Safety First?

D. Eckberg

In recent years it has become fashionable in conservative circles to mock liberals as overly sensitive wimps. In particular this has become a rallying cry deriding college campuses, after administrators or young scholars describe the need to create a safe environment for students of all backgrounds.

The specifics of the attack take a number of forms from the sarcastic: calling students precious snowflakes, offering them teddy bears for comfort, – to the blunt: Donald Trump supporters wearing t-shirts that read “F%*k Your Feelings”.

Let me be the first to say Political Correctness can be taken overboard sometimes. I’ve rolled my eyes at mission statements so filled with platitudes there hardly seems to be any content at all, and listened with mild amusement as speakers take great pains to tiptoe around any language that might be considered even the slightest bit indelicate. But on the whole I truly believe it is a good thing, and struggle to understand the intense feelings, ranging from ridicule to disgust, that the concept seems to inspire in large swaths of the population.

For at its core what is Political Correctness other than an attempt to prevent people from being ostracized, particularly those – whether women, the handicapped, or racial, religious, or sexual minorities – who have been historically marginalized?

I would argue society is absolutely better off when it doesn’t tolerate even subtly bigoted comments. Can you say them? Yes, even the harshest of hate speech is Constitutionally protected, but you shouldn’t expect the rest of us to passively accept it. That kind of speech does have cumulative real world impacts on others‘ feelings and actions, from increased suicide rates to PTSD, yet many say they “have no time for Political Correctness”. The fact that what seems at worst a mild inconvenience for the speaker – stifling an impulse to say something others might find offensive – was apparently a primary factor for many in deciding their vote on the leader of the free world, would thus appear to indicate a pretty flawed list of priorities. But there is more to it than that.

Take these quotes for instance:

-Democratic Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson on the concerns of the rural voters in his District (which voted overwhelmingly for Trump):
“They don’t like the government telling them what to do or telling them how to live their lives. They think [the government is] coddling people, like when people’s feelings are hurt at the colleges and they send somebody in to make them feel better. Stuff like that drives [voters here] crazy.”

–Conservative columnist Christian Schneider:
“For many Americans, voting for Donald Trump was a punk rock-style single-digit salute to the existing power structure. Ordinary citizens are tired of safe spaces and vegans.”

-One of the most up-voted comments on an article about replacing Nigel Farage, one of the leaders of the Brexit movement:
“Nigel Farage has cut off the balls of the Burghers of Brussels and wrapped them in Trump gold. May the pair continue to prosper and liberate us from the tyranny of Political Correctness.”

–Republican Wisconsin Representative Sean Duffy, after falsely claiming that only left-leaning Dane County was counting ballots by hand in order to stall the Wisconsin Presidential Recount (47 out of 72 counties hand-counted):
“the PC crowd is humorless… I’ll send a therapy dog to your `safe place’ of choice in Madison.”

Critics claim that P.C. culture suppresses thought or free speech. In actuality it has done the opposite by opening up discussion to more groups of people, by ensuring all races, religions, or any others in protected classes feel comfortable sharing their ideas and participating in society.

But let’s examine a bit further the assertion that Political Correctness might be infringing on citizens’ freedom of thought or expression. The idea is that people feel they can’t make “controversial” remarks that might either A. hurt an individual’s feelings or B. run contrary to newly established cultural norms, without being told off.

The first type of comment really just falls under the purview of common etiquette, which often varies by region. In Manhattan a person might have no qualms telling their neighbor on the subway that they’re overweight or have bad breath. In the Midwest they’re more likely to hold their tongue. Sometimes refraining from that kind of personal straight-forwardness is put under the umbrella of Political Correctness. The merits of which approach is better can be debated elsewhere, but nothing is really holding anyone back from making overt declarations like these aside from a person’s own comfort level.

It’s the second variety that is more important.

The second kind of comment often comes in the form of a generalization about a group or class of people. It could be that only women should do housework, or that refugees are terrorists, or that minorities are taking advantage of hardworking residents by relying on welfare. These are the comments that supposedly make hordes of fragile undergrads muffle their ears and retreat to their safe zones.

