The concept of safe spaces is not new or exclusive to the 21st century, but in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, it has been yanked into the spotlight and become a central topic of debate all over social media sites and news outlets. In this post we will discuss the different arguments surrounding the safe spaces debate. We will start with a general definition of safe spaces, then move into analyzing the conservative argument against safe spaces and before presenting the counter to their position. Following that, we will move into the progressive critique of safe spaces. Lastly, we will explain why safe spaces are beneficial.
What are Safe Spaces?
Safe spaces on college campuses are meant to provide a space for marginalized students in which they can express themselves without fear of judgement or discrimination. LGBTQ+ students can act out their identity in a way that they are not always able. Sexual assault and rape survivors have a haven to go when experiences reminded them of their trauma in a way that provokes panic attacks. Students suffering from mental illness have a space in which they are temporarily protected from the outside world. Essentially, safe spaces are supposed to be places where students who experience forms of marginalization can go and deal with encounters of oppression before being exposed to daily life again. But how has this original designation of safe spaces changed and been distorted?
On November 17th, 2016 Fox News titled one of their articles: “Coddling Campus Crybabies: Students Take up Toddler Therapy After Trump Win”. This illustrates how many of the conservative arguments against safe spaces are carried out. Online, one can find a myriad of articles centered around the crying, whining students who cannot deal with real world problems and ideally should all be drafted into military service next week to show them that their current problems are basically worthless.
What do the Conservatives Have to Say?
Much of the pushback against safe spaces is based on the notion that they have gone too far in the wrong direction. The conservative side holds the belief that students retreat into them for reassurance of their beliefs while closing their eyes to opposing viewpoints in the interest of preserving their feelings.
The Tough Baby is a theory that explains how feminist critics invalidate and try and to dismantle feminist arguments. “The Tough Baby tells women to ‘toughen up’ and suffer in silence while at the same time deriding her and presenting himself as wallowing in wounded self-pity” (Tomlinson, 2010, p. 88). This uses infantilizing language used by conservatives that are anti-safe spaces while they are acting like children themselves. This is contradictory, as they are telling marginalized people to grow up and deal with oppression while they are exhibiting self pity and present themselves as being excluded while in a position of privilege. Tough Baby is a feminist theory that “both relies on and enacts such a binary system of oppositional dominance, treating its own rhetorical vehemence as justified, and that of the (angry) feminist as deplorable; its own position as invaluable, and that of the (angry) feminist as ridiculous; its own (or male dominant) sexuality as imperative, that of the (angry) feminist as foolish or perverse; its own possible excess as courageous, those of the (angry) feminist as outrageous” (Tomlinson, 2010, p. 88). Essentially meaning that feminist critics feel like their own viewpoints are the only valuable arguments and invalidates feminist discourse by saying it is infantile. However, what this argument does not take into account is the fact that there have always been spaces where certain language and topics are appropriate, and spaces where they are inappropriate. It does not necessarily mean that different opinions or their expression are condemned in every context, but rather that this might not be the space to voice them or even just voice them in a certain way. There can exist a discrepancy between ideas without the presence of discrimination. Hate speech is what is prohibited from a safe space, not a difference in opinion.
There have been certain examples that have come under much scrutiny through the conservative lense. One of the major ones was when a speaker on a college campus was to debate against rape culture which was met with immediate pushback and protests. We understand that rape culture is a topic that should not be debated, but this was a major issue in most of the articles we read. Students demanded safe spaces for anyone who might feel triggered by the topic of the debate. What many of the media outlets used as the reason for their critique was not the demand for the safe space itself, but the perceived reasoning behind it. Students had apparently asked for a space not only because the debate could have been potentially triggering for rape survivors, but also because they disagreed with the presence of anti-rape culture discourse (Breitbart News, 2016, New York Times, 2015). They pushed to have another speaker come on campus at the same time as the debate was taking place who would be going on to prove that rape culture exists. As the first event was constructed as a debate, a side that supported the existence of rape culture would already have been present, making their measures preemptive. The avoidance of difficult subjects is not how one learns how to deal with them, in fact one form of therapy used to help people overcome their fears is exposure therapy- literally meant to expose oneself to the thing that triggers us so that we best know how to handle it so we don’t continue to be triggered. The understanding of safe spaces has been warped in the sense that they are taken to be there to shield us off from controversial subjects even though that is not the case. Safe spaces are meant to give us tools to use to handle tough situations, not shield us from them entirely. In this unfortunate example, safe spaces appear to being used to silence discussion that might occur and reducing the chance for students to have their ideas challenged in a way that would spark them to have to strengthen their argument (Breitbart News, 2016; New York Times, 2015). Because of this morph in safe spaces, our generation has been accused of being childlike and unprepared to handle the real world because all we know is how to whine. This argument of calling the demand for safe spaces “whining” is not only infantilizing, but also speaks to a deeper misunderstanding of the issue at hand. They used to call it protest, but now conservatives would like to have everyone believe that racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is basically over in this country just because of the existence of the Obamas, Hillary Clinton, gay marriage, etc. Everything that is still perceived as being a problem is brushed as of “whining” which is a complete disregard to the systematic oppression of certain groups. (Along the lines of: “We’re already all progressive, you’re asking for too much.”)
