A Safe Space

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

My alma matter, the University of Missouri, has been on fire this week.

It began with graduate student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike to protest increasingly tense race relations — and former President Tim Wolfe’s lack of response — which led to a show of solidarity from the Mizzou football team, which subsequently resulted in Wolfe’s resignation. Potentially losing a $1 million in revenue on a sporting event will do that to a president.

It’s something to celebrate: Student activists take action, state demands, achieve impressive show of solidarity, and some of their demands are granted. But what’s even more interesting is what happened after this milestone event. Communication Professor Melissa Click managed to distract nicely from the diversity issues when she stopped photographer Tim Tai from recording campus activists’ activities. Apparently she even called for backup: “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle.”

After several videos of Click interfering with reporters covering protests on campus went viral, the J-school was quick to issue a statement Tuesday clarifying that she is not a journalism professor, and rightly so. The same day, Click resigned her courtesy appointment with the journalism school.

When I went to Mizzou, it had the No. 1 journalism school in the country. That’s why I went there. For this woman to basically crap all over the First Amendment is seriously troubling. Even more odd is those who protested media coverage of the events held signs aloft saying, “no media, safe space.”

Safe space? What are they talking about? As I write this, I’m laughing because the idea of a safe space where you’re not challenged — in a higher educational environment at that — where you have the right to halt learning and developmental growth, to essentially hold up a stop sign hand and say, “You’re infringing upon me by saying things I don’t want to hear,” is ridiculous.

This isn’t a claim for decency and fair play because someone’s physical safety has been threatened. That would be totally understandable. This talk of a safe space is more, “I want to control this narrative, and how dare you force me to face an issue I find distasteful.” It’s ego at its finest, and in a public place, hence the talk of First Amendment violations.

Let’s take it even further. College is supposed to be a place for learning and exploration, but it’s also supposed to prepare you for the real world of work. Fast forward a few years. What will happen if these students come into the workforce with this kind of attitude? Oh, you offended me, and my brain is a safe place, so now I’m filing a lawsuit. That’s a cheap example, but you get the point.

The workplace is already quite PC. It’s part of professionalism, working together effectively, collaborating, teaming for the betterment of the company’s overarching business goals. If this idea of a safe space carried any weight at all, what would that do to strategic diversity and inclusion efforts?

Discomfort when learning to deal with difference, to respect varied perspectives and types of people, to accept and perhaps even adopt new ways of thinking, is the name of the game in diversity and in successful, innovative business circles. This idea of a safe place — outside what makes sense in a physical safety context — could be game changing, and not in a good way.

During an editorial meeting, my fellow editors talked at length about this. One of my peers said it’s typical of what has taken place in the post-Obama era, racist — or just uncaring — people think they are being picked on when oppressed groups protest mistreatment and need to be protected.

But should that need to be protected extend to an emotional or psychological safe place? Do people need a safe place where their minds are untouched by the realities of the world and things they find uncomfortable? In this scenario, I say absolutely not.

I agree with CNN’s Don Lemon. He said college students  “should not be coddled by retreating into so-called ‘safe spaces’ because they’re afraid of having their feelings hurt. If you’re afraid of having your feelings hurt, don’t leave your house. College is the place where robust debate should be welcomed and vigorously explored.”

Still, I can’t help but wonder: Will there be a rash of lawsuits in the workforce related to safe space violations in the next few years?