Beyond simply stymieing such talk in casual conversation, the right-wing asserts that Political Correctness has resulted in more sinister effects by shutting dissenting opinions out of universities’ research and coursework. And there are concrete instances where conservatives have been unfairly prevented from speaking their mind.

However, these non-P.C. ideas often don’t constitute the kind of challenges to orthodoxy that led universities to establish tenure, granting professors the freedom to pursue new or unconventional theories. Why? Plainly because many are not new theories at all. Many are reflections of old societal mores, censored revisionist histories of American exceptionalism, or oversimplified studies that often have already been disproved.

While I’d disagree, many on the right say the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), not the fluffy liberal arts, are the only worthwhile disciplines being taught at colleges. But if that is your stance, at least respect the results of STEM research, whether on vaccines or climate change.

This is not to say that conservative voices have nothing to add to our post-secondary knowledge base, or that all existing theories supported by current professors, whether left-leaning or not, are beyond reproach. If any notion currently being written off as “politically incorrect” falls into this category, by all means it should be encouraged and thoroughly vetted, not ignored. However, if it has already been studied, peer-reviewed, field tested, and proven false, let’s move on and preserve our time, energy, and tax subsidized research for unsolved challenges, whether medical (cancer research), social (chronic Veteran homelessness), environmental (renewable energy), infrastructural (safer transportation), or otherwise.

Still, this doesn’t get to the root of why so many everyday people are so upset about Political Correctness, or how to reach them.

I keep coming back to the quote from Rep. Peterson, one of the few remaining rural Democrats in D.C.: “They think [the government is] coddling people, like when people’s feelings are hurt at the colleges and they send somebody in to make them feel better. Stuff like that drives [voters here] crazy.”

But why does the concept of not hurting peoples’ feelings drive them so crazy?

Even if they’re correct and students are being over-protected, they don’t live on college campuses, it doesn’t affect them, so why is it such a hot button issue motivating them to the polls? Why not health care, or K-12 education, or workforce training, or agricultural groundwater contamination?

The best over-generalized answer, posited elsewhere both before and after the election, is that they believe these students and professors, and the whole host of minority demographic groups many of them support, are getting too much attention and resources, while they and their needs are being ignored.

Make no mistake, while the economy has rebounded in U.S. cities, the basic metrics of quality of life (from poverty levels, to life expectancy, to drug usage, to educational attainment) have been worsening steadily in much of rural America for a generation. Their problems are real. Sick of waiting for “safe” incremental progress, many wanted to do something reckless, perhaps without an eye toward the vast potential long-term consequences. And whether realistic or not, Trump presented himself as a change agent.

The blue collar Trump voter might ask, “Who cares about gender neutrality or diversity at the Oscars when we’re jobless and dying?” The quick answer is that they’re not mutually exclusive – a solution for one doesn’t have to come at the expense of the other. But it may not feel that way to John the Farmer.

Which raises another point; many Trump backers celebrate him for “telling it like it is”, but in reality what he’s doing is merely telling it like it feels to them – that’s an important distinction. Fact check after fact check has dispelled his more brash declarations, but his most avid fans trust and spread them further because it conforms to the stereotypes they already believe about urban dwellers or aliens, built up through one-sided media narratives and partial truths, but often limited firsthand experience.

Their lives are hard right now, and Trump and others have pointed them toward a variety of scapegoats. Illegal immigrants stealing their jobs. Non-Christian refugees who sow seeds of terror. Coastal elites who get rich without ever getting their hands dirty – whether gaudy celebrities or bookish bankers quick to foreclose on the family farm. Government bureaucrats who audit their taxes with a fine-tooth comb. Greedy executives outsourcing their factories. Minority populations that slowly grow, spreading drugs and crime while collecting the dole and living in public housing, as they mooch off of the hard earned taxes of the white working class. Godless, jobless hippies who corrupt their children. Hipsters whining about justice for their black neighbor or playing the victim themselves, when they know nothing of real hardship.

