The Safe Space

one-hundred-years-of-solitude-coverIt has become a recurrent motif in academic parlance in the United States to talk about security, not as a discipline but in existential terms. This isn’t surprising given the superabundance of bloodshed today. Campus is frequently called a “safe space.” Violence — physical, emotional, and verbal — has no place in it.

The premise behind this concept is sound, though it sometimes verges on sanctimony. It envisions the classroom as Robinson Crusoe’s island, where it is possible to start from scratch, to master the environment’s forces, to triumph over chaos. Indirectly, the word safe has pious connotations: to be safe, as the Oxford English Dictionary states, is “to be delivered from sin or condemnation,” to be above the fray, in “a state of salvation.”

It is a tall order. Being in class, everyone knows, doesn’t bring salvation. Instead, it plunges you into the contradictions that shape our lives. Safety is a basic principle of education: Knowledge results from trust, and trust comes from care. Yet whether we like it or not, violence is an unavoidable feature, our constant companion. Nature without violence is a contradiction.

Thus, in order to understand violence, the first requirement is to acknowledge it. The history of civilization — of any civilization — is by definition a history of barbarism, a struggle between alternative forms of order. The classroom ought to be where that struggle is analyzed, explored, and dissected. We study the role of violence in that struggle. To be safe in the classroom is not to banish violence but to learn ways of controlling it.

Do we overindulge? Take trigger warnings. They are designed to alert students of what is in store. Offering context is essential, as long as it doesn’t become an excuse for zealousness.

Last semester, after the first class in a course I teach on One Hundred Years of Solitude, a student approached me. She wanted to know if there were sexual scenes in the novel that she might want to avoid. I said yes, adding that they were integral to the metabolism of the narrative, that is, never gratuitous. Something the student said gave me the impression her inquiry had a religious component. I mentioned, respectfully, that one of them reminded me of the relationship between King David and Bathsheba. Soon after our conversation, I heard she had dropped out of school. I wished the discussion had been longer for me to better understand her fears.

Indeed, The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, the paintings of Renaissance artists, the plays of Shakespeare, Don Quixote, One Thousand and One Nights, and Grimms’ fairytales are filled with violence. The Hebrew bible in particular is a dark, hostile narrative, with a vengeful god as protagonist. The same goes for studies in bio-genetics, political science, and history. They are about destruction as a cycle of rebirth.

Yet there are other aspects of violence that no one worries about. In another class, this one on dreams, I included a discussion of the movie Inception. I preceded it with a warning: The good guy, Leonardo DiCaprio, on a mission, shoots dozen of bad guys. If it is possible to compare them, both One Hundred Years of Solitude and Inception are exceedingly violent, although the latter feels far more aggressive. Not only that, it takes such devastation lightheartedly. (There is also a dream sequence that includes a suicide, which caused distress in a couple of students among the 80 enrolled.) Questioning it, especially among young people, seems unattractive because Hollywood violence is successfully marketed as entertainment. This, in my view, is how killing is endorsed by all of us.inception26

Do we have the courage to speak out? Would our protest make a dent? Should the movie theater also be a safe space? Discussions of violence used to be taboo on campus. That is no longer the case. We are more mindful than before about the traumas and psychological scars people bring into the classroom. All this is welcome, as long as we don’t turn it into a politically correct rejection of aggression as a reality of life.

It goes without saying that safety is at a premium in the contemporary world. (I sometimes imagine myself dying in a terrorist attack.) I used to doubt those who say things don’t get better, they only deteriorate. Social media seems to expand that deterioration exponentially. Fighting violence through reason is an endorsement of order.

My fear is that calling the classroom a “safe place” is stating the obvious. It fosters a façade for overprotectiveness. There is danger in that softness.

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