Unreconstructed liberal and sometime journalist that I am, I’ve had limited sympathy for the burgeoning demands of college students for safe spaces and trigger warnings and freedom from micro-aggressions. Thus has “the coddling of the American mind” followed helicopter parenting as the latest chapter in the unending narrative of Spoiled Youth.
Kids, ideas of all stripes should be on offer in the collegiate marketplace, and higher education should be a place where you are challenged, inside the classroom and out. Shape up and prepare yourselves for the cut and thrust of the real world!
And yet, on reflection, it seems to me that something more is afoot. The search for safe spaces is hardly restricted to college campuses. From Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to MSNBC and the Daily Show, Americans have embraced challenge-free media environments. Weigh the realities as you like, but both Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump’s keep-them-out-ism are about the creation of safe spaces.
On the religious front, conservatives are working to make their faith-based institutions safe from the new national norm of same-sex marriage. Blogger Rod Dreher has achieved widespread attention for his Benedict Option — a proposal for the creation of traditionalist Christian communities inspired by the Benedictine monasteries that protected the godly from a dangerous world in the early Middle Ages.
The response from safe-space-seeking folks is that we cannot avoid the hostile culture that comes at us 24-7. And that’s just the point. Thanks to hand-helds and laptops, our private lives have become hostile environments, constantly invaded by the aggressions of public figures, strangers, and friends.
We can always get rid of the devices. But living off the grid is hard, and virtually unimaginable for the digital natives of the rising generation. Under the circumstances, is it any wonder that in the cloistered groves of academe where they have been given, for four years at least, a haven from a heartless world, they yearn for safety. We all do.