There are real life examples of most negative stereotypes on that list. They are not the majority, but they exist. In some cases our hypothetical voters encounter these people, perhaps as stingy bankers, smarmy middle managers, or a family of insular immigrants, in their daily lives. They then form negative impressions of these acquaintances that can be extrapolated onto whole professions or social castes, fanned by similar selective depictions in stump speeches, right-wing talk shows, and friends’ Facebook posts. And for many of the other assorted types of boogeyman listed above, they may have little to no personal contact at all.

It’s not wrong to have gut feelings like this; it’s easy to form negative opinions when you don’t have any Muslim teammates, friends with Master’s degrees, nieces attending Vassar, or co-workers who grew up in inner-city poverty. But it is wrong to let them sit untested, whether they’re expressed in our own minds or from the mouths or keyboards of those we interact with. With such a small sample size our perceptions have a tendency to globalize and simplify things, but that’s a slippery slope, and it’s a tendency we need to fight for risk of judging, and ultimately treating, others unfairly. Our individual experiences are not universal.

In this case, Political Correctness is simply a way of saying, “let’s not get carried away and lump all these people together.” A number of those stereotypes are representative of real issues that could be the focus of government policy debates. But starting off with such narrow uncompromising assumptions is not solid grounding for a productive discussion.

And of course this goes both ways, all the city dwellers who flip the script and say that none of those people or problems exist, or that most cops or most Trump supporters are racist, are just as wrong. Many urbanites don’t have close-knit relationships with rural residents either and are susceptible to pigeonholing them. I’m generalizing too in writing this essay; if I had more rural friends I wouldn’t need to engage in so much guess-work, I could just ask them about their beliefs. I’m alienating a segment of the populace every time I use the word “they”.

But it is, by and large, voices on the right who continue to vigorously rebuke any attempt to correct such broad sweeping claims as an assault on freedom of thought, often retorting that if people don’t like what they’re saying they should, once more, retreat to their liberal safe spaces.

Which is why a recent article about the University of Minnesota seemed all the more interesting. It focuses on the idea, mentioned previously, that conservatives feel their points of view are being crowded out on college campuses. Most noteworthy was the language one of the young Republicans used to describe the situation:

“(The) President of Students for a Conservative Voice… said his group provides an outlet for students to come and talk about their views with other like-minded individuals. These meetings, he said, come as a welcome respite for him and the others who attend.

‘The people agree with you, or at least aren’t going to crucify you for your opinions,’ he said. ‘Frankly, it’s kind of relieving, it’s kind of nice.'”

That sounds an awful lot like an endorsement for a conservative safe space.

Would his presumed allies on the right mock and jeer at his desire for a sanctuary as they’ve done for years to those on the left? Would they call him a wuss? After all, one of the other students quoted said that continuously being confronted by liberal perspectives on campus had only strengthened his conservative beliefs.

Or perhaps it’s fairer to simply conclude that having a place on campus where one feels supported doesn’t automatically constitute a nanny-state.

To be clear, the article touches on a good point. No one should shout down someone for trying to speak their beliefs without giving them a chance to talk. That is indeed stifling free speech and risks building a stagnant bubble of ideas which all universities should discourage. And while that certainly does happen to campus conservatives on occasion, most of the narratives in the article describe discussions that became heated, meaning an exchange of ideas did occur, but viewpoints differed and tensions rose. While not especially constructive, that’s unfortunately par for the course in the bulk of contemporary political debates.

Other students quoted said they essentially censored themselves because they were too timid to argue. And while the school would do well to try and bring some of those timid voices to the surface, the same way colleges worked so hard in the past to encourage participation from previously silenced historically disenfranchised demographic groups, this is hardly some liberal conspiracy; it’s merely human nature to be coy about your beliefs when in the minority. And as discussed, some of the issues being raised aren’t so much philosophical differences as long settled principles (i.e. evolution).

I can already feel some future readers, in an attempt to discredit the last paragraph, queuing up a list of links to instances where right-leaning students and speakers have been pilloried or shunned on post-secondary campuses. To which I pre-rebuttal: Yes, there are literally thousands of liberals who have acted terribly or otherwise not given conservatives a fair shake, but these incidents are not representative of every or even most progressive students or faculty members at every college in the country. Don’t pretend they are. As described, it’s easy to broadly typecast people based on anecdotes, but it’s not an accurate reflection of the incredibly varied patchwork of people that nominally meet their criteria.

