Sequestered Spaces, Public Places: Identity Politics, the Neoliberal University, and the Crisis of Imagination

by Eric J. Weiner

An intransigent form of identity politics in combination with neoliberal ideology has left the modern university, if not in ruins, then lacking imagination and cultural capital. It has become a place of sequestered spaces—symbolic and real—where too many students and faculty fear discussing issues deemed to be controversial, inappropriate, or “political.” Across the social sciences/humanities, politics, religion, sex, sexual orientation, climate change, science, gender, economic inequality, poverty, reproductive rights/regulations, homelessness, race, Trump, democracy, capitalism, patriarchy, anti-Semitism, Israel, terrorism, gun violence, sexual violence, and white supremacy are just some of the topics that today make students and even some teachers uncomfortable. At best maybe these topics are addressed by creating some kind of false equivalent in an effort to feign neutrality and keep people comfortable. Discomfort in the classroom from ignorance, tension, power imbalances, conflict, disagreement, or any degree of affective and cognitive dissonance is no longer tolerated. While it used to be considered a fundamental part of the critical learning experience, discomfort of this sort now signals a flaw in pedagogy and/or the curriculum and a betrayal of trust. Learning should always feel good, be nurturing (maternalistic), and, above all, fun. If it’s not then there is hell to pay.

The fear of being emotionally and intellectually uncomfortable and the strategies used to avoid it come from all over the ideological spectrum. Avoidance strategies, from the right and left, take the form of accusations about political bias; political (in)correctness-gone-wild; claims of social/intellectual marginalization; censoring viewpoints (books, speakers, media) that are deemed offensive; silencing people through various forms of protest; creating homogenized “safe spaces”; and policing, through different modes of surveillance, language, thoughts, and behavior. Retreating into intellectual silos on campus and online, students and teachers find comfort and solace in group-think, shared social practices, and aligned ideologies. The cost of these avoidance strategies for the individual and the republic is a form of idiocy, from the Greek “idiotes,” which describes a person who cannot participate in political and intellectual life because of their lack of skills, knowledge, and general ignorance about the responsibilities of civic life. At the same time the left and right are doing their best to defang the critical civic function of the university, most universities are now aligned with neoliberal ideology, focusing on market-based competition, branding, privatization, the de-unionization of faculty/staff, and job training. Within this toxic brew of schooling, tribalism, and ideology, students are seen (and generally want to be seen) first and foremost as children in need of protection, entertainment, and comfort; savvy and influential consumers; agile agents of social media unofficially employed to promote their schools; and docile members of the university “family.”

Identity politics and the rise of PC culture is not, of course, all bad. We know from progressives that race, class, sexual orientation, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, the “body” (which includes everything from hair color and height to weight and posture), geography, and discourse matter (I’m sure I left out a lot of other things that also matter, so include them in this list as well). We also acknowledge the importance of what is now called the “intersectionality” of these identities, meaning quite simply that a person can’t be reduced to just one of these things, but instead simultaneously are a cross section of all of these things. True in theory, it is unclear how in the concrete world of experience (not imagined but things that actually happen), these intersectional identities differentially matter across changing contexts and shifting ideological landscapes. The fluidity of experience makes taking an account of how these intersectionalities matter at any given time a daunting task. One could say that even if it was possible to do so in some generalizable way, it would always be an analysis stuck in hindsight. As such, its predictive powers are diminished. It is also unclear how this theoretical reach into the realm of intersectionality doesn’t turn back into a new/old version of liberal humanism. Doesn’t intersectionality reference what is essentially a composite representation of a universal subject wrapped in the kaleidoscopic hues of fluid transactional identities?

But before we pluralized identity, it was used in its singular (“essential”) form as a blunt and powerful instrument for the development of social movements. The power of identity to organize the hearts and minds of an organic activist constituency can’t be understated. Civil, labor, gay, and women’s rights movements would not have been as successful as they were had they not gained power and knowledge from the experiences of these fundamental identifications. But these movements were never inclusive nor democratic. They assumed a subject and told a particular story. Not everyone who benefited and was an active part of these movements matched the imagined subject of the official story. Women of color and poor women of color troubled the white middle-class narrative of female empowerment and solidarity by second wave feminists. Women and men of color and gay people troubled the white male working class narrative of labor. Gay people troubled the heteronormative narrative of black nationalism. Transgendered people of color troubled gay liberation movements. Poor people troubled middle-class movements for economic opportunity.

But identity politics is not just for liberal or “left-oriented” activists as the right would have us believe. Historically people have always made appeals to a singular cultural identity as a viable form of political organizing and activism. White nationalism, as historian Jill Lepore correctly points out, is just another example—a powerful example—of identity politics. Likewise, Nazism’s association to the Aryan “race” is identity politics. Being a recognized and associative member of the ruling political class is as much a discourse of identity as being working class. Identity politics is simply tribalism by another name. And what is true about all tribal movements is they eventually lead to some form of warfare. Sherman Alexie says it forcefully: “(The) end game of tribalism – when you become so identified with only one thing, one tribe, is that other people are just metaphors to you.”

