Criticism of safe spaces unmasks white supremacy

The debate about campus free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and related topics in schools and universities is very old. Indeed, modern campus activism traces to the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, where the student body fought against an administration that wanted complete control of conduct.

Though safe spaces have been placed in direct opposition to campus free speech in many discussions, I will point out that the University of Chicago’s stance against safe spaces is the same sort of administration power play that free speech coalitions have fought against. Issues differ, but it is all rooted in the same power dynamic

Well, the University of Chicago has always embodied the Slowpoke meme. Always relishing its anachronisms. Thus, it’s not surprising that they take fairly regressive stances on campus issues. Students and former students like Cameron Okeke have criticized the university’s stance, saying it has no appreciation of how safe spaces can improve campus function and dialogue, not hinder it. They’re right.

Within education there is a bizarre, unresolved contradiction. Schools, especially universities, are supposed to be about open exchange and freedom. Yet these institutions often serve to bolster white supremacy and obscure historical injustice. Whatever your age, if you were born and raised in the United States, what was the first thing you ever learned about the indigenous people of the Americas? Probably the first Thanksgiving, which occurred over a century after contact. We are told there was harmony, while the systematic extinction of the original inhabitants starting with Columbus is taught much later. Humans tend to believe the first thing they are told about a subject, even if it is later proven to be false (in psychology this is called anchoring). Thus many people think Thanksgiving, not the forced mining or Trail of Tears. If you grew up in California, you spent a whole half-year talking about the mission system. I’ll bet subjugation of natives to serve as labor was probably glossed over. Same with focusing on the Founding Fathers crafting a republican form of government, rather than how it excluded anyone who wasn’t white and wealthy.

So if primary and secondary education fail us, universities have to serve as the counterpoint. But eliminating safe spaces doesn’t make the discussion better, it makes it worse. In most elite schools, black and Latino/a students are under-represented. The strain of often being the only black or brown student in a class, or on the floor of a dorm, is huge. Universities that historically had no people of color (or women, for that matter) are not welcoming, especially if no effort is made to change. Safe spaces, trigger warning, etc. are an effort. U of Chicago is nailing its feet to a place between the beginning of the civil rights movement, and now. It can only fall further behind.

Cal State Los Angeles has recently gotten attention for offering campus housing that is designed for students interested in black culture and issues. This has been called segregation (it’s not), but this all seems to be about comfort. Namely, sacrificing the comfort and safety of students of color in favor of the comfort of white people, who would rather not be reminded of how the university works for them but not for others. That lofty concepts like academic freedom are being dragged down is distressing, as it’s just a fig leaf. Administration wants control, nothing more and nothing less.


Mental illness as disability in college

So I was reading a 2012 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recently. Over 750 college students were surveyed, with NAMI attempting to determine views of mental illness among young adults, and the quality of campus services. The report is located here (PDF).

Most interesting to me is the data on disability accommodations (pages 12-13). While there is a lot of current data on students and mental health, they usually focus on counseling services. In that area, the rate of students getting help has sharply increased, though college-age adults remain the group least likely to seek help. This isn’t a terribly good survey in terms of research design, but any information is good.

A couple key insights emerge, which I’m fairly confident would hold in a more rigorous study.

  1. There is a substantial difference between how many people with mental health conditions who know about accommodations, and those that actually use them. About 20 points separate the two.
  2. Disability resource centers are orientated to physical disabilities, and aren’t designed with psychological conditions in mind.
  3. Among those that dropped out of college due to mental health issues, getting accomodations may have kept them in school.

The conceptualization of disability in the United States has created these conditions. This gap between physical and mental doesn’t emerge from modern disability law necessarily, where the definitions are broad and inclusive. Rather, society has yet to shift its perspective on mental illness. Some tendencies:

  1. People discount any claimed disability that is not clearly visible to outsiders. When I served on a county disability commission a couple years ago, a long impromptu discussion broke out during a meeting about people being harassed for parking in the special spaces because they didn’t “look like they needed it.”
  2. The stigma against mental illness and disability are different, and a sizable group of people accept their belonging in the former group but not the latter.
  3. The type of assistance given to people with psychological conditions, including more time on exams, exams in a quiet room, and longer deadlines, may seem unearned by those who qualify. Accomodations otherize. If you take your exams in a different room, or have different deadlines than your classmates, there may be resentment.
  4. Faculty treat psychological accomodations as less important than physical accomodations.

The disability office as an institution is caught in the crossfire. It can be a key part of students succeeding in college, but many people have no concept of mental illness as being connected.