Take a recent post from the conservative site The Federalist Papers:

It takes the example of a single “healing circle” for students held at San Diego State University in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, and quickly comes to a number of far-reaching conclusions. The author is incredulous that students could be so upset about Trump’s win, and mocks them to no end for it. And yet, they never think to ask the students why they’re distraught, convinced it can only be because “they didn’t get their way”. It couldn’t be because they’re afraid or personally know any Muslims afraid of a candidate who has toyed with creating a registry of Islamic citizens, because they fear undocumented relatives or friends might be deported, or because they’re concerned a candidate who bragged about grabbing women’s genitalia might embolden a rise in assaults by like-minded men.

Can you imagine the uproar that would ensue if the federal government tried to create a registry of Christians or, heaven forbid, a database of gun owners? And yet many of these same big-government loathing citizens ridicule or scoff at Muslim-Americans and their allies for being concerned.

Further, this single healing circle, attended by a handful of students at one institution, is used to paint millennial college students in general as, “annoying”, “privileged and entitled”, “offensive”, “fragile unique snowflakes”. It states in summary, “they take for granted their privileged place in the world and complain over absolutely nothing.”

And while both sides engage in the practice to varying degrees, this sort of generalizing often seems contradictory when espoused from conservative critics. The right-wing purports to value individualism and rails against collectivism. I’ve even seen it argued by a conservative Newsweek columnist that liberals only want high-speed rail not because they’re concerned about the environment, or find it more convenient, but because it’s a more communal form of transportation relative to private cars. Liberals and communists, the argument goes, want to wipe away our identities and form them into one singular image.

All of which flies directly in the face of the frequent conservative criticism, sarcastically flung at undergraduates, that they’re “unique little snowflakes”. The real message being: you’re not as special as you think.

First, everyone is unique – conservatives claim to believe that’s a good thing, but now many jeer at those who celebrate that diversity. So which is it? Are college students socialists who practice homogeneous group-thought, or are they all individuals over-obsessed with their uniqueness? And why do so many supposed champions of personal freedom on the right call for total cultural assimilation by outsiders?

For the record, the goal isn’t for everyone to think the same way; it’s that everyone is granted, within reason, the same opportunity to succeed if they seize it.

For those in less populated areas experiencing economic stress and devoid of institutions, the idea of college safe spaces may seem like an exorbitant luxury. Even so, it can still be a little difficult to understand why safe spaces elicit such intense disdain, but let’s try.

The concept is tied to an exaggerated notion of college kids being spoiled and naive, and further all of this is linked to a broader legitimate argument about personal vs. shared responsibility and government’s role in that. But rest assured rural voters, most students don’t want special treatment, they simply want to live free of harassment. And if college campuses, or urban centers more broadly, go further by providing a few places of mental or physical refuge for their inhabitants, especially when space and privacy are scarce there, it’s not coming at the expense of outstate communities. There’s no reason both can’t coexist, coordinate, or even thrive.

For city-dwellers who want to create that kind of community for themselves, it’s not a joke to try and build a person’s self-confidence and provide them with a support network. Not everyone has a family they can fall back on. And it’s not as if college is one giant ego massage. The stakes are real, hard work is imperative, and frat parties are hardly judgement free zones.

The formation of the safe space as a symbol of everything wrong with city-life and the liberal mentality is partly an attempt by right-wing media to blow something out of proportion and stoke class resentment by driving a wedge between rural/urban and blue-collar/white-collar voters.

Weak effete urbanites convinced of their own importance have thus become one of the primary symptoms of how cushy life must be in the city, and those in the country take some hollow satisfaction in verbally bashing this caricature.

To be sure, some on campus take the concept too far. Some dramatize things unnecessarily, taking offense or acting the victim far too quickly, if not outright lying, which does a huge disservice to the legions of real victims by giving ammunition to the doubters, hurting their credibility by crying wolf. Perhaps the most notorious example is Melissa Click, the University of Missouri professor who tried to forcibly remove a student reporter attempting to document the campus’ racial injustice protestors, and separately cussed out a cop who tried to peacefully clear their protest out of the street. All this occurred just as the protestors appeared to be gaining traction for their valid concerns via the resignation of the University President and Chancellor, following a sequence of racist incidents targeted towards black students.

