Anti-Safe Space Crusader Bret Stephens Apparently Needs A Safe Space: Backs Out Of Bedbug Debate

from the i-thought-bedbugs-were-reslient,-not-melty-little-snowflakes dept

IN 2017, NY Times columnist Bret Stephens gave a commencement address at Hampden-Sydney College that he then repurposed as one of his NY Times columns entitled: "Leave Your Safe Spaces." The entire theme was that college students are way too soft intellectually, and they've been coddled and are too afraid to debate difficult and dangerous ideas. He mocks the concept of safe spaces, and suggests that it diminishes ones ability to truly seek the truth. Near the end, it states:

So here’s my advice to you: Get out of your own safe spaces. Define what your intellectual comfort zone is — and leave it. Enhance your tolerance for discordant voices. Narrow your criteria for what’s beyond the pale. Read the authors or watch the talking heads with whom you disagree. Treat those disagreements as a whetting stone to sharpen your own arguments. Resist the temptation to call people names.

And then it concludes:

Safe spaces, physical and intellectual, are for children. You are grown-ups now. If your diplomas mean anything, it’s that it is time you leave those spaces behind forever.

And last year, he wrote a column (which was also actually a speech given at a university) entitled "Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort", which concludes:

As each side gathers round in their respective echo chambers and social media silos, the purpose of free speech has become increasingly more obscure.

Its purpose isn’t, or isn’t merely, to allow us to hear our own voices, or the voices of those with whom we already agree. It is also to hear what other people, with other views, often anathema to ours, have to say.

To hear such speech may make us uncomfortable. As well it should. Discomfort is not injury. An intellectual provocation is not a physical assault. It’s a stimulus. Over time, it can improve our own arguments, and sometimes even change our minds.

In either case, it’s hard to see how we can’t benefit from it, if we choose to do so. Make that choice. Democracy is enriched if you do. So are you.

He also wrote a column that was also a speech, entitled "The Dying Art of Disagreement", which also whines about kids at universities being unwilling to debate those they disagree with.

So here’s where we stand: Intelligent disagreement is the lifeblood of any thriving society. Yet we in the United States are raising a younger generation who have never been taught either the how or the why of disagreement, and who seem to think that free speech is a one-way right: Namely, their right to disinvite, shout down or abuse anyone they dislike, lest they run the risk of listening to that person — or even allowing someone else to listen. The results are evident in the parlous state of our universities, and the frayed edges of our democracies.

By now you should get a sense of Stephens' general style. Those crazy universities with their safe spaces and unwillingness to debate difficult ideas in the light of day.

Of course, we all know that Stephens is a bit hypocritical in all of that. Back in August, somewhat famously, he turned a little-noticed jokey tweet from media professor David Karpf that suggested bedbugs at the NY Times offices were "a metaphor" for Bret Stephens, into a massive phenomenon, by first misunderstanding the tweet, and then getting so worked up and angry about it that he not only emailed the professor, but also emailed the professor's boss in an obvious attempt to intimidate him. It soon came out that he'd done similar things to others as well. Stephens then made things even worse by thinking he was clever in subtly comparing Karpf to the Nazis in his NYT column, which accidentally revealed that he'd just done a Google Book search of "jews as bedbugs" and then twisted the results to pretend that it was common for Nazis to call jews bedbugs.

When Karpf was on our podcast he revealed that Stephens had actually agreed to go to come to George Washington University (where Karpf is a professor) and debate the whole incident. Except... that's now off. And the reason it's off appears to be that it wouldn't have been enough of a safe space for Stephens, because the University (and Karpf) refused to block the public from attending. As Karpf told Ashley Feinberg at Slate:

“The thing that I can share is that he had decided that he was only willing to come if we made it not a public event,” Karpf told me over the phone. “Students could be in the room, but he didn’t want to allow this story to continue anymore. They talked with him, and what it came down to was, the only way he’d do the event is if the public wasn’t allowed to see it. I said, ‘I think that’s really unreasonable.’ They came back to him and said, ‘Karpf thinks that’s unreasonable.’ And he said, ‘OK, we’re not doing it.’ ”

As Karpf has shown over and over again in this whole saga, he's the one who should have a column at the NY Times or somewhere where lots more people can read his insights, as he so succinctly sums up the craziness of the situation:

