma left his post after a furor over his decision to publish an essay by Jian Ghomeshi, fired from his job as presenter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2014 after accusations of sexually assaulting more than 20 women. A first trial found him not guilty; a second was stopped because he signed a “peace bond” and publicly apologized. 

Buruma said he wanted to print Ghomeshi’s story to explore what it was like to be a high-profile public figure caught in serious allegations -- then acquitted of most of the criminal charges. What, Buruma wanted to know, happens “when people are not found to have broken the law but have misbehaved in other ways nonetheless. How do you deal with such cases? Should that last forever?”

When one of the women affected complained, he offered to print her objections at length.

For printing that article, Buruma roused the ire of many on his editorial staff, while his publisher pointed out that many of the academic publishers which are the Review’s main advertising source said they would refuse to advertise. Buruma, apparently feeling he had no choice, resigned.

The other editor was David Remnick of the New Yorker, the city’s superlative magazine of long form journalism. Remnick, too, is garlanded with awards, including a Pulitzer. He has greatly raised the profile of the weekly magazine, and is a star of its annual festival, where he interviews prominent cultural and political figures.

He thought it would be good, this year, to do an interview with Steve Bannon -- the former adviser to President Donald Trump, cast out of the White House and now a roving ambassador for right-wing nationalism through his movement -- called, “The Movement” -- mainly in Europe. The New Yorker editor didn’t invite him for a friendly chat; he announced that “I have every intention of asking him difficult questions and engaging in a serious and even combative conversation.”

Invited -- then disinvited. A cry of protest made Remnick quickly change his mind, and cancel the Bannon interview. He mooted the vague possibility of a later, less public confrontation, prompting Bannon to call him “gutless.” Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the editor of The Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes, confirmed the former presidential adviser’s invitation to her newspaper’s “Open Future” festival.

These are much more than low points in high literary society. They are affronts to the trade of journalism. From the writings of John Milton, John Stuart Mill, the American Federalists, and the US constitution itself, the assumption has been that freedom to speak and to publish included the freedom to offend.

To offend -- and to know the nature of those who offend you. To read Adolf Hitler’s memoir, Mein Kampf, for example, is to go beyond the cardboard villain into the intellectual and emotional alleyways in which the Nazi leader found justification for what became the Holocaust. To understand, even in part, a monster through his own words is a sounder basis for opposition to fascism than mere sloganeering.

Buruma and Remnick operated at a much milder level than helping to air the views of the founder of the Nazi party. But several American journalists interviewed Hitler -- including Dorothy Thomson, for the first time in 1931. She described him as “inconsequent and voluble, ill poised and insecure … the very prototype of the little man.” The interview (though not her dismissive impression of the man) was uncontroversial. It was what journalists did. She was later expelled from Germany.

Journalism includes interviewing, or hearing from, monsters, and those with whom we simply find fundamentally wrong, so that we can judge them for ourselves. It roots agency in the reader and viewer. There is no “safe space” for a mind which wishes to understand something of the world. 

A liberal society cannot create boundaries to understanding between the approved and the forbidden. The pressures which prompted Buruma’s dismissal and Bannon’s disinvitation are -- no matter what their intention -- illiberal, in the long run more dangerous to society than the censorship they promote.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. This article previously appeared on Reuters.

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