Unsafe at Denny’s — and in the Classroom

This is the thirteenth in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.

By Caitlin Flanagan

THE DENNY’S IN CAMARILLO, California is not a Safe Space, as I discovered a couple of years ago, when I was waiting to pay my check. On line in front of me were a mother and her two teenage sons; they were older teens, maybe seventeen and eighteen. One of them was telling a story about a kid both boys obviously disliked. In the middle of the story he referred — loudly — to that third boy by an ugly slur for a gay person.

I glanced up from my receipt, scowled at the kid, and waited for Mom to correct him. Instead she brayed with laughter.

It’s refreshing to encounter people whom you can loathe so completely and so quickly. There’s a serotonin release of some sort.

The kid continued with the story, and I considered whether to let his use of the word just wash backward into the past, but he used it again, to the continued delight of his mother and brother. At this point I was implicated.

I’m from Los Angeles, where if someone used that word, I could simply wait for someone braver than me to get in his face and then I could (cravenly) line up in full support. But this was Camarillo.

The boy used the word a third time, and I leaned in and said, “That’s not a great word.”

They all stared at me.

“Mind your own business,” Mom snapped.

The kids glowered at me. They sensed that Mom more than son had somehow been insulted, but they weren’t quite sure how. They were all sort of singed and offended and angry, but not sure what to do with themselves, so they paid and left. I paid and left, and when I rounded the corner of the building to get to the parking lot, the older kid was waiting for me. Mom and brother were in the car, watching.

“You know,” he said aggressively, “there’s free speech.”

It was an excellent opportunity to have an argument about something important with a moron. But it was also an excellent opportunity to get smacked in the mouth.

In the way of his people, he had added a little booster rocket to a free speech debate, by waiting for me on the side of the parking lot, which made the moment ever so slightly menacing. I could have — maybe, maybe, if I went for her hair extensions — taken the mom, but these knuckle-dragging teens of hers would eat me alive.

“Yes, there is,” I said, and tried to move around him toward my car, but he wouldn’t let me pass, and I had to step down off the sidewalk to get around him, which was humiliating, but whatever.

Safely back in my car, the former teacher in me thought about what had happened. Somewhere in the recesses of Mom’s past, or in the recent experience of her young princes’ educations, some high-school teacher — his lunch in the faculty room fridge, his TIA-CREF account subject to the whims of rich men, his alternator a week away from going on the fritz — had talked about the Constitution. How thankless the job must have seemed to him at the time … but here it was, bearing fruits that that teacher would never eat.

Before I went outside, the brain trust must have gotten together, and realized they’d been sorely insulted, but in a way that had involved such a mild arrangement of words that it seemed to require some sort of intellectual response. And they’d sat in the car, they’d had a Big Think, and they’d come up with … Freedom of Speech. Eureka in a bathtub!

You go out there and tell that bitch about Freedom of Speech!

His interpretation of Freedom of Speech was that he had the right to say whatever he wanted, period. My interpretation of Freedom of Speech was that I also had the right to say what ever I wanted, including telling him that his word offended me.

And so there we were, a couple of Americans in the early stages of digesting some Denny’s nastiness, thrashing our way through the Bill of Rights, me with my (relatively) Parnassian understanding of it, him with his youthful might and car full of back up.

You know what? We made it.

I got what I wanted from the exchange (principally, letting my Denny’s server — a young person who seemed to be in a complicated stage of gender transition, and who might have overheard the young man —` know that all sorts of people, including middle-aged ladies who eat at Denny’s, are down with the struggle). And Mom and the sons got what they wanted — the chance to rattle my cage a bit by adding the slightest frisson of physical danger to their eventual retort.

And that’s all you get out of free speech: The right to say what you want, and not to get thrown in jail or fired from your job for saying it. You don’t get protected from other people telling you that you’re a moron. You don’t get protected from having a fight, or getting very subtly menaced in a parking lot. And you certainly don’t get protected from other people’s freedom of speech.

The current trend in college for “safety” — for safe spaces, safe learning environments, safe syllabi, all of which ultimately involve the policing of speech — is antithetical to the essential function of college, which is to make students feel intellectually unsafe. College is supposed to unsettle you, to take the parochial set of beliefs that you brought from your hometown and your family and your high school, and turn them upside down. And it’s supposed to give students the intellectual tools to confront any kind of bigotry with logic and reason, before which that bigotry will always crumble.

If my Denny’s adversary and I had confronted one another in a college classroom instead of a parking lot, he would have been thrown out of the room, and possibly out of the college. He would have been deemed the creator of an unsafe space, and (unless he was on the football or basketball team, and therefore answerable to other gods) he would have had to go.

But if he’d been forced to stay in that classroom, and have the depth of his ignorance revealed to everyone — if he’d been forced to stand on his hind legs and explain his understanding of the First Amendment until he realized how deeply ignorant and how sorely in need of an education he was, he would have learned something.

More to the point, his classmates would have learned something. They would have seen that there are more powerful means of dealing with his kind than barring them from places. Carefully protecting yourself from bad ideas — and asking the administration to help protect you from them — is a form of weakness, and bullies and knuckle-draggers love weakness. They depend on it. But confronting those ideas, straight ahead and with the force of a real education behind you — that’s what college is supposed to do for you.

Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor for the Atlantic and a former staff writer for The New Yorker; her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post and a wide variety of magazines. She is the winner of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism, and her essays have been widely anthologized, including in the Best American Essays, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Magazine Writing series. She is the author of two books, To Hell With All That and Girl Land. Her subjects have included domestic life, fame, adolescence and education. She is currently at work on a series of essays about the private lives of American college students. Flanagan grew up in Berkeley, attended the University of Virginia, and now lives in Los Angeles. Before becoming a writer, she was an English teacher and college counselor at Harvard-Westlake School. She will participate in the conference Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said.

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