by Daniel A. Kaufman
No one likes hyperbole more than I do, but it’s reached a point, now, in our public discourse, where it’s making us say and do crazy things, and as we all should know, buying your own bullshit – like getting high on your own supply – is always a bad idea.
Take the word ‘safe’. Right before the most recent presidential inauguration – yes, that one – a minor shitstorm erupted on my campus, when certain excitable parties discovered that the university choir had accepted an invitation from the White House to sing the national anthem. Unbeknownst to me I had been put on the “diversity committee” the semester before, so I suddenly found my email inbox flooded with breathless messages, in which faculty worried about the “safety” of Muslim students on campus, should the choir perform. Inquiries as to what they could possibly mean by this went unanswered, so I emailed my department head and told him to remove my name from the committee immediately.
This bothered me for several days, so I went to talk with one of my colleagues about it. She has a “Safe Space” sticker on her door, with a multicolor upside-down triangle on it, so I figured she might be able to help me understand what this is all supposed to be about. (She tends to be my go-to person, whenever I find myself particularly puzzled by developments in and among the more exotic flora and fauna of the contemporary Left.)
I told her that I found the uses of ‘safe’ I was hearing difficult to make sense of. If you told me, for example, that students attending school in Darfur, Mogadishu or Aleppo were “unsafe,” it would be perfectly clear to me what you meant, i.e.: they are at serious risk of being shot, rocketed, beheaded, kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery … that sort of thing. But given what I know about American campuses and especially American campuses in places like Springfield, Missouri, where I teach – that they are even safer than the rest of the country, which itself is the safest it’s been since the 1960’s – saying students here are unsafe strikes me as somewhat obscure. (1) I mean, if a student on a campus in Springfield, MO is unsafe, then what is a student in Sudan or Yemen? Super-duper unsafe? Uber unsafe?
As it turns out, she got the sticker from a campus gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer organization that provides “training” for faculty which, once you complete it, turns your office into a “safe zone” for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer students. When I asked her what made other parts of the campus, like the cafeteria or the library or even my office “unsafe” for these students, it became quite clear that her use of ‘safe’ had nothing to do with what it means in common English. “Safe Spaces” are places where those belonging to “marginalized groups” can be fully “out” in their identities without any chance of disapproval, judgment, or of being subjected to any manner of critical or skeptical conversation, with all of these being defined purely subjectively – that is, in terms of whether the student in question feels that they are being so-subjected. In short, they are places where one can be oneself, entirely as one conceives oneself, and only ever receive supporting, comforting, approving reactions from the people who man (!) the safe spaces. Now I don’t deny that to have such a place must be very pleasant indeed, but it does seem somewhat rarefied, insofar as one is not guaranteed such a reception even from ones closest relatives, friends, and confidants, all of whom may offer tough love, despite the fact that one doesn’t like it.
A related fixation on campuses is with “rape culture,” which large numbers of students and faculty seem to think we – by which I mean, the people of the United States – are living in. Indeed, a survey of the students in one of my classes this semester revealed that virtually all of them think that the culture of the U.S. today is a “rape culture.” As I had done with my colleague, I told them that I found this hard to understand, given that federal crime statistics demonstrate quite clearly that in the U.S., we currently enjoy the lowest violent crime rates (including rape), since the 1960’s and that American campuses are even safer than the society at large. I explained that unlike them, I could actually remember when it was unsafe for a woman (or anyone for that matter) to walk down 42nd Street, back in the 1970s and 80s, from Times Square to the Port Authority bus terminal, in the middle of the day, because there was nothing but porno theaters, hookers, and roaming junkies openly smoking crack on the sidewalks, for several blocks. But these observations caused no embarrassment. In fact, they had no effect on my students’ estimation of the situation whatsoever. They told me that they think we live in a rape culture, regardless of the facts I mentioned, and it’s because what they mean by a ‘rape culture’ isn’t a culture where there is a rape epidemic or even just a high level of sexual crimes against women. What they mean is a culture with a certain kind of climate in which some women feel a certain kind of unsafety. My colleague, when I discussed it with her, mentioned things like criminal trials and the awful position women often find themselves in when trying to prosecute rapists; MGTOWs and other associated bro-douchebag types; and Trump … lots of Trump. I found myself agreeing with most of what she said, in that I think that most of the things she described are pretty terrible. But I can’t accept the idea that this constitutes a “rape culture.” I asked her again, if this is a rape culture then what was America at the peak of its violent crime wave? Or Sudan, where rape is used as a common war tactic? Or countries where it is perfectly legal to rape your wife? Are they super-duper rape cultures? Uber rape cultures? She seemed to get the point … somewhat. But she also isn’t going to stop using the terms in question. The “Safe Space” sticker remains.