Karpf, for his part, said that if Stephens had never written the column comparing Karpf to Nazi propaganda ministers, he might have relented. “If he’d just said, ‘You know I’ve been teased a lot about this because of that one email that I sent you—I’m willing to talk with you, but I don’t want it to be public,’ then I probably would have been OK with that,” Karpf explained. “But if you’re going to go full Godwin against me in the New York Times, I don’t think you then get to say, ‘Oh, by the way, it’s all off the record from here on out.’ That’s just creating a safe space for him so that he could talk about how the Bretbug affair felt for him, but not in a way that anyone would be able to cover. It didn’t seem reasonable or appropriate to me.”

GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs does occasionally hold private, off-the-record events, but according to Karpf, “it’s not like we were bringing in a diplomat who was going to tell us secrets about what it’s like to be a diplomat. This is a New York Times columnist who writes two columns a week for the New York Times. If a broader public wants to hear what he says there, then I think they get to hear it.”

Ah well. Bedbugs never really do like the light, do they?

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Filed Under: bedbugs, bret stephens, david karpf, debate, safe space, transparency
Companies: george washington university

Reader Comments

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  1. icon
    Gary (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 11:09am

    Safe as a bug in a rug...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    ECA (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 12:22pm


    Sometimes I get the thought that Syphilis is rampant in congress..
    The brain just ROTS..

    His idea is great, if he would understand it..
    Learn both sides so you can debate logically. So you know the downfalls of each.
    1 Idea on how to do something ISNT always the only/best way.
    Are you willing to debate with the preacher/head of your party, or sit there and DO AS THEY SAY?? with no opinion??
    (if god speaks to you, thats another think)(he MIGHT want your opinion)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    ECA (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 12:24pm


    Being a bedbug has a strange being a pest, and irritant, something to get others THINKING..(I need a pest repellent)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    ECA (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 12:26pm

    Re: wonders

    I have never, ever, seen a group that ALL believed the same thing, the same way, and ate the same food..
    Get a group of 8 year olds in a class, and give them something to do ANY WAY they want, and if they wish to make groups let them..

    Only the ones that work as a group, will you find a leader, and followers. but is that Dominant person always RIGHT?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 12:50pm

    “Yellow-bellied Bret” has a nice ring to it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    AC (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 1:27pm


    You know what else has a yellow belly?

    Bedbugs, coincidentally.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Bruce C., 11 Oct 2019 @ 1:52pm


    Probably a bug wearing a rug in this case. How's his hairline?

    There's an irony here, because I agree with many of his sentiments that we've declared too many subjects or points of view as "beyond the pale". Not only from free speech grounds, but also from the point of view that we must never forget the truth behind things like the holocaust. If we spend an entire generation confronting unacceptable viewpoints by twitter mob and national ostracism, we lose sight of the true reasons those viewpoints are unacceptable. This weakens our defenses against those toxic viewpoints in the future when the history is misremembered, forgotten or deliberately distorted.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Oct 2019 @ 3:38pm

    If that strawman was what safe-space advocates were talking about, he may have a point.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Bloof (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 4:26pm

    Another brave rightwing free speech warrior bravely retreats from the risk of exposure. They only want to publicly debate people when they're guaranteed either a boost in terms of exposure by sharing a stage with a left wing celebrity, or a win against some unfortunate, easily flustered college student without any media training.

    I look forward to his column on this where he's the true hero for backing out, who was simply too clever, handsome, tall and modest for the professor, generous too as he didn't want to end his career. It'll make a change from cheerleading for war and climate change denial.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Oct 2019 @ 5:07pm


    Not quite as good as Bretbug Stephens

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 5:10pm

    Keep firing Bret, there's still some of your foot left!

    Well, it would seem that someone is aiming for the 'Hypocrite of the Year' award.

    In addition to the train wreck already on display by this move he's nicely highlighted that he was at best just spouting empty rhetoric that he didn't actually believe when he spent all that page space talking about how 'safe spaces' are for children and people need to get out of them.

    Somewhat less charitably and he's exposed that he himself is one of those 'children' who needs to be 'protected' that he was lambasting, and with no charity at all he's a blatant hypocrite calling for others to face what he himself refuses to.

