On Safe Spaces

“So if someone tells us it is just to give to each what he is owed, and understands by this that a just man should harm his enemies and benefit his friends, the one who says it is not wise. I mean, what he says is not true. For it has become clear to us that it is never just to harm anyone.” Plato, Rep. I. 335e1-5

Amidst the Facebook maelstrom that accompanied the rather thoughtful and sharply precise letter sent by Dean Ellison of the University of Chicago, it was little-remarked that Plato’s Republic – the cornerstone of the Western political-philosophical tradition, a formative text for many undergraduates and professors here – begins with the violent establishment of an intellectual safe space. Indeed, Plato’s larger dialogical-philosophical project can be read as a thorough, culture-defining attempt to think through, to dramatise and vividly stage for his theatre-obsessed polis the simple question: what makes for a good conversation about the truth? What makes a conversation real? Where is it that conversations come to an end? Why do they do so? In what kind of spaces do we feel free to think? With what kinds of interlocutors can we feel out the good? What jokes, stories, poems, songs, and images do we tell each other as we try to describe to one another the indescribable truth? What compels us to talk to one another about the things that matter most? What compels us to keep silent?

Plato’s dialogues are often set in lush wine-filled, couch-filled living rooms where old friends lounge lazily and delight unabashedly in each other’s company. They are all men. Oftentimes they seek out Socrates, or Socrates arrives unannounced and they are delighted to receive him, because their scene lacks that bit of verve that only a Socrates can bring. After all, what is a party without good chat? Why drink with one’s mates if one can’t talk about what it is to really be good, like not somewhat good, but really good? (My friends disagree with this. Nevertheless.) Socrates is guaranteed to bring the goods. The hosts often invite him to give them a lecture, to explain something once and for all – he is the philosopher, he must have the answers. After all, what do we pay him for if he doesn’t have the answers? Curiously, and fatefully for my own acquaintances, Socrates refuses to answer outright, but makes to ask them what they think. This makes for the interest, the hilarity, and the unmistakably living, breathing quality of all of Plato’s dialogues.

It is fascinating then, that the Republic, opens with a painfully awkward situation where this kind of playful conversation stops almost before it begins. Something violent intrudes upon this jovial camaraderie. The space becomes unsafe.

“Now, while we were speaking, Thrasymachus had tried many times to take over the discussion but was restrained by those sitting near him, who wanted to hear our argument to the end. When we paused after what I had just said, however, he could not keep quiet any longer: crouched up like a wild beast about to spring, he hurled himself at us as if to tear us to pieces. Polemarchus and I were frightened and flustered as he roared…” Plato, Rep. I. 336a11-b6

Socrates and the wealthy heir Polemarchus had come to agree that it can never be just to harm a fellow person. For a just person is someone who is good, and a good person would never do something to make someone worse off. Harming someone makes them worse off, therefore it can never be just to harm one’s enemies, because they are only harmed by it, not helped. This only established a negative condition: what justice is not. At the very least, justice does not consist in harm to others. At this rather minimal attempt to set a common ground for further discussion, Thrasymachus was seething. He had to be restrained. He could be restrained no more:

“What nonsense you two have been talking all this time, Socrates! Why do you act like naïve people, giving way to one another? If you really want to know what justice is, don’t just ask questions and then indulge your love of honour by refuting the answers. You know very well it is easier to ask questions than to answer them. Give an answer yourself and tell us what you say the just is. And don’t tell me it is the right, the beneficial, the profitable, the gainful, or the advantageous, but tell me clearly and exactly what you mean. For I won’t accept such nonsense from you.” Plato, Rep. I. 336c1-d3

How could this well-intentioned college-age student and this wandering philosophy prof be so idealistic and naïve? Don’t they know that true wisdom consists in clearly saying what one means and not giving way to another? How dare they spare their fragile egos by asking difficult questions and not offering straightforward answers? Are they not brave? Can they not take the risk of stating a claim and having it come under attack? Are they not tough? Resilient? Is this what we teach Athenian kids these days? To not speak clearly? To not speak boldly? How dare they try to say that goodness consists in a refusal to harm a fellow person? What do they know of the harsh realities of life outside the luxurious home of the wealthy Cephalus? Are they trying to retreat to an intellectual safe space where they can take shelter from ‘ideas and perspectives at odds with their own’? Just look at these pampered, micro-aggression obsessed, politically correct social justice warriors. All they do is ask difficult questions and say that to be good is to be empathetic to another’s pain. They don’t talk clearly and will never say exactly what they mean. Thrasymachus won’t have it, he won’t accept such nonsense any more. He’s so angry he might even write a letter.


