Dear Steve Sebelius,
I was disheartened to see your opinion piece, titled Beware of the ‘safe space’ movement. In the decade we’ve known each other, I have seen your usually unfailing support for the oppressed. Despite your occasionally borderline sense-of-humor and brash public persona, I know you to be kind and (probably hard for some to believe) at times the coolest head in a room.
When you were my boss at Las Vegas CityLife, I experienced something that was (and sadly still is) rare in our industry — a man who would champion a female writer. You never told me to be quiet or holster my passion or my ambition. You pushed me to become a better journalist and writer. You defended me from the firing-squad when I wrote things that made people mad — even when one powerful man inexplicably took out a full-page ad to complain about me. And, no doubt, that meant you had to defend me a time or two to the brass upstairs. But I never heard you say: Stop. In fact, I think it made you push me more. I may not have said it to you before, but I have always been grateful for that.
I say this as a kind of preamble because even though I am deeply disappointed by the rhetoric of your safe-space article, Steve, I hope you will take to heart what I’m about to say. I like to think you respect me at least half as much as I respect you. And I hope that you will sit with this for at least a minute or two before firing off a knee-jerk defense. I know you to be an intelligent person — often able to see things that others can’t. And, I know you to be someone who cares deeply about injustice. Don’t prove me wrong.
I thought a lot about whether or not to address your piece. I loathe the idea of even the appearance of attacking you. But, then I remembered what you told me a long time ago, “Just because you are the only person to see something, that doesn’t mean you are wrong.”
So, we’re going to do this just as you taught me: breaking it down, one idea at a time.
Let’s start off with the conflating of school-zone speed limits with people growing up coddled.
Instead of promoting safety, they counterintuitively breed kids who mistakenly believe cars will always go slow and stop for them. Consequently, they confidently stride into traffic, sure in the knowledge that the laws of physics will yield to the traffic laws.
I vehemently disagree with this premise entirely. For one, you are suggesting a kind of social-darwinism about the safety of children. I am the mother of a five year-old, and I can tell you from personal experience, that you are expecting a lot from not only kids, but parents and the adults entrusted to their child’s care. Even helicopter parents can’t hover over their kids 24/7. Are you really suggesting that if a child is hit by a car, it is their own fault because they are coddled by safety regulations? Shall we also remove child-safety lids from medication and danger warnings from poisonous materials? Why not go all the way then. Let’s end the requirements for buildings to have fire safety protocols such as sprinklers, fire exits, and even placards with evacuation maps. Because, if children are coddled by street safety, surely we are continuing that by helping grown-adults avoid death.
While we’re at it, might as well stop teaching stop-drop-roll, stop mass-shooter drills at schools, stop requiring safety regulations on drinking water, rescind DUI laws, end oversight commissions on doctors and home-builders, and let’s disband the FDA power to regulate the safety of the food we eat and the medications we take. In fact, might as well stop paying taxes for fire and ambulance services to go to the aide of hurt and injured people — or the publicly funded roads they drive on to get there — because people should just shake it off.
By the logic you propose in your piece, these all serve to coddle the masses. If people don’t know better, then I guess it’s their own damn fault if they die or if they do something that kills another person.
I know you better than to think you have drank from the Ayn Rand Koolaid. You are not this heartless. And you are much smarter than this.
And much like school zones, acquiescence to this kind of thinking breeds adults ill-equipped to deal with life after education, where offensive ideas and people abound. There are no safe spaces in the real world, in the workplace or in life. Quite the opposite, actually.
It’s hard for me to not take umbrage at the suggestion that people who talk about safe spaces are people who are asking for not only something unrealistic, but for something that protects them from boo-boos.
I can guarantee you that people in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, who are demanding that our society wake up to the every day violence, intimidation, and fear institutionalized against black people, are not silly cry-babies who need to put on grown-up pants and accept reality. They are fighting for justice — for liberty that is promised by the defining document of our nation, the Declaration of Independence — but in reality is given only to those privileged with white skin. The fact that this campaign for justice has extended to college campuses and been chronicled on social media with #BlackOnCampus, is not, as you suggest, an example of delusional, coddled people. It is an example of the oppressed agitating for their very freedom from the tyranny of societal systems of oppression.
You mention civil rights activists, suffragists, and voting rights activists as examples of people who agitated for justice without demanding “safe spaces.” I would argue that calling for a “safe space,” while a clumsy bit of semantics, is exactly what those activists were doing.
Suffragists faced open hostility, violence, and imprisonment to fight for a (white) woman’s right to vote. In fact, attaining suffrage — a safe space, if you will — is the right to be an autonomous person finally guaranteed the rights that had been promised but never received. It meant that women were finally safe to publicly voice their opinion on politics when before that the reality had kept them from their inalienable rights and liberty.
It is easy, as a white man in a system that privileges white men, to think that when people talk about having a “safe space” they are simply whining and asking for milk and cookies. But when you do that, you dismiss the very real oppression that people are having to live with every single day. You are implicitly saying that victims of sexual harassment, prejudice, and violence perpetrated by people in power, are not only unimportant, but should be silenced.
I do not believe that you would argue against the campus safe ride program, of which I drove a car when I was at the University of Oregon in the 1990s. Almost every night, I would get a young woman in my car, who had recently been raped and was scared to walk home or on campus after dark. Would you say that I coddled the woman who, when we pulled up to her house, found her rapist waiting on her porch? Should I not have called the police? Should I have just kicked her to the curb and drove away?
Women, people of color, LGBTQ people — these marginalized groups are speaking out and demanding that they be allowed to enjoy the exact same freedom that is afforded to their white, straight, male students. I know you know better than to say that marriage rights give “extra” rights to gays and lesbians compared to any other marriage. How is fighting for equality on campuses any different than any other struggle for equality and for safety?
