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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Uncomfortable Conversations

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

How a language of safety impacts speech on campus.

By Hallie Nell Swanson

This summer, a series of articles released in mainstream media outlets attacked college students for their allegedly coddled, fragile little egos. Kids these days, went the dominant narrative, want to wrap themselves up in safe spaces and trigger warnings to avoid ever having to deal with life’s realities. From The Atlantic to The New York Times, pundits raised concerns that students’ demands to feel safe inhibit freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus.

But these are two different, legally independent, things: freedom of speech refers to individuals’ speech protected by the First Amendment; academic freedom to faculty’s independence in terms of who they grant tenure, what material they teach, and how classes are taught.

Despite some controversy over an op-ed in the Spectator by the Multicultural Academic Advisory Board suggesting that Core preceptors could benefit from compulsory training sessions to make students of certain identities feel safe, the academic sphere by the accounts of professors has not been the site of any official censorship. But as one adjunct in the Humanities put it, given the job security of contingent faculty like him, the threat of such an episode hangs like a “Damocles sword over everyone’s head.”

Strange Bedfellows 

Recent subjects of calls for speech to be stopped on campus on the grounds of safety are two seemingly different groups: the Marching Band (CUMB) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

In Spring 2014, SJP put up a banner in a space on Barnard Hall which they had been approved to use. The banner read “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine” and included a borderless map of Israel and Palestine. Seffi Kogen, GS/JTS ’14 and former president of Hillel, wrote a Facebook post describing how the banner stopped him from thinking of Barnard as his “second home” and describing his peers’ “emotions that ranged from annoyed to distraught.” He urged alumni and current students to email Debora Spar to pressure the administration to take it down, and in the comments, students shared the names, emails and numbers of the relevant administrators. In response to the hundreds of complaints, the banner was taken down the following morning.

In another case, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests near campus in December 2014, administrators within the Office of Student Engagement held a town hall to discuss student grievances. One complaint was that Orgo Night would exacerbate black and brown students’ feelings of unsafety at this time. In response, former interim Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Todd Smith- Bergollo and former Dean of Advising Monique Rinere (both have since left Columbia) met with the marching band to encourage them to cancel the event. CUMB refused and the show went on, though Barnard’s administration got Public Safety to stop the band from its custom of performing in Barnard Quad afterwards. Since that imbroglio, Admissions no longer refers, or allows students to refer, to Orgo Night as a Columbia tradition in any Admissions communications.

Facilitators at Under1Roof, which is coordinated by students and administrators in Office of Multicultural Affairs, presented a scenario this NSOP in which Orgo Night was referred to as “a semesterly comedy routine and campus ‘tradition,’ [in which] a student organization consistently mocks issues surrounding race, gender, queerness, and other identities, marginalizing many members of the community.”

In both cases, the opponents’ feeling of unsafeness was the only appeal they needed to make. The question of whether “stand for Palestine” is anti- Semitic, or whether Orgo Night’s anticipated speech would be racist, was irrelevant. In a Spectator op-ed that ended “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go,” Dunni Oduyemi, CC ’16, and Tracey Wang, CC ’15, said administrators “should have cancelled [Orgo Night] outright.” Calling it “literally the creation of an unsafe space,” they concluded that “our safety is not up for negotiation.” Hillel’s statement on the banner incident asserted that banners that “make many students on campus feel unsafe” are “problematic.” Kogen wrote an op-ed stating he was “proud” of “Barnard’s decision, choosing to value its students’ feelings of security and well-being above one group’s attempt to force a political statement.” Safety trumps free speech.

A Need for Safety 

The discourse of safety that underpins these incidents, says a professor who preferred to remain anonymous, is part of a “larger cultural phenomenon” that is “endemic to our culture at the moment.” She put parents calling faculty in the same category: “When I was a student the idea of my parents to call the faculty member to claim that my child had not been treated properly … it would have taken a pretty extreme incident, let’s put it that way.” The university, she says, is part of a consensus that “everybody now has an identity that can be injured,” making administrations “vulnerable” to claims by “certain—not all—groups.” While keen to point out that the examples of Hillel and Aryeh, and the Black Lives Matter activists who protested Orgo Night, are “doing very different kinds of work,” she stressed that the logic used by both groups emerges from the same “political formation.”

