A Measured Response to NYTimes Writer Bret Stephens on the Subject of Safe Spaces

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A Measured Response to NYTimes Writer Bret Stephens on the Subject of Safe Spaces

You might remember Bret Stephens, newly minted Times conservative take artist, from such hits as “Climate Change: Maybe Overwhelming Scientific Consensus is Actually Less Good Than My Gut?” and…well, I don’t know. That one alone made me so mad that I’ve been studiously avoiding Bret Stephens ever since. But just as a bad penny always turns up, and just as you can’t avoid the fetid stench of bovine excrement if you work on a cattle farm, I only made it about two weeks before Stephens crashed his metaphorical jalopy of shit logic and pseudo-intellectual cruelty into my serene metaphorical hay bales of truth, or something.

You get the point: There’s another Stephens op-ed out, it’s about safe spaces, and it’s total garbage. Let’s go line by line, his words in bold, my response after:

This commencement address was delivered on May 14, 2017, to the graduating seniors of Hampden-Sydney College, an all-men’s school in southern Virginia.

I’m glad to see that it took Stephens about a month at the Times before he resorted to repurposing outside content. Has the well run dry so quickly? At this rate, he’ll be a serial plagiarist by November.

But that’s okay, because I can already tell this belongs to my favorite genre: Older dudes with historically easy lives informing a group of younger people—all of whom are staring down adult lives in the new American hellscape—that they’re a bunch of pussies. Should be awesome.

Members of the class of 2017: congratulations.

This is like when a mean mom compliments her daughter’s new dress, but only as a prelude to calling her fat. Basically, Bret Stephens is Lucille Bluth, but without the wit.

Very soon, you will hold in your hands the diploma of a great and storied college. Very soon, you’ll be gone from this gorgeous campus; this nurturing, stimulating, protective environment — a place that, in a manner of speaking, has been your safe space for these past few years.

There we go, baby! The “safe space” makes its first appearance! The conservative hobgoblin! The conceptual embodiment of their core belief that every college student pads their away around campus in a physical bubble, wearing goggles that turn every human being’s skin into the same shade of mocha to avoid accidental acts of privilege, and wired to the gills so they can get short but painful electrocutions each time they commit a microaggression.

But Stephens is right about colleges. I mean, what would you call a temporary “oasis” (read: purgatory) where 18-22-year-olds have the honor of living in a state of paralyzed anxiety because their parents and grandparents have so thoroughly fucked up the world that they now live in a toxic autocracy run by a tyrannical dementia patient, with future prospects that roughly correspond to the grimmer scenes from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? To me, you can only encapsulate that reality with the term “safe space.”

So let me ask you: Are you ready — really ready — to leave this safe space?

I am ready to die, Mr. Stephens! I don’t fear the inferno! Sacrifice me to the American Gods of torment, capitalist spirit father!

Oh, wait…that’s not what you meant? Sorry, I just felt so fervent for a moment…

I’ve been thinking about safe spaces a lot lately.

I bet you have, you tedious fraud.

For those of you with the good fortune never to have heard the term, a “safe space” is not, as you may suppose, a concrete-reinforced room where you can ride out a tornado. It isn’t a bulletproof car, either.

“It’s not, as a reasonable man might surmise, a section of literal outer space full of literal locked vaults. ‘Tis also not, contrary to good sense, the sweet sanctuary of the mother’s womb to which I, as a fearful conservative ninny, long to return. And, alas, ye men of right good thought, I am most regretful to inform thee that ‘tis not an underground movie theater where a chivalrous tribe of freemasons might watch reel after reel of that barbarian overlord Barack Obama suffering unspeakable tortures whilst we laugh and laugh, for truly we have beaten the filth of Hollywood at their own pernicious sport, MUAHAHAA!”

Instead, a “safe space” denotes a place, usually on campus, where like-minded people — often sharing the same race, gender, sexual orientation or political outlook — can spend time together without having to encounter the expression of any ideas or opinions that they do not endorse.

The fucking HORROR. On Bret Stephens’ ideal planet, LGTBQ people wouldn’t even get to take a nap without him appearing like a specter at their bedsides to calmly argue that homosexuality is a transgression against the natural order and should be criminalized.

Here’s an example. In the fall of 2014 a student at Brown University got wind that her school was going to host a debate between two women, one a feminist and the other a libertarian, on the subject of campus sexual assault.

The student feared that exposure to such a debate could be “damaging” to people in the audience, some of whom might find their experiences of sexual assault “invalidated” by what the debaters had to say.

So the student organized a “safe space.” As described by the essayist Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times, the space was a room “equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”

Now that sounds harmless enough. And if such a space offered comfort to the people who used it, so much the better.

If the essay ended here, Stephens would have exposed himself as…merely reasonable. Because that’s really all you have to say about safe spaces—they don’t matter.

Look, here’s my thing: I’m a progressive, etc. etc., but sure, I find the most extreme “safe space” stories coming out of college to be faintly ridiculous. And yes, insofar as it’s a tiny part of the phenomenon of idea-aversion, which expresses itself in embarrassing videos of college kids weeping as they scream at some professor who isn’t as triggered by Halloween costumes as they’d prefer, it’s kind of stupid.