    And to think, the self-immolation of his reputation all started from his micron-thin skin in regards to a simple joke(of a type he himself had engaged in no less)...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Pixelation, 11 Oct 2019 @ 5:11pm

    I guess Brett "The Bedbug" Stephens needs to take his own advice. Wilting Daisy should be his other name.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 5:12pm


    I was hoping that there would be an audience, because I could bet dollars to cronuts that there would be students dressing up as bedbugs.

    Of course, now that it's painfully clear that Mr. Bedbug is a glass cannon, we just can't have nice things.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Thad (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 5:30pm

    Re: Consarnit.

    "Glass cannon" implies a strong offense. Stephens hasn't done any damage to anyone other than himself. And the New York Times' reputation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 5:35pm

    Re: Re: Consarnit.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 5:49pm

    Re: Re: Consarnit.

    Not for lack of trying on his part though.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 5:53pm

    Re: Re: Re: Consarnit.

    Good point. Maybe he's an inefficient Glass Cannon: One that has low defense and high offense, but the high offense misfires all the time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    TFG, 11 Oct 2019 @ 9:02pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Consarnit.

    I think the term you were looking for was "Glass Jaw."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Brett Hart, 11 Oct 2019 @ 10:36pm


    "Yellow-bellied Stephen" has a better ring and is much more accurate in my experience with Stephens.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 11:32pm

    Well, someone’s got a bug up their ass.

    Better make sure it’s not a bedbug.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 11 Oct 2019 @ 11:33pm

    Can we call him a “Glass Joe” instead? 😁

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. icon
    Ed (profile), 12 Oct 2019 @ 6:16am

    Sort of indicative of the NYT of late. Are they nothing but sycophants and blowhards, now? The era of Dean Baquet is seriously degrading the old grey lady.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Oct 2019 @ 1:42pm

    All they had to do was put a huge mattress in a back room that he could scuttle under when things didn't his way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2019 @ 8:02am

    YOU tell ME.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. icon
    Thad (profile), 14 Oct 2019 @ 9:32am


    I've talked about this in previous Bret Stephens discussions, but I think this is the result of decades of conservatives working the refs. Conservatives rant and rave that the New York Times is liberal; the New York Times bends over backwards to show how neutral it is by bringing on more conservative commentators and leaning heavily on a "view from nowhere" style of reporting that treats every story as if there are two sides and they're equally valid. Conservatives will never, ever stop saying that the New York Times is liberal; this doesn't appease them, it just turns off everybody else.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Michael, 14 Oct 2019 @ 10:55am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Consarnit.

    I'm not a firearms expert, but I am pretty sure that if you built a cannon out of glass, loaded it with black powder and a cannon ball, and then fired it, you would find that the cannon ball travels very little distance and the person firing the cannon would be shredded by the shards of glass from the weak and brittle pipe bomb they just detonated in front of themselves.

    Which pretty accurately depicts what we were originally talking about.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. identicon
    anonymouse, 15 Oct 2019 @ 9:24am

    Re: Re: wonders

    Ah Leadership. The issue is in how it manifests.

    Is it the Boss / Bully style of do what I say and sycophants?

    Is it the Coordinator, democratic style of teamwork?

    Is it what some call paternalistic but I much prefer Instructional style. This one is a bit harder to define but comes from one knowing the subject much better than the rest but only interjects to correct and instruct the others. This is where the know-it-all either shines or fails in sharing their knowledge with the group.

    I have worked in Scouting through all levels in my lifetime and have seen or experience all three types. The first is doomed to failure ultimately. The second is what is encouraged by the program and generates solid levels of confidence and responsibility. The third is what you hope will happen and where you get some of the best in instructing and learning from members in the group.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. icon
    bhull242 (profile), 15 Oct 2019 @ 12:35pm

    Y’know, I’m not entirely bothered by the lack of a debate, as I don’t really think we’d get meaningful discourse out of it. What bothers me is that Stephens backed out only because he didn’t want the debate to be public. What would even be the point of having a private debate? It certainly doesn’t say anything good about Stephens’ argument if he’s concerned about it being made public.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    bhull242 (profile), 15 Oct 2019 @ 12:36pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Consarnit.

    Someone should get the Mythbusters on this. I totally want to see what would happen if you tried to make and fire a glass cannon!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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