The Chronicle Review

A Different Kind of Safe Space

August 30, 2016

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"This is a sanctuary for free speech," I will tell my students next week at their first class in nonfiction writing. With this manifesto I begin each semester and have for 30-plus years. What does it mean? It means that in here, you can say anything.

"Anything?" a student will inevitably ask, signaling both mischief and anxiety.

Anything.

If they want to say the F-word, they are free to do so. (Frankly, I prefer it to an endless barrage of "likes" and "you knows.") They can say or write the N-word, and any other term of racial, gender, or ethnic disparagement.

Now I have their attention. I may or may not be in violation of a college rule, but I am clearly outside the "safe zone." And that’s fine, because outside of it is where I want to be, and where I want them to be.

“You want to use a word -- any word -- fine by me, but be prepared to accept what happens next.”
This is, after all, a class in writing, and words are not to be trifled with. They have consequences. You want to use a word — any word — fine by me, but be prepared to accept what happens next. No, I will not reprimand you, but neither will I rush in to save you. It is a lesson not only in the power of words, but in democracy, free speech, and responsibility.

Words are dangerous, but not as dangerous as efforts to suppress them, be it by government or dean — and certainly not as insidious as self-censorship. I know my views are not shared by some colleagues and students (although not a one has ever complained), particularly in this age of safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions, and speech codes. And no, I am not a reactionary conservative but an old-school liberal, a devotee of John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell, who, in a joyful display of defiance, titled one of his collections Unpopular Essays.

But on one point Russell and I part company. He said that "all movements go too far." He is mostly right, but not with regard to free speech. Here, there is no too far. The very idea of capping speech suffocates the imagination. Another of my favorite writers, E.B. White, wrote that "in a free country it is the duty of writers to pay no attention to duty." I’ve always loved that quote, but I think it craves an asterisk. There is a duty: to be true to oneself.

If all this sounds subversive or self-indulgent, so be it. It is the essence of free speech, and of art, that the mind behind the utterance be unfettered and oblivious to outcome. That borders on the irresponsible — at least so it seems to outside authority — but that border is exactly where speech and art should be if they are to retain their integrity.

But wait, doesn’t that contradict what I said a moment ago, that this is to be a lesson in assuming responsibility for one’s words? Yes. It is a contradiction — but one that makes it no less valid. That is a dialectic that animates both democracy and art. A reckless fidelity to truth is fraught with both peril and promise. It is speech that must enjoy the safe zone, both within the collective of the class and within the individual student.

In my class, if students say something offensive, even remotely or overtly racist (the "overtly" has yet to occur), then they must take ownership of their words, be prepared to defend them, and be willing to accept the storm that might follow. I may, if necessary, mediate, but I will neither raise the out-of-bounds flag nor come to anyone’s rescue. That is the nature of democracy and of free speech, which is itself a misnomer given that speech often comes with an exorbitant price tag.

“Words are dangerous, but not as dangerous as efforts to suppress them.”
Imposing limits on words both compromises art and undermines democratic principles. We who stand at the front of the class are, wittingly or not, modeling democracy. It is the meta-lesson of every class. How we conduct ourselves, what strictures we impose, what manner and methods we adopt, how we respond to controversy, insubordination, and challenge — all are part of a lesson that does not appear in any syllabus or learning objective, but its significance is greater than both. As every parent learns too late, the young absorb and replicate not merely what we say, but our demeanor, gestures, and conduct, for those express what we value most. We telegraph subliminally more than we imagine. If we behave as if words are to be feared, they surely will be.

If we believe in democracy, then we must also believe in the self-corrective nature of democracy, that those around us are free to react, to attack, to ignore, or to turn their backs on us. But there is a fundamental difference between social ostracism and official punishment, between the penalties imposed by a community of one’s peers and the heavy hand of the state — whether that state is a government or a university. The corrective is left to the individual, not the institution. It allows the power to reside where it belongs, with the citizens — and in the classroom, that means the students.

If, after all these years, my students have comported themselves with uncommon decorum, respect for others and for me — and they have — why invite trouble by spelling out my absolute free-speech policy? Is it just an empty gesture or pedagogical posturing?

No. Articulating the right of free speech is itself of benefit. Mere knowledge of it oxygenates the room, frees the mind, allows it to wander where it will, and provokes students to ponder the dynamics of unconstrained expression rather than to fall back on the safe prescriptions of those who shudder to imagine what may come out of one another’s mouths.

Does this put minorities, women, gay and trans students, and others on edge? Does it create a threatening environment where it is difficult to learn and impossible to relax? I cannot and would not answer for so diverse a group. But as a Jew who as a student experienced years of overt anti-Semitism and slurs from both classmates and faculty, I came to realize that as painful as such speech may be, it helped me identify those who were anti-Semitic and it allowed me, if I so chose, to engage them and challenge, if not change, their minds. Pretending that there is not a scintilla of bigotry in all of us, that we all live in a post-racial, post-homophobic, post-sexist society, requires a suspension of disbelief that does nothing but perpetuate the toxins that already exist. For such an illusion of order we pay an impossibly steep price. The interests of free speech and multiculturalism are indivisible.

But back to the course. Nonfiction writing is not just about accuracy but honesty, not just about the grace notes of American life but its open sores as well. The control of language smothers any such undertaking.

It is through speech — the expression of ideas and feelings, noble and ignoble — that we make progress as a culture, that we demonstrate our faith in each other and the body politic, and that we can promote the democratic and artistic principles that we cherish. The only words more powerful than those expressed are those that are repressed.

So say what you will, and welcome to class.

Ted Gup is a professor of journalism at Emerson College and a visiting lecturer at Brown University. His books include Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life (Doubleday, 2007).