“We’re all progressive here!”

“Oversensitive,” writes feminist scholar Sara Ahmed, “Can be translated as: Sensitive to that which is not over.”

Ahmed’s words, from the much-referenced piece “Against Students,” have proven prescient yet again recently, following UChicago’s brave, noble letter [sarcasm falling down like rain] declaring their opposition to safe spaces and trigger warning. It’s yet one more installment in the ongoing national panic about the supposed over-sensitivity of students.

Now. I think there are good, constructive critiques to make of the culture and practice of trigger warnings and safe-spaces, and of the notions of speech, space, and violence underlying them. But to echo what everyone else is saying: Why oh why on earth is there a national panic against safe spaces? Can we not nationally panic about things that have actually been systematically killing people for hundreds of years? Like, I don’t know, the entrenched racism and misogyny that cause students to call for safe spaces?

This is what Ahmed gets at in her definition of oversensitivity and in much of her other work: The fact that, when marginalized people name and agitate against violence, they are blamed for creating the problem, because they don’t allow those with power to ignore the problem. This explains, for example, phenomena like victim blaming: If someone names sexual violence or harassment, they are at fault for forcing the community to confront gender inequality; because if they hadn’t brought it up, we could pretend it didn’t exist, and the comfortable could remain comfortable.

We see this notion used not only against students in the debate over safe spaces, but against people involved in a whole host of social justice struggles. It’s an argument we can call “we’re all so progressive here”: The idea that social injustice is past, that it is over, that it is solved, and that any critique or agitation is whining and troublemaking stemming from oversensitivity. Ahmed’s definition becomes important again: Oversensitivity becomes a condition not of neediness but of awareness — awareness that injustice persists and must be grappled with. In this discourse, then, the very claim of progressiveness — “we are all so progressive that racism/sexual assault/anti-LGBT discrimination are over” — actually perpetuate the oppressions they claim to be enlightened about.

Take, for example, the contemporary slew of cases (luckily receiving a blow lately) hell-bent on reversing voting rights laws and affirmative action — an overtly racist agenda. The argument of anti-voting rights and anti-affirmative action advocates typifies the “we’re all so progressive here” mindset, and goes something like this: Racism is dead. RIP racism! Racism was a problem years ago, but then Martin Luther King Junior made a speech and Barack Obama became president and all the white people got nice and magically eliminated racism, so now we’re bored of the issue, and by bringing it up aren’t you just as racist?

We see the same logic in the way that even some progressive people respond to talk about marginalized LGBT issues. Yes, we used to be homophobic — but then we gave you the right to get married, and we’re all better now!!! Why talk about trans people of color, why talk about high rates of queer youth incarceration and homelessness? *Throws rainbow colored daisies from inside long magician sleeves* *Puts fingers in denialist ears* La la la la la la la marriage!

Finally, we can return to the UChicago case. In this context, the university’s missive against safe spaces is implicitly a claim to moral superiority — to being by default, as an institution of higher learning, a free space — hence the constant recourse to the chimera of “free speech.” Of course, without social justice there is only freedom for the powerful, and by coding issues like structural and systemic racism and unaddressed, pervasive sexual violence in the language of “controversial thought” and “difference of opinion,” the anti-safe space discourse portrays structural oppression as “diversity of views.” They claim that the university is already safe, or at least safe enough — that the university is not fundamentally structured and organized according to racist, sexist, and anti-poor logics and material realities (which of course it is). So rather than dealing with the structural issues that cause students to advocate for safe spaces — the omnipresence of racial, class, and gender injustice — the university blames the “oversensitive” student for conjuring a problem which it implies to be already solved–if they even believe it to have existed in the first place.

We can even find the “we’re all progressive here” logic underlying the way in which women and marginalized people’s consent is systematically devalued in contemporary sexual culture. This can function as the pressure for women and marginalized people to be “chill” when it comes to sex — the pressure to act as though sex is an already-equal, power-free realm of unadulerated fun. Claims that we have already achieved sexual liberation actually prevent us from taking a critical and accountable look at the power dynamics that still underly sexual culture — power dynamics which produce and perpetuate rape. Ignoring the problem benefits those who are already privileged. 

I would love to sit here and say that the revolution has happened and it is over and we can say whatever we want with no fear of harming marginalized people, totally self-determine our lives and identities without oppression, and fuck like bonobos with no cares in the world! 

It would be awesome if we were all, actually, so progressive here. 

But we’re not. Not even those of us who adopt the label of progressive, or who are working for social change. Of course, activists and feminists and writers and progressive scholars perpetuate all sorts of shit, too; claiming the mantle of progressivism and actually practicing social justice are two very different things. The only way forward is constant accountability.

If the University of Chicago had written in its letter not that it was against safe spaces, but that it was for comprehensive social justice, we might have actually gotten somewhere. Until then, we will commit to being oversensitive. 

Photocredit: Image from a Black Lives Matter protest in St Paul, Minnesota. Fibonacci Blue.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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