Self-Infantilization or Supportive Compromise? On the Controversy over Safe Spaces


JC Schildbach, LMHC

In her March 21 piece for the New York Times, “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas” Judith Shulevitz mocks, among other people and things, Brown University student Katherine Byron for setting up a “safe space” for students who might be “triggered” during a debate between Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy that was likely to include a discussion of rape culture.

Shulevitz reported that the safe space “room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” Nothing is said about why such items and personnel might have been present, or what the theory behind such a ‘safe room’ might be, other than Shulevitz’s own assumptions about how college students of today are over-parented and overly-sensitive.

Shulevitz goes on to say that, “Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.” Shulevitz does not provide anything other than anecdotal evidence about the alleged increasing prevalence of such a conviction.

On top of that, one major thing that gets lost in Shulevitz’s piece is that the debate between Valenti and McElroy went on. The ideas were not silenced. No speaker was banned.

Instead, Byron, and those who assisted her, offered a place where audience members could go if they became uncomfortable, not necessarily with the ideas being expressed, but with the content of the discussion, which presumably included descriptions of how rape is depicted in popular culture, as well as how rape and rape victims are treated in the news media, by law enforcement, and in other areas of their lives.  The safe room was established by the Sexual Assault Task Force, first and foremost, to afford a safe space for trauma victims–not a refuge from ideas.

All the comfort of the joys of childhood...

All the comfort of the joys of childhood…

Perhaps Shulevitz’ mocking of the “safe spaces” is particularly disappointing because she has written other pieces on trauma and its impacts, most notably, a November piece in The New Republic, called “The Science of Suffering” which explored research into how PTSD can potentially be transmitted from generation to generation.  In it, Shulevitz includes this succinct and powerful description of PTSD:

Provoke a person with PTSD, and her heart pounds faster, her startle reflex is exaggerated, she sweats, her mind races. The amygdala, which detects threats and releases the emotions associated with memories, whirs in overdrive. Meanwhile, hormones and neurotransmitters don’t always flow as they should, leaving the immune system underregulated. The result can be the kind of over-inflammation associated with chronic disease, including arthritis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Moreover, agitated nervous systems release adrenaline and catecholamines, both involved in the fight or flight response, unleashing a cascade of events that reinforces the effects of traumatic memories on the brain.

Shulevitz’s New Republic article describes research into, among others, Cambodian refugees who suffered through brutal conditions of war. And maybe this is where Shulevitz’ disconnect arises: her inability to see how a sexual assault in the modern-day USA could lead to similar forms of psychological and physical response as living through a years-long period of war somewhere else in the world.

But PTSD just as powerful as that experienced by those who have been through war can arise out of a sexual assault or rape. PTSD is not measured and assigned on some scale where those who experienced the longest, and arguably worst, trauma have the ‘most’ or most severe PTSD.

Complaining of the “self-infantilization” (a term Shulevitz credits to Judith Shapiro) demonstrated by things like the Brown University safe room, Shulevitz also neglects to explore other potential psychological issues stemming from sexual assault, particularly for those who were assaulted repeatedly at a young age. To be clear, I am not assigning a specific causal relationship here (i.e., if this happens, then that is the result, and/or, because a person exhibits this behavior, this particular thing has happened to them) but issues such as Borderline Personality Disorder are often tied to a history of having been sexually traumatized.

Strangely enough, complications associated with Borderline Personality Disorder can include shortcomings in one’s ability to develop into an emotionally mature adult.  Along with the repeated hospitalizations, there are frequently tendencies toward anxiety and overreaction to stimuli, impulsivity, fear of abandonment, hostility and perceptions that one is being personally attacked, and difficulties in forming long-term, stable relationships—issues which might, along with PTSD symptoms, be addressed (at least in the immediate sense of a perceived threat) by the “safe room” tactics that Byron deployed.

Rather than exploring the potentially positive effects of the safe room, though, Shulevitz instead uses it, and other alleged examples of “hypersensitivity” at universities, as evidence that today’s college students aren’t tough enough to handle the real world, and that today’s parents are coddling their children too much. But ongoing PTSD, personality disorders, and other psychological manifestations of trauma are not the result of overly-attentive parenting—and are more likely to be exacerbated by the opposite—a lack of attentiveness and support by those who should be providing it.

Still, Shulevitz pats herself and her peer group on the back for being much “hardier souls” than today’s college students–which includes an explanation that, in her day, college students only censored speakers for the right reasons. She writes, “I’m old enough to remember a time when college students objected to providing a platform to certain speakers because they were deemed politically unacceptable.” Shulevitz isn’t particularly clear on how “politically unacceptable” is markedly different from ‘ideas that make some people uncomfortable.’