One of the challenges of working in this kind of environment is trying to manage competing claims for comfort and safety. When I was working towards my master’s degree in literature at UMass Boston, I was lucky to be able to take a course in sociolinguistics from Dr. Donaldo Macedo. He told us a story about a graduate seminar he taught in the 1990s in which language/literacy, power and oppression were the topics being discussed. The students were all female except for the professor and, with the exception of three African-American women, all identified as Caucasian. When the African-American women started speaking about their experiences of racism while also sharing with the white women in the class how they perceived them as complicit beneficiaries of that same racist system, the white women vehemently disagreed. They redirected the inquiry, asserting that patriarchy, not racism and white supremacy, was the more significant and relevant system of oppression that they should be discussing because, as women, it affected them all in a similar way. They didn’t feel privileged because of their race, but instead felt victimized and oppressed by male-dominated systems and social structures. Any privilege that they might have because of their race, they argued, was nullified under the regime of patriarchy. According to Dr. Macedo, the white women then demanded a “time-out” because they said if they were forced to have a dialogue about racism/white supremacy with their African-American peers then they needed an established “comfort zone” before they would speak about the issue. They said they were not comfortable addressing these issues and felt unfairly threatened and attacked by the African-American women. The white women wanted a “safe space” in which they didn’t have to engage with people who they felt were unreasonably angry and made them feel guilty, afraid and uncomfortable. They requested that the professor “mediate” the dialogue in a way that would protect them from what they perceived as a hostile learning environment. They wanted him to place constraints over how language was being used to describe, construct, and interpret experiences, and how body language was being used to convey anger, pain, amusement, surprise, incredulity, etc. Their request put Dr. Macedo in an untenable situation. He knew that if he were to do this the space of learning would no longer be safe or comfortable for the African-American female students. In response to their request, the African-American women pointed out that within the context of white supremacy and patriarchy they, as women of color, enjoyed no such presumption of privilege, safety or comfort. Indeed, when white people demand a comfort zone before engaging in a dialogue with people of color about racism they are leveraging the power they get, within the structures of white supremacy, from being white. For one group, what is safe becomes for another dangerous, silencing and oppressive.

My concern is that there is a proliferation of demands from across the ideological spectrum that place individual comfort over critical learning. Critical learning describes a process in which students and teachers analyze the intersectional networks of power/knowledge, identity, ideology, socio-cultural-political structures, and language within and across academic disciplines. The goal is to teach students how to think critically about social, political and cultural issues so that they can make informed decisions in their lives across a variety of contexts, i.e., work, relationships, family, governance, economy, health, culture, environment, and education.

Within higher education, fostering critical learning is no simple task as it demands that we make students, on some level, uncomfortable. By making “the familiar strange and the strange familiar,” as Henry Giroux has written, critical teaching provokes cognitive and affective dissonance thereby disrupting the ideological coherence of thoughts and actions habituated through the normalization of hegemonic relations of power. In less technical language, critical teaching means coaxing students to think about their relationship to social, political, and cultural things in a way that potentially makes them uncomfortable. It is a praxis of what C. Wright Mills called the “sociological imagination”; that is, a way for students to theorize and interrogate how their private troubles are actually public issues. It was essential, according to Mills, that people learn to connect their personal experiences to social structures. To have a sociological imagination is to be a la Charles Lemert, sociologically competent.

Critical educators do this through various pedagogical practices and curricular decisions. In plain language, many students, like fish that don’t know they’re in water until they flop out or are removed from the bowl, are unaware of how systems of thought/action condition their experiences and knowledge until they are taught about the existence of these systems. The systems, like water to fish, remain visibly invisible to students until they experience some cognitive and affective dissonance, i.e., get removed from the water. Not to push the metaphor too far, but if you ever watched a fish outside of its watery home desperately flop, writhe and twist, it’s not a pretty sight. Struggling to breath, fighting for its life, it needs to be put back in the water or it will soon die. People struggling with the effects of cognitive and affective dissonance typically don’t die (I haven’t lost one yet!), yet they might act as though they will. And like any sentient being that perceives her life is at stake, she will typically fight or flee. Neither is a great choice in the context of critical teaching/learning.

