Recently, some students at Brown University brought Wendy McElroy to campus. McElroy disputes the commonly cited claim that 1 in 5 college women will be victims of rape or sexual assault. In response, an undergraduate student, with support from various administrators and some faculty, created a “safe space” on campus. According to a New York Times Op-Ed:
The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was 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. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume McElroy is wrong, and the numbers she criticizes are right. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that she’s a crackpot with no epistemic authority on this matter. Even if so, I submit that responding to her talk by creating a “safe space” with coloring books, bubbles, and videos is misogyny. (And misandry, since men can be raped too.) It’s treating women (and men) as pathetic wilting flowers who cannot handle debate about controversial statistics. Read Nietzsche on pity: when you pity someone like this, you degrade that person.
Imagine Georgetown’s campus Republicans hosted a speaker who claimed that the number of children born to poor single moms is decreasing. Now suppose one of my colleagues approached me and said, “Jay, I know that you were born to a poor single mom. I don’t want you to feel like your own experience is being invalidated, so I put some tinker toys and bunny videos in my office. Feel free to hang out there while the big scary speakers are speaking.” I wouldn’t feel supported by my colleague, but insulted, and rightly so. My colleague might care about me, but at the same time, she is expressing (whether she intends to or not) that I am a pathetic weakling, who is bad at reasoning, who is traumatized by discussions of demographic statistics.
To say that debating this statistics is to “invalidate people’s experiences” is absurd. Suppose you’ve were mugged in New York City. Now you attend a debate in which two speakers argue about the incidence of muggings in the United States. One person believes the incidence is high and getting higher; the other believes the incidence is relatively low and getting lower. Neither one of them thereby confirms, validates, or invalidates your experience. If I say, “I think the number of muggings is going down,” I take no stance on whether you were mugged or not. If I say, “Bullying in elementary schools is less common than you think,” I don’t thereby deny you were bullied in elementary school. If McElroy says, “It’s not true that 1 in 5 women will be raped in the US, or that 1 in 5 college women will face sexual assault of some form,” she doesn’t thereby deny that you, an actual victim, were not a victim. Frankly, that’s an absurd inference. Further, it’s bizarre that people would engage in motivated reasoning over this. If you were raped, wouldn’t you at least find some consolation in learning that rape is becoming less common, or that it’s less common than you thought? Why would you want to believe that rape is common or prevalent?
Some of the people who support creating such “safe spaces” consider themselves feminists, but I regard them as bad or corrupted feminists at best. Brian Leiter has been calling the current campus culture the New Infantilism. I think it’s an apt term. We’re treating college students as if they were infants who must be protected, and, worse, we’re making them more like infants in virtue of treating them as such. However caring this behavior might be, it’s not respectful.