With every passing decade since World War II, there seems to come a new yet increasingly subtle “war” on an ideology. First, it was the War On Communism. Next was the Nixon/Reagan War on Drugs. The Bush Administration’s War on Terror. Recently, with the fierce rejection of “safe spaces,” the condemnation of “political correctness,” and the emergence of a “post-fact era,” we have begun a new battle. We are transitioning into what could be called a War on Dialogue.
Coming from Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the United States, I have experienced people who exemplify the notion of “birds of a feather flock together.” The topic of race continues to be a discussion only among those who already share similar views, as opposed to the necessary conversations across opposing ideas. The Greek idea of argument as a tool to discover the truth has been obliterated. We no longer seek the truth, but rather strive to make our own beliefs the truth.
In order to return to the dialogue necessary to discovering the root of various issues, there are a myriad of solutions. Safe spaces create a phenomenal area to talk across differences and understand opposing viewpoints. I’ve witnessed the incredible power of safe spaces, and the emotional potential of being “politically correct.” The issue with both of these tools is that they have been largely misunderstood throughout the nation. For the sake of clarity, the definition of these two ideas needs to be outlined.
The concept of safe spaces has been morphed into a taboo of sorts. Even though the concept is fairly recent, it has a strong opposition from a large group of people, associated with its own stereotypes. People assume that these are spaces in which all controversy is avoided, and any sort of “non-liberal” idea is essentially abhorred. If anything, the traditional “conservative” ideas is just as welcome as the “liberal” ideas, in order to create conversations in which diversity provides new perspective. Safe spaces are simply an area in which people feel comfortable sharing their experiences, their beliefs, and their ideas with others. By declining the potential of safe spaces, one also rejects the conversations that need to be started in order to create change.
People reject “political correctness” because they feel their First Amendment rights are removed when people feel insulted by their statements. They feel that the constitution protects their ability to say what they want, when they want. Political correctness is simply the emotional cognisance one has towards the words they say. When people reject political correctness, they deny socially awareness and being attuned to others emotions. They avoid their own responsibility to sympathize and converse far more than they are attempting to reject other’s sensitivity.
One of my favorite guidelines typically addressed in safe spaces is the “ouch, oops” rule. The guideline is essential to addressing issues which people may disagree upon. An elaboration of this idea is best exemplified through a metaphor: Say you are sitting with your feet sticking out, and you accidentally trip someone. While you did not intend to hurt the person you tripped, they ended up getting hurt anyways. At the same time, it should be recognized that your intention was not to hurt the person you tripped, and your actions had no harmful intent. While you cannot invalidate the pain that they are feeling, you strive to sympathize. While they feel pain from your action, they also strive to recognize what caused the pain in a way that recognizes your intentions (or lack thereof).
It’s worth bearing in mind that there are people who misuse and misunderstand safe spaces on both ends of the spectrum. While there are people who reject the idea of being sensitive to others emotions and reactions, there are also people who capitalize on those same issues. A prime example of this polar opposite manifests itself through Oberlin College’s students. Although the frequent protests and controversy caused by the school is nothing new, the college is still a breeding ground for extreme political correctness. While this certainly does not speak on behalf of the school as a whole, some of its student’s actions are very representative of the most extreme version of what some might call “college coddling.”
These people misconstrue the purpose of safe spaces just as much as the other side. If any kind of input is ignored, then a safe space no longer exists. People can be subject to scrutiny for certain statements and arguments, but the space encourages a civil discussion in which the goal is to understand. As mentioned before, we live in an era in which we’ve stopped seeking truth and instead strive to “prove” our statements as truth. Safe spaces are the sanctuary in which no one wins until everyone wins. Anyone who rejects this with the basis of their arguments being that such a goal is too “childish” is afraid of facing opposition and realizing that the beliefs they’ve held so deeply for years might be wrong.
It should not come as a surprise that people in positions of power tend to reject open dialogue, diversity, and the ability to come together as a group to create change. After the Civil Rights Movement, the Pride Movement, and the anti-Vietnam protests, we’ve seen the impact of empowered college students on government policy and power overall. It seems that the negativity which was lashed upon these “liberal” ideas are ways to protect power. They are ways to prevent the empowerment of young adults and avoid collective actions toward progress.
As I reflect on my childhood fears of the dark, of the potential monstrosities that could lurk in its depths, I consider its consequences to my actions as they stand today. I recall my solution to dealing with the monsters I couldn’t see in my bedroom as shutting the closet, or by running underneath my covers, as if these methods somehow provided a sanctuary from any harm to me. I would run from the depths of my basement praying I could escape the potential horrors which lay in the dark. I was too afraid to face anything head on, so I ran away, or hid them instead by closing all of my closet doors, or wishing they would just go away.
Safe spaces can be the shadows cast by the tree branch late at night. We see them as a different sort of monster. We fear the potential dangers they pose. Once we recognize that the shadow misrepresents the true nature of the situation, we no longer fear the branch which creates it.
That’s where we lie, right now, with everything going on in our nation. People are rejecting dialogue because it means that they have to confront the monsters that hide inside them. When we criticize the notion of “Political Correctness” because we can’t bear the idea that we have insulted someone, we are shutting the closet door. When we stay silent during acts of injustice, we are hiding under the sanctuary of our bed covers. We must see the shadows for what they are: This is no longer a time to hide from our monsters, but to face them head on.