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.


Free tuition, free minds

Over the past few weeks, myself and collaborators have been working on Students for Free Tuition, a UC San Diego organization. It was an idea born in a parking lot on a Sunday night- in the midst of looming tuition hikes, why doesn’t anyone point out the elephant in the room? Tuition is already far too high, and it’s outpacing wages and family income. American exceptionalism exists, in that for a developed country it has a remarkably unaffordable higher education system. So many countries all over the world agree that free tuition is a necessary expense for providing a public good for society at large.

Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help from Todd Lu.
Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help from Todd Lu.

What we have been getting is less funding from the state, run by a Democratic Party that pays lip service to funding education but lacks the teeth to pay for it. At the same time of the rising tuition, larger classes, and more crowded student housing, pricey senior administration is rising faster than the student body. The UCSD Chancellor, Pradeep Khosla, makes about $450,000 plus rent subsidy and expenses. And corners are cut at every turn- UCSD has replaced most tenured faculty hiring with adjuncts, who work a similar amount but can’t participate in research and get paid half as much.

Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help Todd Lu.
Credit Andrew J. Mackay, data help Todd Lu.

Higher education is a right. Free tuition is a path to a better, smarter, healthier society.

The bullshit economy

Attendants at a Chinese conference in November, 2013.
Attendants at a Chinese conference in November, 2013.

I was introduced to anthropologist David Graeber’s 2013 magazine feature “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” today. It’s an excellent example of academic writing cutting to the chase (philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt did a similar thing with his pamphlet “On Bullshit“), and gets at the core mystery of the post-industrial world. Wasn’t industrialization and automation supposed to make our lives easier, and give us more spare time? Graeber points out that a four-hour workday is totally feasible, but the reasons that so many administrative jobs have grown to replace manufacturing is social control.

As he concludes:

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the – universally reviled – unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.

His example of the London transit strike reminded me of the BART strikes in the San Francisco Bay Area in late 2013. People of all economic stratums despised the BART workers for striking, and some of that may have stemmed from a sense of powerlessness that some usual riders have. Many people commuting in the Bay have these administrative or service jobs, many non-unionized and without tangible function. BART workers can shut down a transit system, their labor has great power. An increasing portion of people don’t have that efficacy. The end result, as Graeber says, are the ‘bullshit jobs’ workers turning against the remaining non-bullshit jobs workers- sparing the elite the trouble. Divide and conquer. Historically racism was used to pit working-class populations against one another, now this split in job function is the newest flavor.

Soviet economy has always been lampooned for its inefficiency, but it’s clear that 21st century capitalism has much in common when it comes to redundancy and busywork. I would forward that because capitalism has created great inequality and is by its nature unfair, any society with time to have an honest audit of the economic system would ditch capitalism and replace it with something else. So though many people have been replaced by machines and there is not a value-added reason for many jobs, keeping people busy prevents organization, reform, and if needed, revolution. Bullshit jobs are a self-defense mechanism, because those that benefit from capitalism value above all the maintenance of the economic system.