Taking these ideas up in a complex and powerful way, Alan Fox’s new play Safe Space had its inaugural run at Bay Street theater in Sag Harbor this summer. “Safe Space is set at an elite university and explores political correctness and the reaction to triggers on campus in America today. When a star African-American professor faces accusations of racism from a student, the head of the college must intervene, setting off an explosive chain of events where each of them must navigate an ever-changing minefield of identity politics, ethics, and core beliefs” (

I attended the July 19th performance and was immediately transported back to an undergraduate class I taught in 2018 in which a twenty-year-old student (and her parents) accused me of being insensitive, bigoted, and demeaning to her Italian culture and ethnicity. Like the African American history professor in the play who is accused of violating his students’ safety and comfort by having them write an essay which asks them to imagine how the founding fathers might have justified or rationalized owning slaves, I asked my students to think about the emotional investment some Italian-Americans have in the “official” story of Christopher Columbus (great explorer, discoverer of America, etc.) even as the historical record is clear about the genocidal horror he exacted on the Taino people as well as other documented atrocities he oversaw like rape, torture, disfigurement, and slavery.

One woman raised her hand when I asked who was a proud Italian-American who grew up in a home that celebrated Christopher Columbus and saw him as a source of national and ethnic pride. We then went on to discuss how significant these “affective investments” can be for people. My question about affective investments in the story of Columbus and their ethnic, racial, national, and gendered identities was intended to provoke all the students in the class to think about how their interpretation of history is powerfully shaped by their identities or in James Gee’s terms, their “primary discourse”. The lesson then turned to a discussion about the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle in Manhattan and whether students agreed with those people that wanted it taken down or whether they believed it should stay up. Finally, I arbitrarily assigned half the class to the side that wanted it down or the side that was in support of keeping it up. In groups, students were to design posters that they would take to an imagined rally at Columbus circle in support or in protest of the statue. We then “met” at the imagined location and staged a faux protest, with lots of sign waving and yelling. I quickly brought an end to the yelling and screaming and had each side articulate the reasoning behind their side’s position on the matter. They had read a number of articles and book chapters that laid bare the core ideas and assumptions of both sides of this issue. And that was that. Or so I thought.

In the play Safe Space, the assignment, from the professor’s perspective, was an exercise in critical thinking, intended to provoke students to consider the complexities and contradictions that inform the history of the United States and by extension their personal histories as well. Similarly, the focus in my course was on teaching future teachers how to effectively/affectively teach certain events in American history through artistic projects. As is true in all the courses I teach, thinking critically and creatively is at the heart of all the content and drives my critical pedagogy. In contrast to the support Columbus gets from some Italian-Americans and many other people not of Italian ethnicity, I asked them to consider how indigenous people might think about him. I also asked them to think about how they would teach indigenous people about Columbus and to think about the pedagogical implications of these affective investments from the perspectives of both the student and teacher. This means that students must think about the cognitive as well as emotional challenges of thinking critically and creatively about issues that are fundamental to the formation of their identities as well as their future students’ identities.

The student who raised her hand sent me an email the next day that said she was offended by my question and that she felt singled out and embarrassed. I said I felt horrible that she felt that way after my class and that I was sorry I did something that made her feel that way as it is never my intention to make a student feel either embarrassed or singled out. I did not however fully understand how what I did made her feel the way that she did. But feelings, as is stated in the play, are non-falsifiable, i.e., they are hers and therefore are real and valid and no one can say otherwise. I explained that the point of my question (ironic in the face of her email and her stated feelings) was to get students to be sensitive to the affective and cognitive investments that their future students will inevitably have in a variety of historical stories and historical figures. In the service of critical/creative thought, it is not enough to simply provide the most rigorous examples of the historical record but to be attuned to how students’ identities have been shaped by familial associations in what might be a highly distorted or rationalized historical story. In short, as critical thinking scholar Stephen Brookfield suggests, we have to try and understand how the emotional and cognitive work in concert if we want to be able to take a complex accounting of the habituated assumptions and practices that guide people’s beliefs and actions.

One way to provoke this critical response to habituated thoughts and actions is to denaturalize knowledge and experience, i.e., make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. These critical interventions can make some students uncomfortable. Indeed, this is the point. But in our current time in which students are demanding “safe spaces” in which to learn and socialize, and the university imagines them primarily as children and consumers the question arises as to whether the university can maintain or in some cases reassert its critical function in a democratic society. If safety comes to mean comfort then the pedagogical act of creating cognitive and affective dissonance will be read as an attack on her/his safety.

In the play, the student at one point says to the Dean that she expected to always feel emotionally safe at the college because she was told it should feel like home. Along with an opportunity to earn a degree, this is what she thought she was buying when she chose to attend the college. The university as home is a deleterious reduction as it makes faculty and administration de facto parents or some kind of extended family. One consequence of this is that students never have to grow up. A process of infantilization has been built into the very architecture of the neoliberal university and students, parents and even some faculty and administrators seem to relish the arrangement.