Yet again, these are the exceptions not the rule, but their example is played on loop to an eager right-wing audience, primed to reinforce their image of the students, academics, and professionals who populate our metro areas as pampered dandies. This construct took an unexpected twist when Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton on Broadway, and the cast asked him to listen to a brief conciliatory statement they had prepared after the curtain. In response to this supposedly outrageous behavior (and despite Pence’s stated indifference), Donald Trump, seemingly unaware of the irony, demanded the cast apologize and declared that the theater should be a “safe and special place”.

But what are these safe spaces that breed such ire among rural Americans?

Many are literally physical locations, whether a person’s own home, a neighborhood center, the school counselor’s office, a church, a domestic violence shelter, or even an entire campus that has enacted anti-discrimination or sexual harassment policies.

Others versions consist of networks of people and resources. Often as basic as a having family or friends to lean on, it can also include after school programs, hotlines, advocacy or survivors circles, even political clubs like conservative student groups.

To those who make fun, you may not have or use any of these organizations, but are these people and places really worthy of taunting? We’ve moved from light-hearted satire to sneering and scorn.

To many a right-wing voter, safety itself has practically become a four letter word. Its mockery has become an applause line. The mere mention of trigger warnings now ironically triggers venom and derision. Compassion, forgiveness, and even compromise have become signs of weakness.

Lending a hand, or words of comfort in a time of need used to be a revered small-town value. But for many Americans it has been replaced by “F%*k Your Feelings”.

If it was strictly a question of government run safety-nets, the terms of the argument would be a bit clearer, but the attacks are usually not targeted towards federal entitlement programs but toward shelter in general.

Further, to those criticizing, it’s understood times are tough, but do you feel able to pass judgement on those whom these safe spaces are most intended for? Did you grow up as a minority in the projects? Were you bullied because of your sexual orientation? Have you never in your life confided in a friend or found solace in a community during a difficult time? If not, congratulations on your self-sufficiency; you are few and far between and I hope your struggles haven’t hardened you too much to see that.

It’s important to point out that, on the whole, conservatives give more to charity than liberals, and they should be commended for it. Many harbor no hardness in their hearts for the needy, and a large portion are equally compassionate towards the rest of the nation as well. This essay isn’t directed to them.

This message is for those who seem so willing to help the homeless, but carry this dissonance that allows them to simultaneously lambaste those in need of other forms of emotional or material support. Or to those who view any kind of charity as a nothing more than a drain on the market. There seems to be a groundswell embracing this latest iteration of social Darwinism.

Receiving help sporadically, no matter the form, is nothing to be ashamed of. No one worthwhile will think less of you and there’s no reason to think less of yourself; in fact pride is a sin if I’m not mistaken.

Yes, the world is harsh, and there is validity to the concern that sheltering people from it will only make them less able to deal with it when they need to face it for themselves. But for many, college may be the first time they have a moment of reprieve from its cold realities. And regardless, if someone spends their entire life enduring excessive disparagement, it makes it a lot tougher to develop a sense of self-esteem or firm footing to stand on and fight back from. What better time than college to provide this haven where self-discovery and growth can occur? Where else better to plant the seeds that may eventually lead a pupil to technological or cultural innovation benefiting us all?

The key is striking a balance between the two. Some adversity is required to build the resiliency necessary to tackle life’s challenges, whether social or scholastic, but we don’t need to make it so hard that the budding researcher spends all his or her time trying to cope with personal trauma rather than finding a cure to cancer. Or put another way: a man can’t learn to fish if he’s too hungry to focus.

And while not every college attendee grew up in distress, if in the process of providing a nurturing environment these supposedly coddled graduates bring a little more empathy with them that rubs off on the cutthroat society they encounter afterward, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing either.

