« Selecting the Public's Representatives in the Financial Regulatory Process | Main | The Missing Million Dollar Man »

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Defining terms and the U of C letter

Some of the problem surrounding the U of C letter is that we do not or cannot agree on terms. A commenter on my prior post on this argues that we are conflating content warnings with trigger warnings, because much of what we warn about is not actually "triggering" for trauma victims. An interesting point. Although i wonder if, at some level, we are quibbling semantics--the point comes to whether we must warn about something and whether that warning comes with some form of opt-out.

At Balkinization, Mark Graber posts a letter from a music professor at the University of Georgia (who happens to share his last name) arguing that intellectual safe spaces are essential to allow students to "speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn." But the letter defines safe spaces as ones in which students can present their ideas--even wrong or half-baked ones--without fear of reprisal from colleagues or professors. I agree with this conception. Of course, that is not what "safe space" has come to mean on campus and, at least I do not believe, it was not the conception the U of C letter was challenging or the conception that has been at the heart of most campus speech disputes.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 27, 2016 at 02:55 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


What do you think a "safe space" means on campus?

Posted by: JHW | Aug 27, 2016 3:39:17 PM

It has come to mean a space from which people are free from objectionable ideas. This is the view expressed, for example, by the students at Yale about their dorm following the Halloween letter by the master's wife ("this is not a space for exchange of ideas, this is supposed to be a safe space"). The protesters at Mizzou took a similar position about why the media should not be able to film them.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 27, 2016 3:46:20 PM

I don't think the Yale students you refer to were saying that it should be generally forbidden for "exchange of ideas" to take place in a college dorm, or that there should be campus rules against talking about "objectionable ideas" in that space. I think their point was that the particular role of a residential college head is primarily about supporting students, and so the right standard for evaluating the public stances they take in their capacity as residential college (associate) heads isn't "Does this contribute to the exchange of ideas?"

This is a lot closer to the classroom example than you suggest. Classroom speech norms restrict all kinds of speech that as an abstract matter might be an important and legitimate contribution to public discussion. There are limitations on subject matter (don't go off-topic) and on personal insult (you can't call someone a stupid jerk even if they are a stupid jerk and even if it might be generally useful to say so). But the question in the classroom isn't whether a particular speech act abstractly contributes to public debate, but rather whether it serves the particular pedagogical purpose of the classroom discussion. People who advocate for "safe spaces" are just making an analogous point in a different context. It's not about making universities controversy-free. Some intellectual charity would go a long way here.

That said, I won't defend trying to stop the media from reporting on highly public meetings of student activists. But I think that's pretty far afield from where "safe space" issues usually arise.

Posted by: JHW | Aug 27, 2016 4:17:16 PM

"It has come to mean a space from which people are free from objectionable ideas." Do we see "safe space" demands from all quarters, or do they overwhelmingly come from one part of the political spectrum?

Posted by: anon | Aug 27, 2016 4:19:39 PM

JHW, I hope my next article gets as charitable a reading as your analysis of what the Yale students were demanding.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Aug 27, 2016 4:38:41 PM

YesterdayIKilledAMammoth: I also hope your next article is not judged by short videotaped snippets interpreted in line with prevailing cultural anxieties.

Posted by: JHW | Aug 27, 2016 4:42:55 PM

I think the misusing of 'trigger', is rather more important than quibbling over semantics. It's part of a larger attempt to medicalize everything because of the perceived trump value of a medical infirmity. It goes hand in hand with the overuse of words like 'danger' and 'harm'.

Posted by: brad | Aug 27, 2016 5:56:34 PM

Fair point.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 27, 2016 8:29:31 PM

Mark Tushnet (at first confused him with the other "Mark") has some additional thoughts at Balkinization.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 28, 2016 12:49:23 PM

After learning more about the respective episodes, I have usually found the "video snippets" to be fairly reflective of what the given safe space demanders have actually said and done.

