November 18, 2019

Fires Give New Meaning to ‘Safe Space’

As fires were raging and people were being evacuated from their homes in Los Angeles, I kept thinking about the expression “safe space.” I thought about the millions of people without electricity in Northern California and all those who have been forced to flee their homes looking for that safe space.

But there was another reason why that expression was on my mind — I was planning to write a column about the issue of “safe spaces” on college campuses. These latest fires have given the column new meaning. 

I was struck in particular by a story last week about the editor of a college newspaper who “protected” readers by canceling an ad. The ad was for an event promoting National Review Editor Rich Lowry’s upcoming book, “The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free.” It included statements such as, “Nationalism is based on love, not hate; Nationalism has created a world of peace, not war; Nationalism unifies us, rather than divides us.”

Apparently, these words were deemed too threatening to readers of New York University’s Washington Square News because, according to a statement from the editor, it may have “marginalized people of color” since nationalism connotes “xenophobia and white supremacy.”

Lowry responded to the cancellation by tweeting: “One wonders if anyone at NYU is allowed to mention that Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were all nationalists, or if this would be too triggering.” In a follow-up tweet, he added: “This poisonous and lazy misunderstanding of the word nationalism — and the idea behind it — is why I wrote the book, and why people inclined to reflexively reject it should pause and actually listen.”

It is at these moments especially when I realize how the “safe space” movement on college campuses has diluted the very notion of safety.

For the NYU editor, though, the very idea of exposing students to this other perspective was seen as too dangerous and potentially hurtful. So the ad was canceled.

In a sense, it’s a compliment to our country that American college students today feel physically safe enough that they are free to focus on what makes them feel emotionally unsafe.

Much of the world doesn’t have that luxury. When we try, for example, to understand the differences between the Jewish communities in America and Israel, we can start with the fact that every Israeli is intimately familiar with the experience of running into a bomb shelter.

For millions around the world, a safe space is literal. It means a space where you’ll be protected from bombs or terror or even genocide.

In America, mass shootings and gun violence have punctured our feelings of safety and left many of us longing for a literal safe space.

The devastating fires in Northern California and now Los Angeles also remind us of the primal craving for physical safety.

It is at these moments especially when I realize how the “safe space” movement on college campuses has diluted the very notion of safety.

In another case last week, student activists at Harvard demonstrated against a news story in The Harvard Crimson. The paper had reached out to a federal agency for comment while reporting on a protest against deportations. The activists argued that talking to ICE was too hurtful to undocumented students and demanded that the paper never talk to ICE again. The reporting made them feel “unsafe.”

I’m sure the victims of the horrible fires in California have a clear and simple understanding of the meaning of a safe space.

There are similar examples at college campuses across the country. Many of these were documented by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in the book “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It speaks to an era when emotions are dominating rational thought.

The point here is not to downplay emotional well-being. The emotional health of college students at a time of societal upheaval and social media alienation is a serious issue that must be researched and addressed.

But that is precisely why it’s important not to water down or weaponize the word “safe.” If some students are triggered by speech they dislike, it undermines the students who have deep emotional issues that go way beyond a hurtful news story.

We’re living at a time when “feeling safe” has become an amorphous and fluid idea that touches different people on different levels. College students who are easily offended by dissenting views will have to find resiliency in a chaotic world they can’t control.

Students with serious emotional issues will need the wisdom to seek the safe space of professional help.

In the meantime, I’m sure the victims of the horrible fires in California have a clear and simple understanding of the meaning of a safe space.