In this formation, she says, the identities we bring to the classroom must not just be “respected,” but “protected.” When political views become fused with a sacred, ostensibly inviolable identity, expressions of identity-based unsafeness can stand in for a dispute with the content of speech.

This discourse is not limited to disputes between student groups representing different identities, but increasingly extends to the classroom. “I think trigger warnings are precisely the articulation of a politics that comes from an identity,” says the professor. In April 2015, this was eloquently expressed in the op-ed by the OMA’s Multicultural Academic and Advisory Board, titled “Our Identities Matter in Core Classrooms.” “Students need to feel safe in the classroom,” wrote the board, “and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities.”

Dangerous Spaces 

Yet the idea that “students need to feel safe in the classroom” strikes many professors as repugnant to the purpose of teaching. While stressing that he works over “months” to make his classrooms places “where people could express themselves” (“‘This is a safe space’ is not just something you can write on a syllabus,” he says. “That’s ridiculous”), Professor Manan Ahmed rejects the idea that everyone should feel comfortable in his class. “It’s not a warm bath,” he says. The adjunct goes further: “If we just talked about the safest things in the world, like milk and biscuits and yogurt, then it would just be totally pointless, and they shouldn’t even come to college. They should leave.”

“Fuck that,” says Anand Venkatkrishnan, GSAS ’15, who taught classes in his time at Columbia and campaigned with the Graduate Student Union, when I float the oft-uttered maxim that the classroom should be uncomfortable, or feel unsafe. He says it’s precisely because life is dangerous that the classroom should be safe.

But as the anonymous professor points out, the current crop of professors feels otherwise about how education should engage with the world. “I don’t think it’s just that we’re old and insane,” she says. “It’s a generational divide that comes out of a very different understanding of both what politics and intellectual life should be.”

“Good god, it so upsets me,” says Todd Gitlin, a professor in the Journalism School. “How are people going to learn what the world is like? Isn’t this a question that one settles when one is twelve years old? ‘I don’t want to know.’ Yeah, there are a lot of things I’d like not to know. But grow up.” College should prepare you for the dangers of life, he says, not protect you.

“Many of us would think that’s what we’re here for, to induce people to think in new ways about things,” says Bruce Robbins, a professor in the English department, who directed a film, Some of My Best Friends are Zionists, in 2014. For the film, he interviewed playwright Tony Kushner, who was at Columbia as an undergrad. Kushner told of how in his CC class, the teacher got into a conversation that was critical of Israel.

“He said he was horrified,” says Robbins. “He wrote an angry letter and so on. Probably in today’s climate he might have gone to some dean or tried to get his instructor in trouble.” But in fact, says Robbins, “It was the beginning of critical thought for him.” That’s why, says the anonymous professor, it’s important to ask what one means by feeling unsafe. “Is it really a realistic assessment of the situation, or it something you might want to critically rethink?”

No One Can Challenge Your Feelings 

But in the prevailing discourse, feelings can’t be argued with. “My mother says no one can argue with your feelings,” says Robbins. “She probably means that in a slightly different way,” he says, but the issue is that the only way to respond to somebody else’s feelings are to agree, or to appeal to your own. “I worry about feeling as something that stops argument, that makes it impossible to continue speaking,” he says. “I don’t think anyone can say that my feelings are sacred.”

When “having a disagreement” that “challenges what you were brought up to believe is the right thing” becomes equated with making students feel unsafe, says the anonymous professor, “the whole point of a liberal arts education collapses under the weight of that accusation.”

“It’s true that no one can challenge your feelings,” she says, but “it’s also true that feelings don’t come naturally, that we learn to have certain affective responses to certain kinds of things. Even one’s affective responses—panic, fear, feeling unsafe, they didn’t come out of nowhere. They’re produced. That’s the truth for all of us, in a complicated way.” She gives the example of national lobbying groups dedicated to eliminating pro-Palestine speech on campus. Such groups have periodically organized online petitions against Columbia faculty. (In a recent report by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Columbia/ Barnard tied with UCLA for the highest number of instances of “accusations of antisemitism used to deter advocacy for Palestinian rights,” thanks in part to national groups like the David Project and Canary Project.)

