In order to demonstrate the genuinely fascist tendencies of the hard left—and because I found the whole situation hilarious—I posted to Facebook a picture of an Antifa flyer that bears my face, my position on the board of Columbia University College Republicans, and a vile tweet by Mike Cernovich, whom CUCR invited to speak at Columbia a few weeks ago. At the bottom of the page, the flyer encourages anyone who sees me to “let Joey know what you think.”
In the comments, many of my friends expressed their consternation at what they perceived as an overstep. While I personally found the flyer and its accompanying video (set to some delightful antifascist German death metal) amusing, and while I even endorsed it for potentially fostering some spontaneous dialogue, other targeted CUCR board members felt extremely uncomfortable.
A few days later, another Facebook friend of mine replied to the sympathetic comments, “I am confused why most of the people in this comment section are angry or disappointed about the poster.” He continued, “it kinda sounds like [you] are asking for a safe space.”
I balked at the suggestion that I or any other self-respecting conservative might even consider the idea of a safe space. But after some thought, I soon realized he actually made a good point. Yes—campus conservatives do want and deserve a safe-space. This sounds like heresy, I know; let me explain.
National Review Online editor Charlie Cooke correctly addressed the onslaught of calls for safe spaces in recent years: “there is no case whatsoever for turning the entire [university] over to a particular set of ideological presumptions and for punishing or excluding those who decline to acquiesce.” Having said that, there is a case to be made for some spaces which might be called “safe,” (erroneous conflations of intellectual and physical concepts aside), and it is a case to be made not in opposition to, but in the interest of free speech.
The problem with these flyers is that they force political debate into personal spheres of life. Of course, conservatives deserve to bear criticism for the decisions they make through their club—especially controversial ones like inviting a provocateur such as Mike Cernovich to campus. But do they deserve to bear that criticism at all hours of the day? On the street? In the supermarket? In their own dorms?
However controversial the invited speakers may be, students ought to be able to lead at least part of their lives removed from politics. In order to live a healthy life, one needs a respite from the fray of campus debate, a place to step out, reflect, and depressurize. And this goes for radical leftist activists, as well; however much their absurd ideas merit challenge in the classroom and on the Internet, they are entitled to some relaxation, which at Columbia is often in short supply. If students are to bear the consequences of their protected speech every waking hour—as in the case of these individually targeted flyers—the personal cost of that speech becomes so high that it effectively limits freedom of speech.
Conservatives (or anyone interested in a free society, really) do not object to safe spaces in and of themselves, but to the location in which safe spaces are increasingly demanded. That is, we object to the sterilization of spheres of academic life that have traditionally been reserved for rigorous debate. We are skeptical of black, queer, and other identity groups’ demanding safe spaces (and an accompanying reallocation of resources) simply on the basis of their “marginalized status.” It would be nothing short of absurd to divvy up scarce university spaces into exclusive student lounges. The university’s public forums should be the last place to fall to censorship, as no one forces these students into them; that is, college is entirely elective, but once enrolled, students may still step out into their dorms at any time.
And that is precisely the point. The classroom’s voluntary nature is what allows it to be such an uncompromisingly liberal—and therefore productive—environment. Even though the Columbia Black Students’ Organization protests “an attack on [their] existence” and “racial terror,” in truth, these students can go about their lives without interruption (or at least not from CUCR). And certainly, no one compels the BSO to sit through a lecture by Mike Cernovich, just as no one should have to bear protesters perpetually shouting into their homes with a bullhorn.
So, again, yes—we do want and deserve a safe space, if that’s what you’d like to call it—and you do, too. But it has everything to do with where.
Joseph Siegel is a sophomore studying philosophy and economics in Columbia College. In addition to serving on the boards of Columbia University College Republicans and Columbia Political Union, he performs jazz guitar with the Music Performance Program and with the Columbia Jazz House, where he resides.