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DAVIS | The Weaponization of Safe Space


In the news lately, we have witnessed the rise of a political movement based not on facts and logical demands, but emotion. Some members of this movement certainly have noble intentions: they seek to “protect” those they deem “vulnerable.” But they have chosen to do this in a way which infringes on the freedom of others, all in the name of creating a “safe space” for themselves and others like them.

I am talking, of course, about the anti-refugee backlash in the wake of the recent terror attack in Paris.

Of course much has also been made lately about those other “safe spaces” so many campus activists seek their creation as places where marginalized students can seek refuge from racism, classism, homophobia and various other forms of bigotry. This concept has fallen under particular scrutiny recently due to the protests that have sprung up at college campuses throughout the United States, from Yale to Missouri to just down the road at Ithaca College. In a piece for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf claims that the “safe space” has been “weaponized,” citing an incident at the University of Missouri in which protesters mobbed a press photographer, shoving him out of the way and preventing him from exercising his right to take pictures in a public space.

The idea that freedom and liberalism are under attack has become a popular claim of critics of the recent protests. Another favorite trope is that of the “overly sensitive” college student who is acting out of pure fear and emotion instead of real rational thought.

At this point we should turn back to the recent anti-refugee backlash, because those two tropes which are so often thrown out to discredit demonstrations on college campuses apply all too well to this movement too. Acting out of emotion and fear? I don’t know a better example of this than the xenophobic reaction that inevitably follows every Islamist terror attack perpetrated in a Western nation. The reaction this time is a particularly egregious example: despite the fact that it has yet to be confirmed that a single Paris attacker was a refugee and that entrance to the United States as a refugee would be far from the easiest way for a potential terrorist to enter our country, reactionaries have immediately seized on the opportunity presented by the attack to push an anti-refugee agenda. As time has gone by following the attack, they have certainly tried to use (usually poor) logical arguments to defend their position on the refugee crisis. But no matter how you look at it, the fact remains that this backlash was triggered by emotion and fear in the wake of an attack that had little to nothing to do with Syrian refugees and is sustained largely by those same petty and dangerous emotions.

And what of the claim levied against recent student protests that “freedom” is under attack? This claim is even easier to apply to the anti-refugee reaction. Those who have raised their voices the loudest in the wake of the Paris attack stand ready to deny the most basic freedoms — to live in safety and with dignity — to thousands of people. If denying a cameraman his right to document an event in a public area in order to protect your safe space is a troublesome attack on freedom, denying thousands of refugees their right to live in order to protect your safe space is downright terrifying.

The anti-refugee movement is just one example of a tendency to shun those unlike us based on our fear of the other. Just look at the Trump campaign and its strategy of stirring up a white, middle-American victimhood complex in order to mobilize it against some imagined invasion of Mexican migrants. Trump and his followers even want a physical wall to protect us — to protect our safe space, that is. And a quick examination of Europe shows that we’re not alone in the West when it comes to these xenophobic tendencies. In Poland, for instance, far-right fear and anger against refugees even feeds into anti-Semitic paranoia about some internationalist plot to undermine the nation. For those Polish demonstrators, the nation must be ethnically and religiously homogenous, and the “true” Poles are “threatened” by anything but such homogeneity. Meanwhile, many other European nations have seen a surge of right-wing populist movements, such as PEGIDA in Germany or the National Front in France, which rely largely on the fear of immigrants to mobilize their bases.

Conor Friedersdorf wants to lament the weaponization of the safe space when he looks at recent protests on college campuses. Fair enough in the case of the incident he cites; I certainly won’t be an apologist for the use of force to attack the freedom of the press. But right now I can think of no greater weaponized safe space than the modern Western nation-state, which defends its homogeneity against the feared “others” with walls and guns.  

None of this is meant to shield campus protests from healthy criticism, as this would be its own kind of infantilization, and would benefit neither those movements nor society as a whole. Instead, we should always push against irrational and freedom-limiting tendencies, whether they represent human flaws in noble movements or dangerous tendencies in fundamentally wrong-headed movements.

But it’s worth remembering that when student activists act brashly or out of emotion, it makes people feel uncomfortable or, at worst, makes someone powerful and affluent lose his or her job. When our government officials act brashly or out of emotion, it puts thousands of the most vulnerable lives in danger. If all of those who have spoken out against the actions of American student activists truly care about rational thought and freedom, it is time for them to speak even more loudly against the actions of our politicians who seek to shun refugees.