“A bad environment is bad because by failure to adapt it becomes an impingement to which the psyche-soma (i.e. the infant) must react.” Winnicott, The Mind and its Relation to the Psycho-Soma

An alternative to this Thrasymachan philosophy of education can be found in D. W. Winnicott’s famous account of infancy. Working with children who were evacuated to bomb shelters during the Blitz, Winnicott discovered that the environments and spaces that the children found themselves in affected greatly how they might readjust to normal life with their parents. His first-hand experience of childhoods interrupted by war led him to develop a complicated picture of environmental adequacy and safety that remains germane in our search for what a safe-space pedagogy can mean: the good-enough mother.

For Winnicott, before the infant has a self; she is only her body and the successive feelings of aliveness and intention that she experiences in her body. It takes a fair amount of development to get to the point where the infant’s live body is “felt by the individual to form the core of the imaginative self”, with an inside and an outside; with the ability to tell the difference between thoughts and feelings internal to her body, and stimuli, objects, and people external to it. It takes time to develop a sense of one’s bodily individuality. Going from a succession of experiences and bodily feelings of aliveness to a whole self initially requires a perfect environment. This is an environment which “actively adapts to the needs of the newly formed-psyche soma”. This is the environment of Winnicott’s good-enough mother. The mother who cares naturally and ordinarily for her baby such that the baby never has to look after herself. The baby’s environment, the mother, is herself a bodily presence, collecting herself in her own body and experiencing feelings of aliveness – though the mother is much further along in the developmental process. For Winnicott, the development of one’s mind never really stops: we’re always temporally-bounded collections of our most immediate bodily sensations, intentions, and thoughts, constantly trying to hold ourselves together and letting ourselves go in better or worse environments.

A mother-infant relationship then consists in the healthy sustenance of the two very different sets of developmental needs. The infant has to ruthlessly, selfishly, and unconditionally make use of her mother to ensure her natural, continuous development. Through being kept warm, being bathed, being rocked, and named by the mother, the infant’s own natural tendency to integrate into a self is facilitated by her environment. The mother’s ordinary care and the infant’s own instinctual experience over time gather together the disparate, initially unconnected feelings that the infant has and slowly give her a dawning sense of “satisfactory personalization”. The mother too, needs the infant as a source of immense vitality, pleasure, and presence. But given the extreme disparity in self between the mother and baby; it’s key that the mother never allows her need for the infant to be felt as a need by the baby. All the baby should do is focus on herself. Initially, it has to be a ‘perfect’ environment: so good that it is not even felt as an environment at all. This is obviously a utopian vision: the baby might fall ill at a time, and might cry in terror and surprise at being alone, and so on. But with the consistent presence of a good-enough environment, the baby’s ability to fold her body and mind together into a workable self will improve and slowly those environmental storms will come to be seen as what they are: the manifestations of an objective, usable, inviting external reality.

A depressed mother – or the threatening environment of a bomb shelter – drastically changes the infant’s relationship with the world.  The healthy relationship is reversed. Where the world previously provided the infant with the stability and confidence to experience her bodily and psychic aliveness and visceral intensity and hold them together for lengths of time, now the world demands that the baby hold it together. Instead of discovering and engaging, the baby starts to comply. Experiencing a depressed mother; the infant starts to make ‘false reparations’; the self that the infant organises is no longer her own but one that keeps her mother together. The child becomes lively, not anymore to engage in play with her environment, but rather to hold in place her mother’s precarious happiness. A false self emerges, organised around keeping at bay the depressive energies of the environment around and successfully forestalling the child’s project of discovering a true, natural individuality based on their own capacity for play. The child becomes reactive, constantly looking around to see what her mother might need to hear, to see, so that the latter can feel reassurance and vital love from her baby. The child becomes so good at looking after the mother that she forgets what it is to experience guilt and depression for herself. The child is always second-guessing her own wishes through the wishes she experiences the environment as demanding her. The child’s project of a true self never gets going.

Depressed mothers and, most charitably read, unsympathetic university administrators make for a fraught comparison. What they share is the structure of the demands they make upon the individuals who have to make a home in their respective environments. For instance, a black student on campus facing thinly veiled bigotry in a seminar room is no longer allowed to be selfish and ruthless in her pursuit of knowledge, she now has to react (a not unusual occurrence in my experience, and reported anecdotally here). Socrates would remind us that she has been subject to a harm that will make her worse off. She has to decide how to perform the experience of the harm such that the classroom can continue functioning – as if nothing happened. She has to now decide over and over, week after week, on whether she should hold her tongue and acquiesce to the demand that her environment is making: don’t experience this harm, keep the seminar ticking over. Her individuality and pleasure in the classroom is lost; now it seems to her that the classroom is merely taking pleasure or sustenance from her compliance. Maybe this is what a UChicago education consists in? Learning to live in the real world where others’ demands to speak freely, even to speak their bigotry freely, outweigh one’s wish to learn and live freely?