Perhaps this is a good time to reiterate that Byron and her Sexual Assault Task Force didn’t actually stop anybody from speaking at Brown, but set up a space, off to the side, out of concern for those who might be interested in hearing the debate, but weren’t too confident that they would respond well to it. If anything, it represents a form of compromise much more than a form of censorship.

So maybe the safe room isn’t the perfect answer. Maybe it seems funny and easy to mock as a form of “self-infantilization,” particularly to those who aren’t all that interested in finding out what it’s supposed to mean or accomplish—those people who, as Shulevitz puts it, haven’t learned “the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.”

Then again, maybe today’s college students aren’t really that different from past generations of college students—and are just exploring different ways of addressing concerns that didn’t exist in the past—or, rather, were ignored in the past.

Because heaven knows, none of us from older generations ever did anything questionable while we were in college, or came up with ideas that older generations might mock, as we tried, in an atmosphere of rapidly evolving technology, culture, and scientific understanding, to navigate a complicated passage into adulthood.

A Largely Uninformed Screed in Support(ish) of DSM-5

“That book would be like my heart and me / Dedicated to you”

                                                 –Zaret/Chaplin/Cahn, Johnny Hartman, Ella Fitzgerald, etc.

“It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools”

–My eighth-grade shop teacher (although he probably stole it from somebody)

Depending on what source you consult, it’s either already out or will be out later this week, but the controversy over DSM 5 (and, yes, it’s Arabic number 5, not Roman numeral V, lest people get confused and think the APA is trying to cash in on publishing trends with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – Vampire Edition, soon to be followed by Werewolf, Xenomorph, Yeti, and Zombie editions) is already in full swing.  And regardless of its release date, the window wherein (wherethrough?) I can lob opinions and then claim ignorance of the source material as a means of justifying my eventually-recanted opinions is rapidly closing.

One of the main criticisms of DSM-5 is that it is entirely too influenced by pharmaceutical companies, leading it to be nothing more than a prescriber’s guide to rapid labeling of potentially non-existent mental illnesses, thereby justifying the distribution of medications to people who don’t really need them.  Something that people who make this argument often forget to address, though, is that the DSM-5 (and previous editions) also serves the purpose of providing a coding system so insurance companies have confusing numbers rather than actual explanations to use on the forms they mail out when they deny coverage for those medications.  The real test of your mental health care, then, becomes how good your doctor’s office is at submitting the right codes to ensure that you won’t have to pay too much for the medications you probably don’t need, and whether or not your doctor will give you whatever medications you try to convince her/him to give you based on something you saw in a commercial.

My cynical rejoinder to the above claim is: “No shit–the same basic process happened with medical health care. Why did you think it wouldn’t happen with mental health care?  And, really, why didn’t you realize that the pharmaceutical companies already largely instituted that process even without DSM-5?”

My completely naïve and hope-filled response to the above argument is:  “Well, actually, the DSM-5 (as with previous editions) is a tool intended to be used by professionals who are trained in mental health care, and who realize that, except in a relatively small number of very serious mental illnesses, pills are not going to function as the primary means of addressing those issues.  In the hands of these professionals, a diagnosis is more a means of trying to identify what is at the core of a person’s mental health needs, so there can be a common language to use when trying to figure out what kind of strategies might help the clients—only one of said strategies being the use of medications.”

But let’s be clear about a few things.  First, the majority of people working in the mental health field are NOT trained, qualified, or legally allowed to prescribe medications.  They fall into various categories of counselors, therapists, treatment providers, and social workers.  They are the ones who try to address mental health issues not with a pill, but through a complicated process of human interaction (ridiculous, I know, but I read somewhere that it can actually work).  Secondly, and perhaps more important to the current criticism of pharmaceuticals/pharmaceutical companies, the vast majority of people prescribing medications for mental health reasons are NOT adequately trained in mental health.  Arguably, most uses of medications to deal with mental health issues already involve a kind of crapshoot as to whether the medications will be effective, in what doses, and for how long.  And yet we compound this uncertainty by having primary care physicians, who, for example, see patients for eight minutes every three months, try to keep up with changes in patients’ mental health status by ‘tweaking’ said patients’ medications.

To be sure, DSM-5 is flawed, just as DSM-IV (that’s 4, not intravenous) is flawed, although perhaps in different directions.  I am not suggesting everyone in the mental health field fall in lockstep and adhere blindly to whatever is laid out in DSM-5.  But like every professional in every field knows (or should know), you use the tools you have, but with a critical eye, and a knowledge of the tools’ limitations.