Columns

Asker ’17: The importance of safe spaces

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Last week Judith Shulevitz, a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times, wrote a column ridiculing the idea of safe spaces on college campuses. The problem is, she simply doesn’t do the concept of safe space justice. Saying that there are hypersensitive students on college campuses who push safe spaces too far, giving some extreme anecdotes to illustrate this point and then concluding that these students are ruining higher education is an unfair and unsound move.

But I can see how it is comforting, even therapeutic, to feel like the older generation contains “hardier souls” than today’s students. Irony aside, I will argue that Shulevitz neglects to account for the invaluable thing the safe space movement has to offer — namely, a means to root out everyday oppression ­­— but first I will make clear where I agree with her.

To open her piece, Shulevitz mocks Brown for providing a literal safe space to students during the Janus Forum event last fall entitled “How Should Colleges Handle Sexual Assault?” The room was supposed to give students a place to recuperate if they became upset, and it was replete with childish things from Play-Doh to coloring books. I agree this is ridiculous. Anything beyond making sure Counseling and Psychological Services psychotherapists are available near a sensitive lecture seems like overkill. After all, people were not forced to attend the lecture and were free to leave at any point.

I also agree that the choice to walk away from a debate should be made carefully. Leaving simply because people are expressing viewpoints that we disagree with precludes the possibility of growing intellectually.

Moreover, I agree that pushing for university-imposed censorship or speech codes is going too far. Certain expressions may offend groups of people in a diverse population like that found on a college campus, but officially banning such expressions is usually not a good idea. Universities choose to embrace robust academic freedom because it is overwhelmingly a good thing that helps them better achieve their missions. I agree that universities should generally avoid limiting freedom of expression.

Now here’s where I disagree with Shulevitz: Certainly some college students are hypersensitive, and some demand that universities restrict speech not realizing the value of free expression. But just because some espouse a radical interpretation of safe spaces that requires the university to baby them or crack down on speech doesn’t mean we should overlook the importance of a moderate conception of safe spaces.

By a moderate conception of safe spaces, I mean a conception that strives for social inclusion everywhere — a universal safe space. It is one that demands people consider others’ emotions, especially those of groups that have historically been and continue to be oppressed. This is similar to the conception that members of Columbia’s Everyone Allied Against Homophobia had in mind in their flyering campaign last fall.  In an op-ed in the Columbia Spectator, Robbie Lyman, vice president of EAAH, stated that the flyer is “is about learning how to be kind to each other.” The flyer encouraged holding ourselves and others to a “higher standard” in which we critically reflect on our day-to-day interactions and do what little we personally can to fight discrimination.

I use the adjective “moderate” to distinguish this conception from more extreme, uncompromising ones, like that of speech code crusaders. Advocates of a moderate conception realize the crucial difference between banning language through university rules and socially condemning offensive speakers. Invoking Voltaire, they may disapprove of what you say, and quite vociferously, but they will defend to the death your right to say it. On this view, former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly should be allowed to speak on campus, but that doesn’t mean inviting him is a good idea. People will censure the invitation because he represents and endorses institutional violence. When participants adequately explain the reasons for their protest, social sanctioning of this sort is educational. Advocating for safe space in this manner seems reasonable and even admirable.

Shulevitz laments that, nowadays, professors and students feel reluctant to say things for fear of offense. But making people think twice before they speak is a good thing and precisely the point of the movement. The idea is to make people second-guess their unintentionally biased tendencies and word choice and to overcome them through a little mental effort and by putting themselves in the shoes of others.

Reasonable safe space proponents don’t target people who have good reasons for using certain expressions, like those who believe using the actual n-word when teaching “Huckleberry Finn” has educational value. Instead, they criticize people who unreflectively say something stupid is “gay,” for example. They attack such speech because it is actually hurtful to a certain group of fellow human beings, because it perpetuates discrimination against them and because requesting people use a less offensive word isn’t much to ask. Demanding a safe space means wanting to change the world for the better through a social conscientiousness, and it means persuading people to join the movement by appealing to reason and empathy. It’s about creating inclusive climates on campus and beyond through social regulation and moral condemnation, not official censorship.

Shulevitz claims that safe spaces mean students will never learn “the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it” and make them “unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they” enter the real world. But a moderate safe space does exactly the opposite. It strives to educate students on others’ feelings, histories of violence and the idea of inclusiveness so that when our generation steps off campus, we can contribute to and create a less oppressive real world.

Shulevitz argues that engaging with ideas that make us uncomfortable is a good thing. I agree, and that’s exactly the purpose of a legitimate safe space movement: to make us reflect on our biased, exclusive tendencies and the negative impact our actions have on others. Grappling with these uncomfortable revelations about our own moral failings allows us not only to grow intellectually but also to become better versions of ourselves. It allows us to build a better society for our children and all children.

We would be wrong to take from Shulevitz’s article that the very concept of a safe space is pernicious. In conflating the hypersensitive and fanatical with reasonable safe space advocates, she distracts us from understanding that a universal safe space as a social aim is in fact paramount to our time.

Nicholas Asker ’17 can be reached at nicholas_asker@brown.edu.