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Who Gets to Demand Safety?

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As protests against racism on campus have rocked the University of Missouri and Yale University – and spread to places like Claremont McKenna and Amherst – student protesters have come under fire for their call for “safe space.”   In particular, writers like Connor Friedersdorf have argued that their demand for safe spaces has created a new kind of intolerance, where all dissenting views are excluded and condemned. This critique of the demand for safety finds allies in leftists who see student activists’ demands for safe spaces as an attempt to avoid rather than address the complexities and realities of the world.

In contrast, writers like Roxane Gay have drawn attention to the fact that critics of students demanding safe spaces at Yale, Mizzou, and elsewhere tend to be those who have never feared for their safety, who experience safety as an “inalienable” right. For Gay, the call for safety is not a call to be “coddled” or not to hear opposing perspectives, but rather for the freedom for all students to voice experiences and views in a setting where they do not feel in danger of being mocked, derided, or physically threatened. While some (white, male, cisgender) students might take the privilege of safety for granted – and, in turn, their ability to speak their views however and whenever they like – others (notably, black, female, and queer students) may have to demand it.

I agree with Gay that critics of the student protesters fail to acknowledge the privilege of safety that most of them inhabit. However, I think that Gay’s claim that some people “have” safety while others have to ask for it may keep us from seeing a different and perhaps more insidious problem: namely, that some people’s demands for safety are taken more seriously than others. That is, the issue is not that some people simply feel safe while others do not, but rather that some people’s demands for safety are backed up by public culture, state violence, and law, while others are left at the mercy of that violence.

Put differently, the “feeling” of safety that Gay rightly says is a privilege is one that is created through social, political, and legal institutions that frame some people’s demands for safety as legitimate and urgent – and in need of violent enforcement – while framing others’ demands for safety as a desire for “coddling.”

For example, while black students and their supporters at Mizzou and Yale are often mocked when they ask for a safe space, Donald Trump is taken seriously by Republican voters when he argues that we must erect a wall along the United States’ southern border to keep Americans safe from Mexican rapists and criminals. Trump’s demand that we keep (white) Americans safe from Mexicans has him atop the Republic primary poll in New Hampshire. Similarly, when Darren Wilson says that he felt so threatened by Michael Brown that he had to shoot him, or when George Zimmerman claimed that he felt threatened by Travyon Martin (and thus had to shoot him), or when the Cleveland police officer who killed 12 year old Tamir Rice claimed that he felt so threatened by this little boy that he had to shoot him, these men are taken seriously and their demands for safety are affirmed legally and sometimes politically.

Some people might say that the kind of safety that police officers and Donald Trump and George Zimmerman demand is an entirely different kind of safety than the kind called for by the college students at Yale and Mizzou – that they are talking about physical rather than psychological safety. But can we separate out these two kinds of safety? The safety from racist comments, threats, and (yes) even costumes that these students demand is not just a demand to be kept safe from the violence of speech, but also from the always present risk that hateful speech will turn into hateful violence – a risk that many of us have felt when having homophobic or racist comments shouted at us, or when we have been sexually harassed or intimidated. On the other hand, Trump’s, Wilson’s, and Zimmerman’s claims that they felt or feel physically threatened are not at all self-evident; their demands for safety are demands that we see certain kinds of individuals (Mexicans, African-Americans who possess no weapons but who look, in Wilson’s words, “like a demon”) as greater threats than others (i.e. the armed white men who kill or threaten to kill black and Latino individuals).

Surely what the students at Yale and Mizzou are protesting is not simply racism, but precisely this racist view of safety: that is, a view of safety that allows certain lives to count more than others, and that allows some people’s demands for safety to come at the expense of the lives of others.

The logic of safety expressed in the violent acts of Wilson and Zimmerman (among others) – that in order for some to be safe, others need to be disciplined, threatened, or killed – is entirely familiar. It is evident not only in the police violence against (and racial profiling of) black men and women, and in violence against queers and trans people. It is also evident in the cycle of violence that we see re-perpetuated in response to the Paris attacks, where some French and American leaders claim that in order to be safe, Syrian refugees must be kept out, and cities in Syria must be bombed.

In the context of these racist and Islamophobic demands for safety – backed up by state violence and law – it seems more important than ever to support and stand in solidarity with college students’ demand for safe spaces. While their demand for safety could certainly re-enact (on a limited scale) the exclusivity of the violent logic of safety I sketched above, their demand for an ideal of safety as a space of inclusion and equality stands as an important counterpoint to the racist idea that safety depends on the violent exclusion of difference.

In this ideal, safety is not contingent upon the exclusion and disciplining of (minority) others, but rather upon the shared commitment to affirm, acknowledge, and find space for the diverse experiences of everyone. Here, safety is not a feeling of knowing that threats to you have been killed or quarantined, but rather in a feeling of knowing that the risk of being who you are – expressing your views, presenting yourself freely to others – will be borne not only by you, but also by others, who will create a space of safety around you.

One thing – among others – that these student protestors have done is reminded us of an insight of the feminist and gay rights movements: that safety is not a purely physical condition, having to do with whether you are physically threatened, but also a political and social condition. In other words, political and social structures – such as racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia – turn certain people (usually marginalized groups) into supposed “threats,” and in turn license violent behavior toward them. The move to create “safe spaces” for women and gays and lesbians was a way to try to create spaces where individuals could feel the freedom and equality that they wanted to create on a broader social scale.

In our current political moment – where demands for safety have been used to license increasingly violent acts – standing with students’ demands for an ideal of safety premised on equality, freedom, and shared risk holds out one of the few hopes of challenging this violent logic for safety on behalf of creating (even if only in microcosm, as an ideal) the conditions of a safe world for everyone.

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