This should not be what class should feel like. A class should not be a depressive environment taking more from its individuals than they are getting from it. A class should not inculcate in its individuals a habit of complying to coercion but rather it should allow its students the consistency, stability, and freedom that comes from a loving environment. A safe space.


A certain group of readers will no doubt be pleased with this turn in this essay. Aha! The author admits that millennial college students today are infants. He practically said so himself! They can barely hold their own for five days when mommy and daddy drop them off at campus in orientation week, and now they’re crying to administrators about microaggressions and trigger warnings. What liberal babies. Literal babies.

I am fascinated by the use of ‘infant’ and ‘infantilisation’ as the go-to term for describing the problem with kids these days. There’s something about infancy that is downright unacceptable and quite satisfyingly hilarious to those who are unhappy with the state of today’s youth. Kids these days are too lazy, too entitled, too particular, too sensitive. Too dependent. There is a phobic quality to this line of parody. What is projected to children is an unhealthy dependence, as if to ask something of someone else is already to be doing too much. What’s underlying this is a rather compelling masculine fantasy of independence and pluripotent individual strength in the face of hardship. Do those who complain about entitled children on college campuses not call their mothers when they’re feeling down? Wouldn’t they leave their own children with a secure financial footing to navigate a historically depressed job market? A trust fund perhaps?


 “Is the body of the man waking from a spell nothing more than a shadow? He at least runs the risk of this being so if he gives up those recollections of the mother and the womb. If he seeks to banish his “fantasies” of origin and to abort his own beginnings, his own story. Don’t you think that, having been foolish (aphron), he risks becoming demented (paranous)?” Irigaray, Plato’s Hystera.

For our attempt to discern the vision of the good that safe-spaces advocates propose and the vision of the good of their opponents suggest, it is perhaps the work of the feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray that can most clearly mark the contrast. For Irigaray, the infamous Cave in Plato’s Republic represents the womb that every real male philosopher must completely excise and forget to complete his journey from darkness into light. All relations to one’s childhood and one’s childhood dependence on others must be annihilated violently. For these were experienced when one could not tell between the truth and falsehood – as Socrates tells Cephalus in book I of the text. Irigaray suggests that for Socrates, to be a true philosopher is to abort one’s own beginnings and be ready to give birth to one’s true self – without a motherly devotion to a shoddy past. It is to forget one’s childhood illusions, even if those illusions might sustain the basis of a healthy relationship with one’s pleasures. It is to blind oneself to one’s past – to make the past outright inaccessible – to allow for a luminous, self-evident future.

Irigaray suggests that this creation of a masculine Truth effaces feminine difference. And by effacing feminine difference, I’d like to add that it effaces an approach to understanding the nature of education that we would do well to keep in mind when thinking about safe spaces and trigger warnings on the college campus: a pedagogy of motherhood. One needn’t be a woman to understand its salience. The Father of Western Philosophy, Socrates had seen clearly how harm is fundamentally bad for a person and must be limited as much as reasonably possible to ensure a suitable environment for learning. Winnicott, another man interested in learning from mothers the secret to human happiness, added that true selfishness and individuality is only possible if the environment doesn’t demand compliance and false performance from its subjects to make up for its own shortfalls, but rather invites them to play and discover themselves in it.

Advocates for safe spaces are by and large arguing that pedagogical environments as they are, are structurally harmful many of their constituents. This harm has deep systemic, social, cultural, and historic roots: racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia have a long history in our culture. What they wish for us to imagine is a kind of classroom where these harms when enacted (whether they are germane to the topic of conversation or not is another issue entirely) are firmly addressed, and the environment as a whole makes true restitution to the hurt individual. This isn’t hard. We apologize to our loved ones all the time.

Any meaningful collective human endeavour begins and ends on the safety and security it accords to its individual members. It is undeniable that the distribution of this safety might often be imparted unequally, and some will have to act as guardians for others. This need not be the case. A classroom where each is concerned for the other’s safety enriches the individuality of those collectively harmed by society. Conveniently, this also enriches the individuality of those who learn what it means to care for a different person. Empathy is a positive-sum game.




Dear Class of 2020:


Welcome and congratulations on your decision to join the University of Chicago. We look forward to seeing you on campus in a few weeks. Let’s read Plato together.


Dean of Campus Vibes,

Uday Jain



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Filed under Culture, Literature, Politics, Uncategorized, US Politics

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