I write neither to condemn nor justify safe spaces, microaggressions and trigger warnings. Both supporters and critics use these terms loosely, but what is clear is that they constitute the vernacular of contemporary student activism. To assess the merit of these concepts, we need to understand their history — an intellectual, social and geopolitical history that certainly did not begin with “coddled millennials.”
The most immediate explanation for the emergence of this discourse lies in the rise of post-structuralist thought in the late 20th century. When Yale students decry the “violence” in the retention of the name of Calhoun College, they are neither being hysterical nor abusing the word as a metaphor. Instead, they are relying on a set of axioms developed by leading intellectuals like Michel Foucault and Judith Butler in the 1980s and 1990s: that death is a process as well as a moment; that denying the conditions for life hastens death; that structural racism is one way of denying these conditions and that power manifests itself by privileging some lives over others. Regardless of whether one agrees with these premises, it is important to grapple with the intellectual history behind this framework, which few critics do.
This turn in the academy was itself an outgrowth of the social and cultural transformations of the 1960s and 1970s. Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce coined the term “microaggression” in 1970, against the lingering backdrop of the civil rights movement. Similarly, “safe spaces” arose through the advent of feminist separatism in the late 1960s, when consciousness-raising groups established bookstores, cooperatives and music festivals targeted exclusively at women and minorities. After the mid-1980s, anti-bullying and harassment groups appropriated the language of “safe spaces,” leading to its steady proliferation in the present. In this sense, the vocabulary of today’s student movements is not idiosyncratic to millennials, but represents an intergenerational conversation with activists of a certain vintage.
If the social sciences account for the origins of this dialect, political and economic events explain why rhetorical frameworks have waxed and waned. Just as the Vietnam War led the American Psychological Association to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder as a psychiatric condition in 1980, the Sept. 11 attacks revived trauma as a category of experience and analysis. For a generation which came of age in a post-9/11 world, where saying “bomb” in an airport can get you arrested, “trigger warnings” have become an attractive way of navigating what seems like a dangerous world. At a purely semantic level, it is not difficult to see why “safe spaces” seem legitimate — and “microaggressions” so threatening — in an age of terror.
In the same way, the term “privilege” has been in circulation since the mid-1960s, and used extensively by sociologists and theorists since the late 1980s. But the Great Recession of 2008, and the failure to realize a post-racial nation following President’s Obama election, finally thrust the term into mainstream parlance. Just as Black, Latino and Asian-American activists borrowed the language of decolonization from independence movements in the Third World, global disruption in the early 21st century has had a significant impact on the ostensibly parochial phenomenon of campus activism.
Cold War historians have argued that the student protests of the 1960s contributed to détente, containing the excesses of the Cold War. If they are right, today’s student activism might correspondingly rein in the excess of the War on Terror and War on Crime. For example, the language of “privilege” has been used to critique racial profiling as a policing technique, and the term “microaggression” has been used to call out Islamophobia.
But understanding these histories should also offer a cautionary tale for today’s student activism. Because its discourse is so self-referential, this vernacular is an elite construct that can alienate publics outside the academy. By contrast, reactionary tropes — including the coddled crybaby and the social justice warrior — have gained widespread traction, however crude they might be. As the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump have shown us, it is important that campaigners seize the center by articulating arguments with widespread appeal.
My own intuition is that there is a sense of exhaustion — on all sides — with the language of the contemporary student left. The goals of equality and justice are noble and unwavering, but the language used in its service must evolve.
Jun Yan Chua is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .