My Word: Culturally challenged

The world seem to be heading backwards in the name of liberal progression.

UCLA campus  (photo credit: REUTERS)
UCLA campus
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Take this as a trigger warning. Or a smoking gun. I tried to explain the concept of “a safe space” to my 14-year-old son this week. I knew it wasn’t going well when he stopped rolling his eyes and progressed to face-palming, finally rocking from side to side with laughter at the thought of what would happen were someone to enter the sacred area and shout: “Boo!” I wrote about the phenomenon a year ago in a column titled “Safe and unsound,” following an op-ed in The New York Times in which Judith Shulevitz described American campuses where instead of fostering forums for free expression, students are being offered refuges from distressing debate.
Shulevitz wrote: “The safe space, [a senior and member of Brown University’s Sexual Assault Task Force Katherine] Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments ‘troubling’ or ‘triggering,’ a place to recuperate.
The 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....”
The topic came up this week following an item in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper. I double-checked that it did not appear on April 1 and was not a satire. The report noted that university student Imogen Wilson, the vice president for academic affairs at Edinburgh University Students’ Association, “was threatened with being thrown out of a meeting after being accused of violating ‘safe space’ rules – by raising her hand.”
Wilson, 22, was subjected to a “safe space complaint” for allegedly using “inappropriate hand gestures” during a student council meeting.
Strangely, I was brought up to believe that raising your hand was the polite gesture. There are other things you can do with your hands and fingers that I’m not teaching my son, although he’s probably picking them up elsewhere in his unsheltered life.
“I totally do believe in safe space and the principles behind it,” Wilson told the Telegraph. “It’s supposed to enhance free speech and not shut it down, and give everyone a chance to feel like they can contribute.
“Safe space is essential for us to have a debate where everyone can speak, but it can’t become a tool for the hard left to use when they disagree with people.”
She added that she thought the complaint against her was “a political move” after she’d made “a long and passionate speech” against BDS, the movement to boycott Israel, “on the basis it encourages anti-Semitism on campus.”
That wouldn’t surprise me. Increasingly, the far Left is using political correctness as a tool to stifle opinions it doesn’t want anyone to hear.
My son, growing up in Israel, has so far been spared exposure to anti-Semitism. The downside of life here is that he has, of course, had to seek shelter – real shelter – under rocket fire, and a recent terrorist attack was so close to his school, he heard the shots.
The school didn’t go into lockdown mode; it carried on as usual and assured pupils – and their parents – that they were safe. No wonder my son and his friends think a “safe space” from conflicting opinions and micro-aggressions is for wimps.
The Edinburgh case came hard on the heels of a video (which I couldn’t ascertain was not staged but is certainly indicative of a growing phenomenon) concerning PC’s latest mutation – claims of cultural appropriation.
The video, which went viral amassing more than two million views, was filmed at San Francisco State University and shows Bonnie “Bonita” Tindle hassling fellow student Cory Goldstein about how he shouldn’t have dreadlocks because he’s white, accusing him of “cultural appropriation.”
Looking for a definition of the term, I came across this one by race-relations expert Nadra Kareem Nittle on about.
com: “Cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups – often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions....
“Cultural appropriation remains a concern for a variety of reasons. For one, this sort of ‘borrowing’ is exploitative because it robs minority groups of the credit they deserve.
Art and music forms that originated with minority groups come to be associated with members of the dominant group. As a result, the dominant group is deemed innovative and edgy, while the disadvantaged groups they ‘borrow’ from continue to face negative stereotypes that imply they’re lacking in intelligence and creativity. In addition, when members of a dominant group appropriate the cultures of others, they often reinforce stereotypes about minority groups.”
So much for imitation being a form of flattery. Someone is messing with my politically incorrect mind. I thought freedom of expression was meant to be universal.
But now I remember the strange case last year when a University of Ottawa yoga class designed to include disabled students was canceled after concerns the practice was taken from a culture that “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy,” according to the group that once sponsored it, as reported in The Washington Post.
Perhaps I can be forgiven for not realizing that dreadlocks are so contentious. On a trip to Kenya many years ago, local women earned good money by braiding my fellow tourists’ hair in their own special way. (The hotel was later blown up by al-Qaida, fatally targeting Israeli visitors, but I’m sure this was more because the infidels didn’t cover their hair than because of the way they plaited it.) And I can’t help wondering what Tindle would make of my colored (or half-black) Jewish friends and family who wear dreadlocks as a fashion statement, not a political statement.
Should I throw out all my comfortable kimonos? My jeans? Can I still safely line my ever-widening eyes with kohl? Should I demand to see proof of British identity of the next person I see drinking tea with milk? What about pizza and pasta; Chinese food or sushi? Are my chopsticks actually a weapon in some nonconventional war? For years there has been a battle between Israel and its northern neighbor over hummus, of all things. Not only is there an off-and-on fight for the Guinness record over who could prepare the biggest batch of the dip, in 2009 I wrote about Lebanese industrialists appealing to the European Union for hummus and other dishes to be declared Lebanese, in the same way that Cognac has to come from the specific French region.
Apparently, they were way ahead of their time: The term cultural appropriation didn’t come up then, although they accused Israelis of “stealing their food.”
Today, in some circles certain forms of appropriation are not just excused, they’re almost mandatory.
Many far-left, anti-Israel organizations dedicate their annual Seder night to “a free Palestine and the liberation of all peoples,” in the words of Toronto-based Beit Zatoun, or “a Passover seder that gives witness to the intersecting oppressions linking the freedom struggles of refugees and immigrants and Palestine Solidarity work,” by the Jewish Voice for Peace, Bay area.
It makes me want to shout: “Let my Pessah be!” The Palestinian cause has not only adopted the Jewish narrative, it has twisted it so much it is facing entirely the wrong direction.
Heading backwards in the name of liberal progression is not new, but the social media have provided greater scope, speed and viciousness.
The more enlightened we become, the darker and more intolerant the world seems.
In September 2010, The Spectator dedicated an issue to “thought crime” under the front-page title: “Don’t even think it!” In a piece with the heading “I think, therefore I’m guilty,” Melanie Phillips wrote: “The rational anxieties of millions about mass immigration or militant Islam destroying the culture of the country are held merely to demonstrate that ordinary people are racist bigots or Islamophobes.
“The great gift bequeathed to us by the 18th-century Enlightenment is the freedom to disagree. This is now in eclipse. The intelligentsia – the supposed custodians of reason and intellectual freedom – has turned itself into an inquisition, complete with an index of prohibited ideas.
“The West has now fallen victim to... cultural totalitarianism, or a dictatorship of virtue.”
Reason and liberty should be “inseparable bedfellows,” as Phillips notes. But a lot of strangers have hopped into the bed, stealing the covers and coming between common sense and free thought.
We might yet need safe spaces from the people who need safe spaces. And my son’s generation might find it even harder to explain real rights and real wrongs.
As for me, don’t be surprised if I take to styling my silver locks in cornrows: It’s not so much giving a finger to claims of cultural appropriation, it’s just the best way I can think of to prevent my hair standing on end.
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