Thursday, September 1, 2016

Old Punks and Safe Spaces

There has been a lot of back-and-forth lately about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” in academia. One side (typified by the recent acceptance letters sent out by the University of Chicago) views safe spaces and trigger warnings (which are distinct but not unrelated practices) as threats to free speech, academic inquiry, and the development of critical thinking in students. (If this sounds familiar, these are much the same terms by which “political correctness” was being attacked when I entered Sarah Lawrence College 25 years ago…) On the other side are those who argue that this caricature misconstrues practices that actually encourage discourse by making the classroom more accessible to all. I tend to side with the latter position, at least in terms of the intent, although I suspect in practice the truth may lie somewhere in between.

But I want to talk about a different kind of safe space, something that has shaped how I conduct my classroom:

The mosh pit.

For those unfamiliar, a mosh pit is a region near the stage at punk shows (originally, at least), where members of the audience dance by colliding into one another, usually in a generally circular flow. (Nobody actually uses the term “slam dance,” but that’s the basic idea.)

How on earth can a bunch of sweaty punks running into each other be considered a “safe space”? Well, while the pit might look like complete chaos from the outside, it isn’t a fight and it isn’t a free-for-all. There are rules (or, at least, there were supposed to be). You don’t go into the pit looking to hurt other people (or yourself). You go in to be part of the community. It is difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but mosh pits are places of love. Yes, you can get hurt. It isn’t free from danger, but it is (ideally) free of malice. You know you are surrounded by—literally connected to—people who are your friends. That big dude who knocks you over will pull you back up with a smile and hug you, even if he’s never seen you before. If somebody is hurt, or wants out of the pit, a space opens up and they are swept into safety. Nobody is in the pit against their will, and as long as you’re not being a dick, everyone in the pit is looking out for you.

(It is worth noting that while this account of the pit may be colored by many decades of nostalgia, but I briefly threw my middle-aged carcass into the pit at a show last weekend, and the experience was much the same. I hugged more people during two songs than I have in two months.)

And this is how I think classrooms should operate. Education is not without risk. Your ideas will be challenged, your sense of how things are can get knocked around, you will be confronted with things that make you uncomfortable, or angry, or sad. Which is why it needs to happen in an environment where you have zero doubt that you are surrounded by friends. The person who knocks your ideas over should be the first one to help you back up. No student should ever feel attacked, even if they do get metaphorically bruised or battered. That requires trust and loyalty and love. And occasionally a big scary bouncer to step in and make sure one person isn’t ruining everybody else’s fun by ignoring their commitment to the community. 

(Did I mention I used to be a bouncer? To this day, if I stand outside a bar, people try to show me their ID…)

My point is that being safe isn’t about being free from danger. We’re never free from danger. Being safe is about being surrounded by people who care about you as a human being, who are on your side, and who will face the danger with you. In mosh pits, people voluntarily subject themselves to something scary, because when they come out of it (relatively) unscathed, they feel all the safer for the bonds they have forged with those who shared the risk. We can do that intellectually, too.

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