Like many of the demands flowing from the politically correct religious revival sweeping the nation, overzealous demands for “safe spaces” has been roundly mocked by those not caught up in the fervor.
Some of the most incisive criticism of the efforts of primarily young, pampered college students to insulate themselves from intellectual challenge and uncomfortable ideas has been levied through episodes of South Park, which has brutally mocked all manner of SJW excess throughout its current season. Perhaps the standout moment to date was the song “In My Safe Space,” which not only mocked those looking to avoid any possible discomfort, but also introduces the villainous character Reality, whose namesake reflects his role in the performance. Unfortunately, he tellingly doesn’t last long. After ruining the plans of safe spacers with an epic rant, Reality is executed via public hanging to the applause of South Park’s newly social justice-indoctrinated citizenry.
Yet for all the easily mocked and absurd excess of the social justice Left, the idea of safe spaces is not new. In fact, it is enshrined in the Constitution, where instead of being referred to as safe spaces, it is called the right of association (and assembly).
For social justice minded-college students struggling to keep up, the right of association is an ancient tradition by which people were once allowed to choose with whom they interacted in social, commercial, religious or any other contexts. In other words, people were once free to associate with whomever they pleased at their own discretion and, by extension, to choose to not associate with whomever they pleased. Their spaces could be as safe or unsafe as they wanted them to be.
And it was the Left that fought for decades to destroy this right.
Today’s social justice warriors clamor for places of refuge for so-called “marginalized groups,” which effectively consists of every group except straight white males, from a society that they insist is inherently oppressive despite all evidence and their own privileged experiences to the contrary.
The “safe space” idea – like so much other awfulness that has germinated within the fetid cesspool that is American academia – first began with 1970s feminism, only to be pollinated by the political correctness of the 1990s, and finally blossoming into the flower of absurdity to which we are witness today.
At the University of Missouri, where identity-politics obsessed rabble-rousers forced the resignation of President Timothy Wolf for an offense that no one can quite identify, a freelance photographer was accosted by a mob for doing the job which the press has always done – documenting newsworthy events.
Students absurdly “accused him of acting unethically and disregarding their requests for privacy,” despite holding their activities in an open and public place. They later on social media justified the harassment of the photographer by noting, “It’s typically white media who don’t understand the importance of respecting black spaces.”
Such is the state of academic discourse in the nation.
But what of this idea of “black spaces?” Once upon a time, associations based on racial lines might have been more ubiquitous. The Civil Rights Act, however, not only rightly ended unconstitutional discrimination on the part of state governments, but also weakened some of the protections for association rights by applying “non-discrimination” law to private actors in addition to governments.
This was especially ironic given the importance that the right of association played during the civil rights fight itself by protecting groups like the NAACP from state harassment.
Over recent decades, rules in many states have tightened further, narrowing the definition of what might be considered private clubs (which are allowed to discriminate) versus those that are deemed “public accommodations.” Note that the latter does not require government ownership or operation, which is what “public” traditionally means. Instead, the idea of “public accommodation” has been used in the post-Civil Rights era to gut the right of association through an illogical insistence that economic activity differs substantially from others that associations might pursue.
Public accommodation has most recently been in the news due to demands that bakers provide wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies against their wishes. Because bakeries are open to the public, the law has decided they no longer have the right to decide with whom they associate.
What the Left could not prohibit legally, they attempted instead to enforce culturally. Groups that catered to men, for instance, were derided as sexist and forced to accept female members. Augusta National was subjected to immense media and cultural pressure to accept female members, and their inevitable decision to buckle was cheered as if it was a great civil rights victory.
Ironically, this overreach against private association based on race and gender was pushed and celebrated by the same political Left which is now leading the charge toward greater private segregation in the form of race and gender delineated safe spaces.
But it’s not like they’ve changed their views on private association rights more broadly. Consider the reaction to recent Facebook pages promoting campus “White Student Unions.” They used the same template as the social justice crowd and existing student unions for other ethnic groups, promising safe spaces for white students feeling the effects of the currently hostile campus environment. But unlike the other existing groups, the white groups were roundly and breathlessly denounced as racist regardless of whether the content of their pages or stated mission suggested any such intentions.
One such union’s founder, who isn’t even white, said he created the group to highlight and mock the “absurd nonsense of crybaby, race-obsessed college students, [by] using their tactics against them,” but after the vicious response has come to understand “that there might actually be some hostility to the thought that one might be proud of being of European descent.”
Thus does the inherent conflict in Leftist attitudes toward safe spaces and the seemingly similar right to association come into focus. What’s important is not individual rights,but special favors for the right groups.
A broad right to association is truly race and gender neutral, allowing all groups equal opportunities. But that’s not good enough for the Left. They want “marginalized groups” to have special status, granting them rights not afforded others.
Another word for applying rules differently based on race or gender in this fashion is “discrimination.”
Photo by Pablo Demetrio Scapinachis Armstrong/Getty Images
Brian Garst is an advocate for economic and individual liberty. He works as Director of Policy and Communications at the Center for Freedom & Prosperity, a free market think-tank dedicated to preserving tax competition. His writings have been published in major domestic and international papers, and he is a regular contributor for Cayman Financial Review. He also blogs at BrianGarst.com and you can find him on Twitter @BrianGarst.
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