Oh God, it’s graduation season. Can’t we pause this somehow? I just got done adjusting to the LAST graduating class entering the workforce and ruining everything. Can’t we put a five-year moratorium on graduations so that the rest of the world can take a breather? You’re all exhausting and terrible, and everything your graduation speaker told you about your hopes and dreams is a hilarious lie. The only reason your average celeb grad speaker is fired up about the world is because they’re in the .0001% of the population that actually made it. They are fucking AGLOW, and have every reason to be.
But you? Statistically speaking, you are fucked. You’ll come charging out of graduation, ready to make some awesome shit happen. And then you’ll get a job, and then it’ll turn out your boss is a mean dickhead, but you can’t quit because you need the money to pay off your loans, and then you’ll eventually trade in all your ambitions for Happy Hour. You will settle. That’s how it works. Take it from me. You’ll probably live to witness the literal end of the world. Antarctica will be a lake by the time you’re 50. Be sure to take pictures.
I know you think you’ll make a difference, because college is a big, elaborate con designed to take your money and leave you in ruinous debt while, at the same time, isolating you in a bubble of naïve self-delusion, building you up until you think you’re some kind of revolutionary intellectual, only to send you out into the real world woefully unprepared.
You’ve been hearing a lot about “safe spaces” lately, an idea borne out of Los Angeles’s gay subculture back in the 1960s (safe spaces were places where closeted gay people could be out freely, i.e. gay bars) that has since been co-opted by higher education for the purpose of shielding students from general intolerance, most visibly at the University of Missouri earlier this fall. And while Mizzou was dealing with a very real and ongoing problem with racism, you know that at other places, students and faculty have developed a wildly vast catalog of what constitutes intolerant behavior, often to the point of ludicrousness. There’s more than enough here to roll your eyes at.
Of course, political correctness has been a source of pearl-clutching for decades now. They made a whole stupid movie about it when I was in high school, for crying out loud. Liberal college students and faculty have ALWAYS been insufferable. But what makes the place we’re in now different is the backlash to safe-spacers, a backlash that encompasses a far, far larger number of people. “Safe spaces” have now been seized by columnists and former Red Sox pitchers alike, and used as a way to belittle specific targets (i.e. women, people of color) while conjuring a mythical PC bogeyman—a fire alarm signaling to the rest of ’MURICA that the PC BRO LIBERALS are gonna come throw you in jail for saying something problematic.
Of course, this backlash over safe spaces is mostly just an excuse for assholes—many of whom have no need to ever step foot on a college campus—to continue being assholes. For them, that term is now used as a taunt instead of a plea. (“BRO SORRY I INVADED YOUR ‘SAFE SPACE’ BRO BUT YOU’RE A PUSSY.”) And yet you, fair graduate, are hatching from your little college pupa just in time to witness a national struggle over these metaphorical safe spaces, a fight to establish where the hard line is between being hurtful and being overly sensitive.
Bizarrely, this argument has somehow become the fulcrum of an entire presidential campaign, with one candidate amassing votes solely based on his willingness to mock the weak and the disenfranchised. More often than not, Donald Trump—a 200-pound, shit-filled melanoma—can dismiss criticism as political correctness and not only get away with it, but be CHEERED for it. He is chairman of the Take Party. Trolling is its own political movement now, the result of a violent overreaction to the sometimes absurd hysteria of college students, along with the tiresome habit many digital-media types have of parsing every word of everything in search of disapproval.
I’ve been blogging stupid blogs for roughly a decade now, and in that short time span alone, the culture has shifted dramatically. This kind of joke will not exist anymore:
And the reason this joke will no longer exist is because, more and more, people who used to feel like they couldn’t speak freely about being insulted now feel like they can. They aren’t afraid. They aren’t just going to accept every derogatory joke made at their expense. That’s a good thing. Little by little, everyone (including my sorry ass) is learning a bit more about how to be empathetic to people who are different from them.
But it’s remarkable how much some people—Twitter eggs and Facebook uncles who bitch about their freedom of speech being corrupted because other people had the gall to exercise theirs—really want to hang onto their gay jokes. And so now there is a fight between a relatively small number of people arguing for safe spaces—on campus and online and wherever else there’s bound to be discourse—and a larger number of people who want their own asshole safe space away from those safe spaces, a place to crack all the tawdry, outdated ethnic jokes they like without suffering the relatively minor consequence of being criticized for it.