The email exchange with my student was followed by another that was much more caustic and directly accused me of disrespecting, degrading and demeaning her Italian heritage and ethnicity. I immediately requested an in-person meeting so we could work out our differences. In the eighteen years I’ve been doing this work, I have always been able to resolve any issue with a student with a face-to-face meeting in my office. I was surprised when she replied that she would not meet me because she was not comfortable speaking with me in my office. I suggested she bring a friend if that would make it a safer and more comfortable space. She refused. At this point, I brought the Chair of my department into the conversation. She volunteered to mediate the meeting. Again, the student refused to meet on the grounds that my Chair was biased against her. During these exchanges, the student’s father called the President of the university multiple times questioning why a professor was allowed to demean, degrade, and discriminate against his daughter because of her Italian heritage. The father, it turns out, was a major figure in the Knights of Columbus and, if memory serves, the head of the local Columbus Day parade committee. This, we were told, had nothing to do with their response to my lesson about Columbus.

Similar to the professor in the play, I was questioned as to what actually occurred in the class, was asked to document my recollection of the exchange, justify in writing what the intention of the lesson was and how it matched the goals and learning objectives of the class. I provided all of this to the Chair, Assistant Dean, Dean of the College, and President’s office. I also brought in the head of our local union. I then received a letter from an Italian American Association threatening me and the university and asking for documentation proving that the university was committed to non-discriminatory practices relating specifically to Italian heritage. At this point, the student was no longer communicating to anyone about her issues, yet she continued not only to come to class each week, but to actively participate in discussions and activities. The student never filed a formal complaint with the assistant dean and never had a meeting with him either. She kept coming to class and finished out the semester. In the play, the actions of the student resulted in the removal of the African-American professor and the forced retirement of the college’s first female Dean. I am happy to report that I still have a job and am in good standing with the college and university. Tenure matters. Unions matter.

I don’t know if the student ever really understood the chaos she caused by refusing to discuss, in person, the issue we were having. Instead of dealing with the conflict like a mature adult, she acted just like the child her parents and the university imagined her to be and like the female character in the play, she was able to use technology effectively, weaponize her identity, and define her emotional response to dissonance as a consequence of pedagogical violence. Resting on the lessons learned from some reductive iterations of identity politics, she felt victimized by a curriculum and pedagogy that sought to bring attention to the complex processes from which identities are formed.

In the case of the play and my classroom, “identity politics” in combination with the diminished intellectual authority of the neoliberal university challenged the critical function of higher education. At a light-hearted moment in the play, the professor is talking with the Dean about the student’s demands that they both be replaced by people who know how she feels as a woman of Asian descent. They start thinking seriously that maybe the next dean should be a woman of Asian descent, but then they think maybe the African-American women on campus would not feel represented, not to mention the Italians and Jews, or gay working class people of Haitian descent. And on and on. The dean also questions the student’s demand for the creation of segregated “safe spaces” throughout the college, based upon gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, religion, etc. “How can we critically learn about how people are thinking and feeling,” the Dean asks, “if we are sequestered in our safe spaces?” The demand for “safe spaces” moves us further away from the idea of the university as, a la Nancy Fraser, an alternative or counter public sphere and as such further away from establishing the university as an institution that can support a diversity of people and viewpoints. What does it say that the “progressive” move around identity echoes some of the most reactionary rationalizations for segregation?

We all want a certain degree of safety in these troubling times. We want respect, fairness, opportunities to grow, and solid communities in which our children without fear can learn and play. But we also need to be open and able to talk about our differences and through our differences. In speaking about our differences, each tribe must accept that they might have to listen to some things that are very uncomfortable and disturbing. As Vaclav Havel said, we must learn to listen more and explain less. In the wake of #metoo, many men have started to do just that. Yet it seems that many women don’t want to hear men explain their experiences of masculinity/sexuality, dismissing all comments as “mansplaining.” No doubt that mansplaining is a problematic response to feminist critiques of toxic masculinity, patriarchy, and sexual harassment. But there is an important distinction between justifying and explaining, and I am not sure tribal discourses can account for such nuance. People must be able to explain without being accused of justifying actions and behaviors that are deemed inappropriate. We must also be able to understand the difference between justification and explanation. Tribalism makes this very difficult to do as explanations sound like justifications when filtered through intransigent discourses. We must learn how to be nuanced, agile and flexible in our thinking and open to the possibility that our experiences and our emotional responses to those experiences might not be the only thing that is important to consider. We must try harder to formulate a shared ethics in which our common concerns and interests are measured within the context of our differences. For higher education to become a place in which students can critically learn, we must embrace ambiguity while using the best information and resources we have to determine, beyond true and false, what is right and wrong. Our dialogue should deepen and we must be prepared to experience discomfort when learning new ways of knowing, especially when these new ways of knowing trouble what we thought we already knew.