And JHW, your first paragraph seems to support the anti-safe-spacers’ arguments rather than reveal their objections to be “intellectually uncharitable” manifestations of “prevailing anxieties.” The residential head could have quite reasonably believed (and apparently did) that fostering diversity of expression was the best way for him to “support students,” and thus to fulfill his role (and remember, he had two roles: head and professor). And the given Yale students could have agreed to reasonably disagree. Instead, those students screamed in his face, protested, and demanded resignations. It doesn't mitigate anything to abstract out the safe-spacers' demand as one for an institutional actor to behave consistent with his institutional role.

Posted by: Edward Cantu | Aug 28, 2016 10:01:57 PM

Edward Cantu: I'm not sure I understand your argument. You could be saying one of three things, or some combination of them:

- You could be saying that my description of the arguments of the Yale students supports the anti-safe-space view because it relies on the (dubious/dangerous/problematic) idea that the way for a head of a residential college to support students doesn't involve fostering diversity of expression. I actually think I am saying something else: a head of a residential college cannot defend *his own speech acts*, taken in his capacity as head, without reference to the specifics of his institutional role. He could defend them specifically in reference to that institutional role, sure, but at that point, we are pretty close to just making a judgment about the underlying merits of the speech ("Is what he's saying a good way for him to do his job or not?"), and the talk of "safe spaces" as being the problem obscures more than it helps. (Maybe you are pointing to the fact that the Halloween letter--actually from an associate head rather than a head, but I'm not sure it matters--billed itself as a defense of free expression, so a merits disagreement with its content is itself objectionable "safe space" logic. I think that is a pretty bad reading of the letter and why it incited controversy, but I have no interest in going down that rabbit hole.)

- You could be saying that, if the issue was that some Yale students and the relevant residential college head had a disagreement about how the head should properly fulfill his role, the appropriate course of action was to agree to disagree rather than to seek his ouster. But why is that? If some Yale students think a residential college head is doing a bad job, what makes it inappropriate for them to argue that he should be removed from his post? There are a certain number of fairly exceptional cases where we insulate certain roles from the consequences of other people thinking they are being carried out badly (tenured professor, judge), but it's hard to see any good reason that head of a residential college should be on that list.

- You could be objecting to the tenor of the protests. I certainly think civility is important. But I also think it has no bearing on whether what the students were asking for was a "safe space" in the objectionable sense of a general insulation from ever having to confront views they disagree with.

The Mark Tushnet blog post on safe spaces that Joe references above is very good, and so is his follow-up on trigger warnings.

Posted by: JHW | Aug 29, 2016 12:00:40 AM

Where was Shrieking Girl's intellectual charity for Erika Christakis?

If campus activists want their arguments to be taken seriously they can present them in a comprehensible fashion. If they instead insist on acting like petulant children that's how they will be regarded.

Posted by: anon | Aug 29, 2016 9:12:44 AM

"The Mark Tushnet blog post on safe spaces that Joe references above is very good, and so is his follow-up on trigger warnings."

I didn't think it was very good because he didn't at all address what "trigger warnings" are actually for. He danced all the way around the issue with paeans to good teaching, evolving methods, and academic freedom but never much touches the heart of the matter.

Posted by: brad | Aug 29, 2016 9:54:39 AM

I don't think an in depth discussion of safe places, trigger warnings etc. is necessary for the posts over at Balkanization to be worthwhile but "at all" is the sort of strong/narrow reading of things that bother me here.

For instance, he noted: "Some pedagogic choices can fail because the reaction of one, two, or many students obstructs their ability to see the underlying point the instructor is trying to make." A point of trigger warnings is to flag what is coming to help address such possible reactions. So, he did "at all" address.