In my view – and I told her this – this sort of empirically resistant, hyperbolic characterization is extremely dangerous. For one thing, it justifies and even encourages us to pursue illiberal and even outright authoritarian policies and for another, it is ripe for abuse and threatens to balkanize us in ways that we all are going to regret. It also would seem to be psychologically unhealthy, not simply because such talk primes people to perceive situations and people in unrealistically threatening terms, but because it flat-out involves what clinical psychologists refer to as “cognitive distortions,” including filtering, overgeneralization, catastrophizing, emotional reasoning, and more. (2) Indeed, a recent article in Psychological Inquiry suggests that this “concept creep” runs the risk of “pathologizing everyday experience and encouraging a sense of virtuous but impotent victimhood.” (3) Seeing my students worrying about their safety, in the safest place, at the safest time in half a century, it’s hard not to agree.
But how is such hyperbolic speech actually dangerous? Consider the hyperbolic use of the term ‘war’, as when we speak of our ongoing “War on Terror.” Now, I think I know what a war is. WWI and WWII were wars. The American Civil War was a war. The Napoleonic Wars were wars. But is what we’re in now a war? The number of people who died in the 9/11 attacks is less than the number of people who drown each year in swimming pools and bathtubs. (4) Aside from the bizarre Iraq invasion, there has been no serious mobilization of forces. There certainly has been no mobilization of the nation. There is no rationing of resources. There has been no draft. Women aren’t going to work in factories to support the war effort, while their husbands are out fighting on the beaches or in the jungles or wherever. Occasionally a drone blows up a wedding somewhere or a special ops team goes and shoots up some wretched Islamists in sandals and pajamas, hiding in a hole in some godforsaken place or other. Once in a blue moon we drop the Biggest Mother Fucking Bomb Ever or whatever the thing we dropped last week is called. Every now and then there is an attack on a discotheque or market, in which scores of people are injured or killed, but the numbers still don’t add up to anything more than occurs as a result of the unfortunate but perfectly ordinary violent crime that every modern nation still suffers to some degree or other.
In no serious sense, then, are we “at war,” even though we all say that we are and have been, now, for sixteen years. And doing so has made it possible for the government to justify doing any number of dangerously illiberal things that we otherwise likely would not accept. Mass, warrantless surveillance; the erosion of habeas corpus; the torture of prisoners; the list goes on and on. And who knows where it will go, if, God forbid, we still claim to be “at war” with this rabble of atavists ten years from now.
Similar dangers loom with the constant assertions of ‘harm’ and being ‘unsafe’ and of living in a ‘rape culture’. All connote a state of emergency, and in states of emergency, one takes emergency measures. Fortunately, thus far, the courts have resisted moving to an emergency footing when being confronted with these sorts of cases, but on college campuses we are seeing the sorts of nightmarish scenarios that we might find ourselves in, in the civil and criminal justice system, if we don’t stop this nonsense soon. Administrative tribunals in which those accused of (but not criminally charged with) harassment, discrimination, “micro-aggressions,” and even sexual assault are denied access to counsel; are not informed of the charges beforehand; have no right to confront their accuser; and even find that the fundamental burdens of proof have been reversed.
I also told my colleague that given that these uses of ‘unsafe’, ‘harm’, ‘rape culture’ and the like are grounded not in any objective, publicly verifiable facts, but in the subjective feelings and perceptions of the complainants, I don’t see how it will be possible ever to reject or even resist claims that someone or some people have been harmed or harassed or are unsafe. Many humanities and liberal arts professors are outspokenly and aggressively left-wing in class. What’s going to happen when right-wing, evangelical students, taking a lesson from their left-wing peers, start to claim that they are “unsafe” in their anthropology or sociology class or that their teacher has created a “hostile environment” or “harassed” them? Or that they live in a “Christian hating culture”? One won’t be able to deny their complaint by way of an appeal to facts, because it has already been established that such claims are true regardless of the facts. If we have to accept claims that some students are “unsafe” and in a “rape culture,” even though crime and other relevant statistics say the opposite, then we will have to accept claims that other students are “unsafe” and in a “Christian hating culture,” even though all the evidence would indicate that white Christians are doing just fine in America today. (The execrable Bill O’Reilly, lately of Fox News, worked up excitable right wingers for years claiming there is a “War on Christmas.”) Will we start to see “Safe Space” stickers with little crosses or elephants in them, indicating the offices of those professors who have undergone “training” as to how to affirm and validate the identities of right-wing evangelical students? I don’t see how we could expect not to and the result will be a balkanized campus in which the climate is even more hostile and divisive than it is now.
My advice? In the words of that great philosophical sage, Bob Newhart, “Stop it! Just stop it!”