The idea of safe spaces has been under attack since they were first formed in the mid-60’s, but this has been most apparent following the presidential victory of Donald Trump. As I understand it, a safe space is a designated community where marginalized students can be guaranteed a sense of safety from both intentional and unintentional hostility. However, many students and adults question academic institutions’ right to censor their words, citing first amendment rights. But instead, the question we should be asking is: what would schools be like without censorship?
The notion of a safe space is one form of censorship. Safe spaces on academic campuses are meant to be a place or community where marginalized students can feel confident they will not be exposed to discrimination, harassment, or any threats thereof. But lately there has been pushback, from students and academic institutions alike, about the idea of safe spaces. For instance, the Dean of Students of the University of Chicago recently issued a statement to the incoming freshmen class denouncing safe spaces in particular.
I recognize the faults in considering an entire campus a safe space. It is, of course, important to promote tolerance among the broader community, but the limitations of a “campus-wide safe space” can inhibit healthy dialogue. If there are intolerant undertones to someone’s argument, those should be exposed in a healthy and productive way. Some people don’t know the extent to which their words affect others; some have wholly innocent intentions, but tend to trip over their words; some don’t know why what they say is unacceptable. In this sense, I think it important to allow students the freedom to express themselves while promoting a sense of mutual respect about these types of interactions.
Of course, not all conversation will be held respectfully, but school is the ideal place to learn how to do just that. Education comes in many forms. The primary purpose of school is to educate and inform us such that we can function in society. Along with a factual understanding of the world, schools are also expected to impart critical thinking and cultural understanding. Cultural competency, the ability to communicate respectfully and considerately with people of different backgrounds, is one such form. This skill is absolutely essential, and contrary to popular belief, wholly part of our expected education--not separate from it.
We’re going to have to deal with all kinds of ignorance and hatred. But schools, in educating us, play a vital role in cultivating the kind of community we’d be proud to participate in. Working toward eliminating bias takes much more than silencing uncomfortable opinions: it takes creating constructive and respectful dialogue, supporting your arguments with fact, and having empathy for another’s story.
A common misconception is that today’s college students are very socially sheltered. A survey conducted by the Knight Foundation and Gallup found that 78 percent of college students were partial to being exposed to “all types of speech and viewpoints,” including speech considered biased or offensive. However, 69 percent of the same pool agreed restrictions should be imposed on “slurs and other language...that is intentionally offensive to certain groups.”
Far from being “coddled,” more Millennials are actually in favor of free expression, and only advocate restrictions once speech becomes targeted. Safe spaces offer a temporary relief from targeted harassment, sweeping generalizations, and cultural ignorance. Being exposed to new ideas and being able to lean into discomfort is vital in today’s demanding world, and should be required, but only as long as students have access to places where they aren’t constantly fighting. Ideally, these spaces will encourage engaging other ideas, and will not span an entire campus so as to silence inexperienced, but well-intentioned students. We must also be cognisant of the fact that, although dialogue is important, a minority student feeling unsafe in their own home takes precedence over the discomfort a majority-identifying student feels about discussing it. Safe spaces are vital for ensuring the wellbeing of our peers. I only hope that students will confront the concept with less outright rejection and more reformative ideas, so as to work toward a more understanding community for all.
Published in Deerfield Academy's political magazine The View