While trigger warnings can also be seen, like these organizations, to produce feelings of fear—the idea that trauma is just around the corner—the anonymous professor is also keen to note that the call for trigger warnings comes more from students, and does not have national lobbying behind it. But that, she suggests, influences which groups find the most success with using the language of safety and trauma. The adjunct calls it a “rhetorical jackpot.”

Administrations, says the anonymous professor, are “sensitive to that larger phenomenon” of a language of safety, and the administration themselves uses it all the time. The problem, she says, is that while every group can use this language, some find more success with it than others. “Only certain groups do we really worry about, or listen to, or feel like there needs to be an immediate response. And that has to do with lots of things, but one of them is privilege—and donor money.”

This is not to say that this is all about cynical lobbying. The professor points out that while an appeal to safety may work as strategy, it is also “genuine. It’s become a language and a way which one imagines one’s own experience.” Not only can any group speak the language of marginalization, it’s also perfectly possible that students feel “unsafe,” even when they are in positions that do not experience the same structural discrimination.

Whose Safety? 

The call for safe spaces or trigger warnings is often associated with, and leveraged to protect, historically marginalized people: women, people of color, and queer and trans people. But in the opinion of Robbins, “the rhetoric has turned out to be dangerously flexible.” When Robbins has encountered free speech issues on campus, he says, it has been “very much within the same issues as Kushner.” “Students with a very very strong sense of entitlement to be only told things which are similar to what they have been told” will “assume that they are victims of racism.” Racism, he says, is a term that is given the importance it’s given “partly for other reasons and other people, and frankly better reasons.” Those aren’t the people using it.

Everyone interviewed for this article with anecdotes about students objecting to class content on the grounds of safety and identity were representing not those positions but positions Ahmed calls “majoritarian”: political science majors, for example, who resist his reading in CC of the European Enlightenment texts as “participating in, framing and allowing for colonial violence to come into being,” he says. Prospective philosophy majors will say, “I feel marginalized in this class because everyone is going on and on about colonialism and I don’t care,” he recalls.

Allan Silver, Professor Emeritus and a special lecturer in the Sociology department, says conservative students have come to him: “They tell me they feel aggressed against, they feel suppressed. I’ve had sincere Christians tell me that they feel persecuted. That’s outrageous.”

Venkatkrishnan calls this phenomenon a “question of application”: we simply need to be able to distinguish between true and false allegations of marginalization, by analyzing the structural privilege that groups hold, for example. But such a move would require subverting the whole rhetoric of safety, which takes no account of truth whatsoever. An appeal to safety thus has the quality of shutting down speech. Silver calls this “the tyranny of the subjective.”

Speaking Out 

There’s another level too: criticisms of the logic of safety are also vulnerable to it. The adjunct would never publicly declare that he has no desire for his class to be a safe space, lest he be charged with making students feel unsafe as a result. That could be fatal. As Robbins put it, when unprotected adjuncts make up 70 percent of the national university workforce, “for people who do most of the work in the universities in this country, academic freedom is an illusion.”

The adjunct makes the point that contingent faculty like him feel they lack the institutional protection to express their frustration with the prevailing discourse of safety. Even tenured professors aren’t exempted: Robbins tells me his colleagues have told him not to talk to me; the anonymous professor is anonymous so as not to “wade into more controversy.” In these circumstances, says the adjunct, it’s up to students to speak out.

According to the anonymous professor, beyond debates on “the lines of whether it’s being misappropriated by people who are privileged from people who aren’t,” this discourse of safety requires a “more rigorous and critical interrogation.” It’s not that only certain groups should use it; it’s not that the administration needs to listen to it less selectively. Clearly, there are problems inherent in this way of understanding the world, where feeling is the only metric.

As the anonymous professor put it, recourse to safety is “becoming the way out of all sorts of conversations.” Not just conversations, but critical arguments. And we need to have arguments.


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