I would like to resolve this conflict. It’s a stupid and futile gesture, to be certain, but my career has long been based on writing tirades that have absolutely zero net effect on the resulting behavior of the general population. Let it be resolved here that the real world is hurtful place, and you will need thick skin for it. You will never make it through life without hearing something awful—especially, and unfairly, if you happen to be a woman or a person of color. You are not safe, be it mentally or even physically (because everyone in America has a fucking gun). There are no safe spaces for anyone, with the exception of the following:
1. The toilet. No one is allowed to breach the toilet stall while you’re in there. We ALL agree on that. And if you open up your phone while taking a shit and find that someone has violated your safe space while you’re in the bathroom, that’s on you for willfully interrupting your own blissful bowel movement.
2. A dark closet. No one will ever know you’re in there. You can hide for as long as you like, or until you get hungry. Sometimes I play hide-and-seek with my kids and the two minutes I hide in a dark closet are the most relaxing part of my day. It’s a meditative place.
3. An empty church. If you go on vacation somewhere and there’s a pretty cathedral open to all comers, and no one’s inside because it’s a Tuesday? That’s safe as hell. Take a seat in one of the pews and pretend you’re in a spy movie, asking God to redeem you for all the nefarious warlords you’ve assassinated. It’s wonderful.
4. Under the covers. (grabs flashlight, opens comic book) This is so cool. No one else is even awake right now.
5. A library. My local library has an adults-only area (it’s not what you think) where grownups can work at study carrels in absolute silence. It is a safe space WITHIN a safe space. Anyone who talks in this room gets pepper sprayed. I give it five stars.
7. A literal safe.
That’s the list. As you can see, it’s not terribly extensive. Only a microscopic fraction of the planet’s surface will shelter you from people ready cut you down. One of the most infuriating things about this year has been the legitimization of anger …the now-cursory bone that politicians and the media alike throw to Trump voters to soothe them and excuse their idiocy. “Well, you see, they’re angry.” As if anger itself is a form of validation, a reason to justify saying or doing anything that is dumb and hurtful. It isn’t. Anger isn’t a cause, and surrendering to it is never productive, whether you have a legit grievance (the water crisis in Flint) or a stupid one (“The Ghostbusters are all girls now!”). It’s difficult now to wade through the culture at large without getting caught up among people who want you to know how pissed they are, and how the world has wronged them. They’re unavoidable out here.
What gets lost in all of this is the fundamental idea of decency. The kind of people who want to claim a public park as a safe space are, in the end, annoying because they’re trying to mandate decency, and to do so within sometimes unreasonable boundaries that they’ve defined. This implies that they don’t trust people enough to think they’ll be decent without being ordered to be so. They’re hunting for malice. (It’s the flipside of the way thirsty assholes like this want to turn their decency into some kind of self-branding exercise.)
Meanwhile, Trump fanboys are annoying because they’re indecent and want to preserve their right to be. There’s an asymmetry to this—Trump voters are greater in number and usually worse—but even so, you can’t will other people into being decent. Decency is only genuine if it comes from within, and the way that usually happens is when people are, themselves, decent to you. And it certainly doesn’t come from some Facebook commenter shitting on you under the flimsy guise of tough love.
After you grab your diploma and go sleep off your hangover, the only thing you need to remember here is that you can make the world less hurtful in a very small and subtle way by being less hurtful yourself. I know that’s rich coming from me, given that I spend all day on the Internet yelling at everyone. (When I called all of you terrible earlier, I was TOTALLY joking.)
But out in the real world, it usually pays to not be an insensitive, judgmental prick. You can’t control the obnoxiousness of other people, and you’ll go insane if you try. But you can do your best to make everyone else feel comfortable and welcome. Just because the world is cruel doesn’t mean you have to be. You, good friend, can be the safe space, instead of being the person demanding one, or the person mocking the very idea. And that’s the key, because if the world still manages to self-immolate in the meantime, well then at least you’ll be able to witness the end of it with your dignity intact.