It is argued that we miss out on tough intellectual debates that could be sparked from people who think differently than us, people who would force us to really strengthen our arguments. One student named Adam Shapiro who, in response to being told by fellow students that he and others should declare their dorm rooms a safe space, put a sign on his door stating that his room was a “dangerous space.” (Breitbart News, 2016; New York Times, 2016) He claims he did this because “Kindness alone won’t allow us to gain more insight into truth. If the point of a safe space is therapy for people who feel victimized by traumatization, that sounds like a great mission” (Breitbart News, 2016; New York Times, 2015). He went on to say that the “fear of offending students has led to professors avoiding saying anything remotely controversial” (Breitbart News, 2016; New York Times, 2015). From this we can deduce that Mr. Shapiro would agree with having safe spaces for people who need to recover after being triggered but not for everything that sparks a strong emotional response that might be uncomfortable. What he struggles with, and what many seem to struggle with, is the fact that safe space culture has seemingly threatened free speech in academic spaces (New York Times, 2015). Being surrounded by like minded people is seen as self-fulfilling in that their ideas will just be repeated back to them, validating them and causing them, and our country, to be more polarized in its view. If liberals and conservatives don’t talk, they don’t learn how to handle each other’s views. This results in making both sides only more radical in their ideas after being affirmed in their beliefs from the people they surrounded themselves with. If they are both sheltered they will also not be prepared for the greater world where their beliefs will be challenged and they will not know how to stand up for themselves. This would result in distress and them eventually being pushed around and silenced. Hence the feeling of losing the freedom of speech. People need to be exposed to various viewpoints in order to form their arguments fully and to become a stronger person intellectually and emotionally. An article from the Atlantic titled “Silencing Religious Students on Campus” puts it eloquently when the author stated that the main reason people don’t want to speak their minds on tough topics is because they don’t want to be labelled as “intolerant or disrespectful” and that is what creates the feeling of being silenced (Atlantic, 2016).
What’s Good about Safe Spaces then?
When the conservative side attacks the concept of a safe space, it often becomes a personal attack and an attack on the morality and intelligence of an individual. Safe spaces are seen as places where people are stripped of their right to free speech and where people go to avoid opinions that differs from their own and only engage in ideas that echo each other. Thus there is the assumption that these individuals cannot handle differing opinions when that is not necessarily a sound conclusion. There are people on both sides of the political spectrum that do not engage with beliefs other than their own and it is not unique to people who seek out safe spaces. People choose to surround themselves with likeminded people in order to relate over similar ideas in everyday actions such as engaging with only left wing or right wing media or who one follows and unfollows on facebook due to political posts. If people only engage in like minded content then that inhibits growth and the challenging of ideas, but this does not mean that spaces that affirm and support similar ideas are not spaces of ignorance but of reflection. For marginalized groups, spaces that affirm one another’s ideas and experiences are ones that affirm one another’s existences in a society that does the opposite. In the context of feminist groups gathering to discuss women’s rights in the 1960’s, Pamela Parker Allen stated, “It is not so much the words that are said in response that are important; rather it is the fact that someone listens and does not ridicule; someone listens and accepts a woman’s description of her life” (Allen, 1969, 67). Spaces free of judgment create room for the expression of ideas and experiences that may be of the minority and disregarded or not taken seriously in the greater society. Safe spaces allow for the gathering of resources and the sharing of dialogues that can help one navigate encountering opposition and more effectively gather for activism. (Ahmed, 2015)
Do the Progressives Have a Critique?
From a more progressive lens we see the critique of safe spaces being more centered around what the effect on the wider world is when we only designate certain areas or rooms as safe. The New York Times article states that “once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe” (New York Times, 2015). This basically means that we are content saying that the rest of the world is fine being unsafe so long as we continue to have our designated safe spaces. Going against this rhetoric of accepting the rest of the world as unsafe, The New York Times goes on to say that “it follows that they should be made safer” (New York Times, 2015). In reference to how safe spaces will spread their culture to the greater world, bit by bit; making the culture of the world similar to that of safe spaces. If this trend follows in the footsteps of what the intended purpose of safe spaces, then there will be no problems with this change, although bigots might have some protests. However, if we continue to only relegate certain spaces be safe rather than make everywhere safe, we will essentially be self-segregating rather than making changes to our world.
Some Final Words
Although conservative views have many critiques about the validity of safe spaces, we as authors believe that the arguments that are used rest upon assumptions that are not factually informed and use harmful rhetoric. Therefore, we challenge the way they present their debate on safe spaces with feminist theory to bring to light the problems in their arguments and look at it from all angles. When we set out to write this article we hoped to present both sides and to show what the holes were in their criticisms. We wanted to help people understand why safe spaces can be beneficial to people who need to have their experiences affirmed and feel supported.
- Julia Minker, Gwen Major-Williams & Sophie Kriegerowski
(n.d.). Retrieved December 11, 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/silencing-religious-students-on-campus/497951/
@. (2015, March 23). ‘Infantilized’ College Students Need ‘Safe Spaces’ to Avoid Scary Free Speech – Breitbart. Retrieved December 11, 2016, from http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/03/23/infantilized-college-students-need-safe-spaces-to-avoid-scary-free-speech/
@. Ahmed. (2015, June 27). Against Students. Retrieved December 11, 2016, from https://feministkilljoys.com/2015/06/25/against-students/
Allen, P. P. (1969). The Small Group Process. In R. Baxandall & L. Gordon (Eds.), Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement (67 – 69). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Shulevitz, J. (2015, March 21). In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas. Retrieved December 11, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/opinion/sunday/judith-shulevitz-hiding-from-scary-ideas.html?_r=0
Tomlinson, B. (2010). Feminism and affect at the scene of argument: Beyond the trope of the angry feminist. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.