But it’s also wayyyy less prominent than the hysterical reactionaries at Fox News would have you believe, and it’s also a very minor affectation practiced by young people who will definitely grow out of it. And even if they come off as hyper-sensitive, their hearts are generally in the right place, cast as they are against the unfeeling world that awaits. In other words, it doesn’t fucking matter, because the people who engage in the kind of safe space-ism that Stephens imagines in his worst fever dreams have no power. It is not the tyranny of the left he wants you to believe. Real tyranny is kicking 24 million people off health insurance so rich people can have a tax break. Real tyranny is destroying a planet so corporations can make more money. And while Stephens blathers on about a few college kids who have nothing, remember that he is a simpering little apparatchik for the oligarchs who run America.

Fuck this guy.

But the story of safe spaces doesn’t end there, unfortunately. As Shulevitz noted in her essay, “once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.”

Unlike all the evil shit you stump for, Bret, the philosophy of safe spaces will have no practical effect on the world as we know it. It’s insignificant, but you don’t care, because cretins like you always punch down.

That’s an important insight. It shows how easily an impulse to shield and protect the vulnerable quickly becomes a desire — and then a demand — to impose a particular concept of “safety” on others, whether they want it or not.

Again, I have to repeat this point: They don’t impose anything on anyone. It’s your people who imposing your own monstrously selfish version of the world on everyone else, because you have the actual power, along with the will to abuse it. This is like Godzilla destroying all of New York City, then being paid by the Heritage Foundation to give a speech lecturing some guy in Bed-Stuy for stealing cable.

At this point, the speech careens off in its predictable direction (yes, it careens predictably, something only a writer of Stephens’ caliber could manage). He invokes Orwell, terrified that someday all these safe-spacers are going to become thought police, as though Trump isn’t days away from starting a nuclear war that obliterates us long before Professor GroupThink and her irate soldiers can persuade the FCC to shut down ESPN because sports are ableist.

So I’m going to skip a bunch, because I don’t have the heart for it. This argument is so old, and so boring, that I’m shocked Stephens was allowed to revisit it, even in the pages of a newspaper that is drowning in the swill of its own hypocrisy (they actually had the nerve to unveil this slogan just a couple months before hiring Stephens: “The truth is more important now than ever.”) This is the dialogue I imagine taking place:

Stephens: I’m going to condescend to some college kids, and bore them to tears in the process, with a fantasy about the danger of safe spaces.

Editor: Well, that’s been done quite a bit lately, and—

Stephens: What’s the matters, snowflake, can’t take my cold, hard logic?

Editor: No, it’s just that—


Editor: God, I hate my life.

Anyway, let’s just hit the highlights from here on out.

In the name of being “safe,” students with traditional religious values or conservative political views now feel decidedly unsafe about expressing their views on campus.

No, they don’t. You know how I know? Because I’ve read exactly zero stories of any conservatives or religious people being harmed on college campuses. And the young Republicans have not become shrinking violets—in fact, when faced with a union hunger strike, they do things like hold barbecues to torture them with the aroma. See, Bret? You don’t have to worry! The next generation of assholes is thriving!

And in the name of being safe, we are gravely jeopardizing the central task of any serious liberal education, which is not — or not merely — the transmission of knowledge.

It is, rather, the cultivation of a certain kind of spirit: a passion for inquiry; an insistence on asking hard questions and challenging received wisdom; a reveling in argument; a productive tension between self-confidence and self-doubt; a robust faith in the ultimate attainability of truth; and a humble acceptance that our understanding of the truth will almost always be something less than complete.

You. Are. A. Climate. Change. Denier.

Let me repeat that, so that you may commit the words to memory: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

Just including this because the idea of anyone wanting to commit his words to memory is hilarious to me.

They just happen to know that truth and virtue are on their side. They are convinced that any difference of opinion on matters they hold dear isn’t simply an error of reasoning but an affront to human decency. They believe they are entitled to denounce the people with whom they disagree as knavish ignoramuses.

Well, in your case, Bret…

And so it goes. We all believe that the system of checks and balances is a good idea for a well-functioning and prudent government. But where are the checks and balances in our own thinking — the check that whispers, “You could be wrong”; the balance that suggests, “There’s another way of thinking about it”?

In case you couldn’t tell, this entire speech is Stephens’ way of whining that liberals correctly dismiss him as a partisan hack. It’s essentially a response to everyone who correctly skewered him for his climate change drivel, criticism which he lamented with the classic “how will I explain this to my poor son??” technique.

This is what he’s actually saying: “Why can’t you just admit that maybe you’re wrong, even though my climate take was based on no actual evidence, and the other side is populated by professional people who have actually studied it for their entire lives? Why are you so close-minded??”

Don’t be fooled by this guy. He doesn’t actually hate safe spaces—he hates that he can’t have his own.

Here’s some real advice to college graduates: When you encounter someone like Bret Stephens, who uses false equivalencies and whines about liberal close-mindedness so he can strain for credibility while shilling for the worst people in America, beat him down, keep him on the run, and never give an inch. Truth can be complicated, but someone like Stephens is not, and until his kind are exposed for the dangerous sycophantic Vichy power-flunkeys that they are, they’ll persist in making our world a more horrifying place. As long as they hold power, melodramatic as it may sound, nothing is truly safe.