He also talks about "what discussions of trigger warnings should be about" -- this is a rather relevant thing to mention & makes the post helpful. Plus, a reference to why "instructors use" the warnings. These subjects cover a lot of ground. He provides a helpful discussion of some of that ground imho.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 29, 2016 10:28:27 AM

JHW, your second interpretation of my point is the most accurate, but your response to it reflects why the two sides are perhaps just “posting past each other.” Specifically, your response again abstracts the problem into non-controversy. That is, as an abstract matter, of course people ought to feel morally entitled to demand the resignation of an institutional figure they believe is not behaving consistent with his formal responsibilities. But how the dissatisfied *define* those responsibilities in context, and how they react when others do not *share* their on-the-ground definition, brings the problem into relief.

Don’t these details matter? Let’s say the Yale students’ reason for pushing the Head to resign was that the Head was not sufficiently anti-semitic; too tolerant of Jews. Would we respond “hey, everyone has a right to demand resignation of those officials they believe are not acting consistent with their responsibilities, so what’s the problem?” Would we say “hey, a debate on the merits of their claim is a rabbit hole, so let’s use intellectual charity and call it a complicated wash”? I gather not. Obviously, this example is an extreme one to illustrate the point, but I gather we disagree about how differently the two scenarios represent an inexcusable degree of intolerance. And perhaps this is the ultimate source of the disagreement here.

The safe-spacers’ reasons for demanding resignation can be fairly characterized thusly: “the Head thinks that other students and faculty ought to feel free to express themselves in ways that might offend us; his belief that free expression ought to trump our desire to not be offended is not only incorrect but disqualifies him categorically from being able to ‘support his students’ as Head.” This, in turn, seems to bring us home to the characterization of the Yale safe spacers offered by Howard and to which you objected: “It has come to mean a space from which people are free from objectionable ideas,” even, as in the case of Yale, objectionable ideas about what “objectionable ideas” are.

Posted by: Edward Cantu | Aug 29, 2016 11:06:17 AM


I agree that it's not merely a semantic issue. I think it's basically a bit of equivocation, or intellectual sleight of hand.

One of the words I've seen get the ol' switeroo is "violence." Violence, as most of us understand it, is when someone causes physical harm to another person. That's the noun violence. But there's also the adjective, violent. This gets a much more metaphorical use, often referring to things that have extreme force, or sudden and intense activity. "The explosion on Myth Busters was extremely violent." We don't mean the explosion hurt anyone, we mean it was really big and blew some stuff up.

So, we all agree that students should be prohibited from committing acts of violence on each other. Then we switch to the second meaning, and describe a very vehement speech as "violent" in its delivery, and ban it, because by sleight of hand we've turned it into violence.

And when that fails, we get the next turn, which is to just say something "contributes to a culture." Well, that speech wasn't an act of violence, but it contributes to a culture of violence, so we can ban it.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Aug 29, 2016 11:56:05 AM

"For instance, he noted: 'Some pedagogic choices can fail because the reaction of one, two, or many students obstructs their ability to see the underlying point the instructor is trying to make.' A point of trigger warnings is to flag what is coming to help address such possible reactions."

Unless these students' ability to see the point is obstructed because they are having flashbacks I don't see how that explanation makes any sense. And if there are students in the class with PTSD professors should be taking guidance from the office of student services on how to accommodate them rather than coming up with their own ad hoc solutions.

At best professors are misusing the language of psychology. At worst they are acting as amateur medical professionals without training or informed consent. Mark does not address this rather critical point. At all.

Posted by: brad | Aug 29, 2016 12:17:35 PM

"Safe Space", as defined by Professor Graber, is fine, but the problem is that it has come to mean, as recognized above, a space in which can be free from challenges to preconceived notions or from hearing any viewpoint which could potentially offend........

Posted by: Ian Sirota | Aug 29, 2016 4:39:41 PM

"But the letter defines safe spaces as ones in which students can present their ideas--even wrong or half-baked ones--without fear of reprisal from colleagues or professors."

But not, of course, if the ideas happen to be conservative ones.

Posted by: Jr | Aug 30, 2016 2:52:29 AM

I don't think that's the cAse with Prof. Graber's letter and definition.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 30, 2016 6:26:15 AM

Post a comment