What everyone loses in a suicide

Sulome Anderson’s feature last week, “How Patient Suicide Affects Psychiatrists” is a great inversion of a big social problem. Most features on suicide and mental illness (including the great The Cost of Not Caring series by USA Today) tend to focus on the individual who committed suicide and the impact on their family and community. Anderson did quality journalism to create this feature, which helps humanize doctors who naturally become the bad guys in some of these cases.

Personally, last year someone I knew tried to end their life- I had talked to them the a few hours prior to the attempt, having a short conversation about family relations that turned out to be much more important in hindsight (they wanted to know if I had special insight on why I have a good relationship with my parents, and they had the opposite. I wasn’t helpful, though I tried to be). When I visited this person the following day, they were still attempting to die in the confines of the hospital room. Never have I seen desperation more fully realized. It’s profoundly disturbing, and the feature gets across that this sentiment crosses all lines of profession or experience. You don’t become truly adjusted to suicidal people in your life, even if you chose psychiatry as a profession.

Personally, I thought that my history of mental illness would help deal with this experience. I’ve never been particularly suicidal, but my choice to be an activist and socialize within the community has put me into contact with many people who are open about their past with suicide. Turns out that was all (I suppose) wistful thinking. It’s horrible to witness, even in the context I had, where I had some time to mentally prep.

This feature helped develop a three-dimensional picture of the tragedy, which I wish was available with all social problems. Everyone loses someone in a suicide, and we each lose a part of ourselves when someone we know personally attempts or completes it. And yes, as Anderson comes to- sometimes there is nothing that can be done. Zero suicides is an ideal to strive towards, but no free society can ever attain it.

We are all humans with flaws and we are not omnipotent. There is only so much we can do for those we love. All we can do is our best.

Moving beyond “don’t judge”

I don’t particularly like the idea that we shouldn’t judge other people. It’s a maxim taught to children, and the Golden Rule refers to the dangers of judgement.

Yet that’s not really the problem, or a reasonable solution. Humans instinctively judge and categorize new things, places, and people. To truly live up to the idea that we shouldn’t judge others, we would need to rewire significant parts of the brain. Judging others has no good or bad value attached to it.

The two aspects that I think are most important, and should be part of a more detailed lesson to youth, are the dangers of warped judgements, and the emphasis that we put on judgements.

Said plain, the core is judgements that are influenced by racism, sexism, homophobia, or other ideologies that devalue humans and make them lesser individuals. Additionally, if we value personal judgements over other facts, we run the risk of placing a person under a very skewed spotlight. This is much like the difference between prejudice and discrimination- one can have prejudicial views but do not believe they are important enough or appropriate to turn into action.

This may seem like splitting hairs, but I think it’s important to explore why judgement can be a dangerous thing. The simplicity of “we shouldn’t judge people” masks an important lesson about devaluing people and using a warped view of the world.

Beware the zero-sum worldview

Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.
                                                                Steven Pinker

A little more than a year ago I wrote a short post about viewing life as transformative as opposed to transactional. Those who embrace transformation use experience and social interaction to build something new. Transactional personalities focus on maintaining the present.

I came across this contrast in terms of personal worldview and the potential for self-improvement. Its main context is business, with the idea that traditional leadership is transactional while new, better leadership is transformative. However, since that original post I’ve come to see these two ways of interacting with the larger world as important. Not because I think it divides people into good or bad; instead, it helps show the difference between static and dynamic personalities.

If you think of a transactional individual as viewing social life in the way an accountant views her ledger, all movement and apparent growth is an illusion. Give money to a friend, and they must always pay it back. Suffer an insult or damage, it must be compensated for by the other party. In the end, it all zeros out.

This leads to my main point: the biggest and most negative creation of a petty or tit-for-tat worldview is revenge.

Revenge (n.) – Any form of personal retaliatory action against an individual, institution, or group for some perceived harm or injustice. (source)

Revenge is a counter. If it isn’t in response to some prior wrong, it’s aggression. Historically, and persisting in some societies, blood feuds are an endless series of retaliations. One family or clan suffers an initial wrong, and a long line of kin suffer the reverberating consequences. In these feuds, there is no zeroing out. The ledger can never be perfectly balanced, because those killed and injured have a value that can never be fully replaced or countered.

The split between transformation and transaction may inform policy debates like capital punishment. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is one of the oldest written legal codes, and it sees the ultimate justice as being a retaliation. Though this appeals to many, some view great crimes as a chance to grow and change. To learn empathy and love for our enemies is to transform ourselves and the world. There is no learning in revenge, it is a base, short-term solution to a problem that may persist long after the crime committed, the sentence paid.