Adam Davis is a sophomore studying Industrial and Labor Relations with minors in history and Spanish. He blogs about politics, ideas and current events. Adam’s posts appear on alternate Mondays this semester. He can be reached at

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  • There is NOTHING xenophobic about not wanting these refugees to come to the United States. The U.S. takes in tens of thousands of immigrants every single year. We take in a huge number of refugees every year. This has absolutely nothing to do with xenophobia.

    There is no proper way to vet these people. No, we’re not worried about the orphaned kids. We’re worried about the 13-30 year-olds with no backgrounds. So we’ll take their fingerprints. So what? There’s nothing to run it against. So we’ll ask for their names and passports. So what? Those can be faked and bought, as one was in the Paris attacks.

    We MUST protect the homeland. There is not a single person out there who is saying that all 10,000 refugees are terrorists. No one thinks all muslims are terrorists. No one thinks all Syrians all terrorists. But it only takes a few to cause some serious damage.

    And by the way, children grow up. The enemy uses children.

    Protect the homeland, first and foremost. Let the muslim countries in the Middle East take in the refugees.

  • Dear Adam,
    Easy to say, Adam, except neither you nor any of your fellow students at Cornell have had to pay taxes to support impoverished immigrants who have no interest in assimilating into American culture, and immigrants are not streaming into the Cornell dormitories causing crimes, disease and social problems either as they are in many of your parents’ communities back home.

    Both of these points are mature, responsible, reasoned concerns from American citizens with decades of experience helping to make their communities a better place to live for young people like you. I think you owe them a better hearing.

    And I would not be so quick to start calling people names either. That is shameful and unbecoming of a Cornellian. Perhaps as you stop by your hometown at Thanksgiving you should accuse your neighbors xenophobia based on- what- your book readings in English 101 and Sociology 102, from professors who haven’t had a real job their entire lives?

    My advice to you is to graduate, get a job in the real world, get married, buy a house, have a couple of kids, join a few civic organizations, and live a real life for a couple of decades. Then I’ll listen closely to your accusations of xeonphobia.


    Scared-of-their-shadow Republicans (and a few Democrats) are trying to block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. They must not be allowed to win for the following reasons.

    1) The situation reminds me of how our country turned away Jews who were trying to flee from Nazi Germany in the late 1930’s. Tens of thousands of Jews died because of our disgraceful behavior. Let us not repeat the same mistake twice.

    2) There are plenty of screening mechanisms in place to make sure Daesh operatives are not amongst the refugees. Peter Beinart writes in his Must-Read column

    “refugees can’t get into the country without an arduous screening process. As the Migration Policy Institute’s Kathleen Newland notes, the “refugee resettlement program is the least likely avenue for a terrorist to choose. Refugees who are selected for resettlement to the United States go through a painstaking, many-layered review before they are accepted. The FBI, Department of Homeland Security, State Department, and national intelligence agencies independently check refugees’ biometric data against security databases. The whole process typically takes 18-24 months, with high hurdles for security clearance.” The screening process for Syrian refugees is particularly grueling, so grueling, in fact, that since that country’s civil war broke out four years ago, only about 2,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted into the United States.”

    Elise Foley, Imigration & Politics Reporter at the Huffington Post, provides a detailed description of the procedure used to screen refugees before entering our country.

    3)If Syrian refugees are not allowed in here, and much of Europe adopts the same attitude, then where will they go? Turning the most desperate away is inhumane.

    4) We will be handing Daesh a great recruiting tool if we turn all refugees away.. Now they will be able to point to our rejection as an example of how we hate Muslims and encourage more to join them in a clash of civilizations. Here is Vice President Joe Biden describing how rejection of Syrian refugees helps ISIS.

    5) French President Francois Hollande pledged that France would take in 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years. He made this pledge after the Paris terror attacks. As an American, I am ashamed that the GOP (and a few Democrats) are making the U.S. look like cowards next to France.

    The French gave us the Statue of Liberty in 1886 to commemorate the French and American ideals of freedom and democracy. The following message by Emma Lazarus is part of a poem engraved in the Statue’s base

    “Give me your tired, your poor,

    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

    No doubt ISIS would love to blow up the Statue of Liberty. The Republicans, and a few cowardly Democrats, have effectively done that for them.

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