This is only a small piece of the puzzle, most people didn’t vote primarily just to stick it to another group of citizens or to reject a philosophy those other citizens purportedly emblemize, but the possibility that any significant number of people did vote for that reason makes this an issue worth addressing. And to those who may have: your plight has not gone unnoticed, but campus culture is neither responsible for it nor preventing its recovery.

While those who know better and still fan the flames of overblown stereotypes out of laziness or self-interest are partly to blame, no one can be complacent. We need to actively resist the urge to buy in and indulge the simplicity of those claims, because reality is almost always more nuanced.

If you look past the possible tragic outcomes and think this is much ado about nothing, or that people who get upset when others generalize should simply “not take everything so literally”, the next time someone calls you on such a statement swap in some demographic group you’re a part of and consider whether it would tick you off if someone said that about you. Liberals, do you like it when someone says you’re all freeloaders? Conservatives, do you like it when someone says you’re racist? Multiple people have stated they voted for Trump because they were sick of being categorized unfairly as racist, yet lots of those same people complain that liberals shouldn’t take the broadsided insults hurled at the left-wing seriously. It’s rather a double standard.

If you disagree with the over-generalizations and miscast blame you see and choose to debate those proliferating it, heed some simple advice: be better. Whether in person, or especially online, don’t insult the speaker or get off topic, don’t exaggerate, don’t condescend or be sarcastic, don’t even use ALL CAPs or exclamation points unless necessary. Even if your opponent insults you, ignores, twists, or fabricates facts, or remains obstinate, don’t sink to their level. If insulted, they’re only likely to double down because now it has become personal and they’re emotionally invested.

When possible, try to find commonalities and build trust before addressing areas of disagreement. Some people may never change their minds, but some can. It can be slow and arduous, you may not convince them in one exchange, but it can be done. And remember, silent centrists may be observing your comments as well and forming opinions. As discussed, many people you disagree with probably don’t know people like you, and they may well form generalizations about others of your political persuasion based on their interactions with you. The ‘other side’ may do it more, it may not be fair, but it’s human nature. Set a good example. Be the tolerant understanding person they mock.

In addition, it’s important to listen to and engage others to understand the depth of differences and challenges each face. That said, scientific or social progress should not be ceded merely in deference to providing a “balanced” outlook. While their expression is secured by the First Amendment, discredited fringe theories, should not be granted a false equivalency, or even the trappings of legitimacy, in the name of toleration. Ignorance isn’t a viewpoint – it’s a lack of one.

Some conservatives attempt to set up a Catch-22 here. They call liberals hypocritical for billing themselves as tolerant because liberals won’t abide the intolerance expressed by some members of the anti-P.C. crowd. There are times when these complaints of ideological suppression are valid, but not when it demands not only the expression but of, but an equal academic platform for bigoted views or obsolete hypotheses.

The primary goal of Political Correctness has been to break the hegemony of people in the United States recognizing one default religion, family structure, or race. In effect, sure, it can feel a bit silly to either exhaustively list every holiday and religion or to celebrate around a non-denominational “Holiday wreath” at work, but is that really tyranny? That feels like an extreme reaction, even accounting for the few overzealous bad eggs that stifle conservative perspectives at colleges. And there’s little doubt some of the push-back is simply bound up with an annoyance some have with restraining their traditional slurs or vulgar remarks, and being reprimanded by people who “can’t take a joke”, further exacerbated by class differences.

But liberals, if someone forgets to name-check your demographic group don’t bite their head off; gently tell the person you feel left out; don’t publicly shame them if there was no ill intent. Extremism from both ends of the spectrum is best consumed with a shaker of salt.

And let me state as a millennial who believes in the merits of building an inclusive society: I have always hated participation trophies. If a person advocates for support-systems that doesn’t make them a Marxist; the large majority still believe in requiring hard work to achieve success, otherwise it’s meaningless and undeserved, and competition surely helps drive innovation. But that doesn’t mean the playing field couldn’t use some flattening, or that those who lose out should be permanently cast aside.

D. Eckberg is a resident of Middle America interested in bridging the growing cultural and political divide.

The post Safety First? (Guest Voice) appeared first on The Moderate Voice.

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