Identity Politics on Campus and the Danger of the “Safe Space”

Institutions of higher learning today emphatically place themselves on the frontlines of the battle for political correctness. “Trigger warnings” are attached to nearly everything that could potentially offend or distress, and often perspectives judged to be too objectionable are banned altogether. Student protest movements have been highly successful in blocking views conflicting with those held by the general population from campus political discourse.

University of California, Irvine recently caused a stir when the legislative branch of its student government passed a resolution to remove all flags, including the American flag, from the Associated Students’ main lobby. The intention of the resolution was to allow for students of all cultures and ethnic backgrounds to feel safe participating in campus politics. The legislative council members reasoned that “flags construct paradigms of conformity,” and that “people are assimilated into national identities by deployment of this cultural artifact.” They contended that as the American flag is a symbol that many may have come to equate with colonialism and imperialism, the “entire spectrum of its interpretation” must be considered when deciding if its display is appropriate in certain areas. In sum, the movement was passed because the council felt that flags might be triggers for such a large percentage of the student body that political procedures could be hindered.

Though the resolution was vetoed and the star-spangled banner still hangs in the lobby, quite a bit of backlash has ensued, followed by a wave of support for the legislative council members.  At the height of the dispute’s intensity, multiple council meetings had to be cancelled on account of an unspecified threat. While it is certainly commendable that the legislative council members recognized that national symbols mean different things for different people, and made an effort to design an open area in which no symbol would act as an obstacle to public conversation, this episode is an example of the state of crisis that the relationship between politics and identity in America has fallen into. Were they correct in their assumption that the removal of all concrete emblems of ethnic identity could help set the stage for true cross-cultural exchange? 

...the debate carries deeper implications than this simple feud may suggest.

If only it were so simple. So far, reflections on this particular incident have largely centered on the disagreement between those who are appalled at the idea of banning the American flag anywhere on American soil and those concerned with widespread political accessibility. However, the debate carries deeper implications than this simple feud may suggest. It is not solely a matter of removing the trigger that flags may be, given that occasionally countries employ unethical practices. The UC Irvine legislative council has dived headfirst into the murky waters of identity politics.

By definition, the term “identity politics” signifies the practice of conceptualizing one’s essential personhood as being part of a category (ethnic or otherwise), and developing a politics that in every way reflects this, and fights for that category’s liberation. These groups are delineated by the dichotomy between the subjugated and the dominant- a sort of “bourgeoisie versus proletariat” dynamic, so to speak.  At first glance, this might seem a sensible, even natural, way to participate in the public square. Identity, experience, and participation in certain classifications all shape each other, so why is it risky to politic on these grounds?

The danger lies in the presupposition that students are defining themselves primarily as partakers in the social construction of their ethnicity. This is indicative of a larger problem; namely, that both the specificities of individual identities, as well as larger communal identities, are being smothered.  This occurs when groups mark themselves by the conflict with, and struggle for emancipation from, polarized “oppressor” groups. In this way, the identity one finds in these categories is reduced to how they have been built as the product of a historical process. By acting as an agent of these constructions, though their status may change from “ruled” to “ruling”, the underlying structures that created the polarity in the first place are perpetuated. Think: convection currents of marginalization.

Thus, by phrasing political issues in terms of the fight between villain and victim, motivation for thoroughly eliminating oppression itself is erased. What is being sought is not the end of social hierarchy, but rather acceptance into its upper levels. Ultimately, this can end up placing certain identities in competition with each other for the prize of an elevated social position. By promoting the idea that the essence of a group is its modern-day appearance, views are essentially being assigned to the students that comprise it. They are expected to act in a wholly unified way with the other members of their category, or risk being labeled an insurgent.

If we want to deconstruct social hierarchies and discrimination, first an understanding of how and why they have developed and a recognition that we are not intrinsically bound by them are necessary. Suppression of certain groups is indisputably the enemy. This is why it is not only inexpedient, but counteractive to identify ourselves the way the enemy tells us to, and to proceed under the terms it has laid out. By deeming all those outside one’s category “villains,” and delegitimizing their perspective on account of their perceived position of privilege, a monopoly on rationality is implied. In this way, rampant political correctness does more harm than good.

 In reality, there are two only-slightly-connected debates going on in regards to the UCI issue. The first is the most visible, in which “patriots” are sparring with those who believe an effective political forum must be warm and welcoming. The incident is indicative of the second debate, which is laid out in this article: the underlying discussion of whether the practice of identity politics is in line with liberal democratic ideals or not. The contemporary religion of political correctness, however, severely limits pluralistic discourse. The groundwork is not laid for valuable dialogue by insisting on “in-group/ out-group” methodology. In fact, the longer we succumb to the convenience of identifying with the social construction of certain aspects of our personhood, produced in the struggle with the dominant Other, the more difficult any real progress will become. The tendency to completely disregard the opinions of anyone that does not identify the way we do will shut down conversation before it begins.

Suppression is a large part of the connotation of many categorical labels. However, confusing it with the essence of a categorized Selfhood is problematic. Progress requires a dialectic, which necessarily entails a clash of unsterilized ideas, as well as the personal responsibility of seeking our ontology beyond the terms that society offers us. “Political correctness culture” only serves to dictate increasingly sanitized interactions. The public square is not meant to be “safe.” The civic duty is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, proper political discourse must cause a degree of inner turmoil, challenging perspectives and disputing assumptions. Otherwise, it is not worthwhile. As long as a politics of identity is allowed to prevail, dialogue will be stifled.  

- Tamsin Avra is currently studying Political Science at Gordon College.