I would agree if your argument was that people should call it something other than “safe space,” because that verbiage does not really encapsulate the fight that is happening. But that’s not what you are attacking. You are attacking the veracity of fighting for that dialogue at all.
The people who are agitating on college campuses to be heard — to not be marginalized by professors who say “my, you speak so well,” or being followed by school police simply for walking on campus after dark — may not be using a language that makes sense to you, but you are not only wrong for infantalizing them, you are using your white, male privileged status and position of power as a journalist in our community to try and silence them.
Much like school zones, the “safe places” cropping up on campuses represent an attempt to twist the laws of nature in a decidedly unnatural way, creating a world where contrary ideas are never heard, where nobody has to deal with anything they might find offensive, where “trigger warnings” precede lectures and where some ideas are just too outrageous to be heard at all.
There has been so much complaining about the use of trigger warnings, it is almost cliche of you to include them in your piece. Trigger warnings are the things people who have no need for them love to hate.
Well, I am someone who not only uses them, but needs them. Let me explain why. Perhaps this will help you have empathy for something you clearly do not understand.
Maybe you have forgotten that I am a survivor of sexual assault. I was sexually assaulted by a family member for nine years, starting when I was five years old.
Thanks to therapy, my faith, and my support network, including my husband, family, and friends, I am in a healthy, good place in my life. It is thanks to all those people that I can publicly talk about my trauma. I do not like talking about it, but I see it as a necessary evil in order to help others who do not have the access to resources that I do, or perhaps, do not have the will to speak up. (And let me just say, that even if survivors do not speak publicly about their trauma, they are still brave and deserve respect.)
It is the single hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life to speak my truth publicly. It is harder than childbirth. It is harder than when I had to take food from dumpsters in order to stay alive. And every time I do talk about my sexual assault, there are those who belittle that trauma and who push (sometimes threatening violence against me) for me to shut up.
Take a moment and think about that, Steve. I get threatened with rape (or sometimes death) every single time I talk about being raped. But if I, and people like me, do not talk about our experiences, the world ignores us completely. So what, I ask, are we survivors of such trauma supposed to do? What would make the world have less hurt feelings about our trauma? Why am I charged with making my suffering less difficult, less horrifying, less abhorrent for people like you?
Do you see what I’m getting at?
When my fellow survivors of trauma — sexual violence, domestic violence, etc. — push for a trigger warning, it is a very real act of survival.
There are days when it is too much for me to bear to see another story about an 11-year-old girl getting repeatedly raped who then has her rapist’s baby; an admitted child-rapist walking free because of the soul-crushing weakness of our criminal justice system; or a woman being told she was not raped, because it was nighttime. These stories are happening every single day. And while a “trigger warning” does not make them go away, it is a succor to me on those days when I cannot face that news. I can see the trigger warning and just keep scrolling by, instead of feeling assaulted by news that is not just depressing, but causes me very real pain and anxiety.
More often than I care to admit, news about people such as Jared Fogle, Josh Dugger, or Jerry Sandusky has brought me to my knees, literally. I have had to run to the bathroom, because my physiological response to such news can cause me to throw up, and then feel such a rush of anxiety, that I can’t sleep for days. Sadly, I am not alone in this kind of reaction. Not everyone has a strong physical reaction like I do, because that is just one way a person can feel triggered. I have also had the sensation that I can feel my perpetrator’s touch on my skin, I have sweat through my clothes, felt like I was having a heart attack, and cried so hard I could not breathe.
Triggers are real and they are everywhere. People like me have to walk through life knowing they could be around any corner, or any scroll through a social media feed. And, if we want to be functioning people in the real world, we have to devise ways to protect ourselves. We have to fight for a safe space, Steve, no matter how tiny or insignificant to others. It is not realistic — it is not reality — to simply turn off the television forever, never read a newspaper or magazine, or avoid the internet for life. I am not asking the world to placate me and other survivors by never depicting or talking about rape. I am asking for the smallest possible modicum of compassion — a head’s up.
You say that feeling-based “triggers” are not as real as the trigger of a gun, but I beg to differ. I’ve mourned people who couldn’t take another day on campus with their rapist. I have stayed on the phone all night to help someone make it until morning.
Why would you argue against a tiny consideration for people like me, about discussions or depictions about one of humanity’s darkest cruelties? It’s two words: Trigger Warning.
Who is really being the overly sensitive one here? The traumatized survivor asking for a warning — not a ban on it, just a head’s up so I can excuse myself from the room, conversation, or television show? Or, the privileged few who have no emotional touch-stone to the issue having to write two words? Just two words.
It’s not trivial, Steve. It’s compassion.
Don’t believe me? Consider then the ultimate incarnation of safe spaces: the inevitable result of unrestrained intellectual fascism found in radical Islam. It’s a sin to insult the prophet, even for those outside the religion for whom Muhammad is nothing more than a historical figure. And the penalty isn’t a trip to the dean’s office or the student judicial council, but death.
For these radical fundamentalists, the safe zone is called a caliphate, and a trigger warning takes on a real and deadly meaning. This is the inevitable endpoint of fascism, one that must be confronted and resisted by everyone who believes in western-style democracy. Liberals must return to these ramparts, and sooner rather than later. There’s more at stake than we know.
Wow. Just wow.
So, asking for justice is fascism? Asking for compassion is fascism?
Perhaps you need a refresher on what fascism really is: a way of organizing a society in which a government ruled by a dictator controls the lives of the people and in which the people are not allowed to disagree with the government.
If you really think that pushing for the dismantling of societal oppression is fascism, then you are not the person I once knew.
I am so disappointed, it breaks my heart.
I really hope you think about what I’ve said here. I hope you take it to heart — the one I still believe has goodness and compassion.
*Updated Nov. 24.