It seems that lately I’ve been hearing a lot about safe spaces and the overabundance of political correctness in this country. A lot about how thin-skinned people are today and how easily they become offended. Frustration with the PC culture and the feeling that safe spaces are an attempt to withdraw from hurtful words and ideas have led to a propensity for support of anyone willing to “speak their mind” and say how they really feel without holding back.
The problem is, a lot of those same folks who claim that they’re tired of PC culture and who rejected the notion of safe spaces seem to get offended pretty easily themselves. They seem to wish to turn this country into a safe space, more or less, where they don’t have to acknowledge ideas or truths they don’t want to acknowledge.
Take Colin Kaepernick’s choice to sit during the national anthem to draw attention to the oppression of minorities in America. First off, whatever you think about his choice, he had every right to do what he did. You also have every right to criticize him for that choice. It’s the First Amendment, do with it as you will, but just recognize that neither party is more right. The right to protest is protected just as much as the right to criticize protest.
But people aren’t criticizing his decision to protest, they are criticizing the grounds for his protest. Many Americans are saying that this protest is ridiculous and flies in the face of reality. They see no oppression in this country, and they think Kaepernick should rethink his actions and recognize how good he’s got it. He’s an NFL quarterback, for crying out loud. Here’s the problem with that. For one thing, we can’t decide for someone else if they are oppressed or how bad their situation is. It’s the epistemological privilege of the oppressed, those of us in a position of privilege simply lack the capacity to truly know the extent of oppression. We don’t get to tell someone when they can protest or how they can do it based on our own judgment of the situation.
Let me get back to the safe space idea though. Folks are angry because the America Colin Kaepernick is protesting isn’t the America they see. It’s not the America they want to see. They don’t want to acknowledge the legitimacy of his protest because it would acknowledge the legitimacy of his argument. They want to retreat from these ideas that run counter to their estimation of the greatness of this nation. We don’t want to hear that there’s another stanza of the Star Spangled Banner celebrating the death of slaves. We don’t want to hear about the African-American veterans who returned home from putting their lives on the line in defense of our flag (and in defense of the freedom we and Colin Kaepernick are exercising) in World War II only to find they still couldn’t use public restrooms. There are stories of soldiers getting off the bus in uniform after the war, and being jumped by gangs of white men. Yes, they defended our rights and freedoms, and then we didn’t even want to extend to them the freedom to use the bathroom (Look up Sen. Richard B. Russell of GA and his continued attempts to prevent integration in the military, and everywhere else actually).
The idea that we haven’t actually solved our race problem is offensive, the idea that our flag has stood (at times) in support of oppression is offensive. It’s uncomfortable. The whole idea of protest is to generate discomfort such that change becomes inevitable, but you have to open your eyes to recognize the reality. As long as we push aside claims of oppression in this country simply because we choose not to see, all we are doing is creating a self-imposed safe space of the worst sort which insulates our country from reality at the expense of lives and futures. That’s not protection from anything, that’s just denial. What’s happening is not a rejection of PC culture, it’s a hyper-appropriation of it in the service of protecting America from seeing itself for who it is, faults and all, and from attempting to better itself. From attempting to actually make America great again.