On Safe Spaces

On Safe Spaces

Another day, another op-ed piece about students who live in “safe spaces” being utterly unprepared for The Real World.  This time the opinion comes from Bret Stephens, a columnist for the New York Times, who published the May 14, 2017 commencement speech he gave to the students at Hampden-Sydney College.  “Safe spaces, physical and intellectual, are for children,” writes Stephens. “You are grown-ups now. If your diplomas mean anything, it’s that it is time you leave those spaces behind forever.”  Safe spaces are, in Stephen’s opinion, places where dissent is stifled.  “After all, if a college or university should accept the principle of a “safe space” in a single designated room, why should that same principle not extend to the classroom, the lecture hall, dormitories, college newspapers, chat rooms, social media and so on?  If we want to accommodate the sensitivities of our fellow students, shouldn’t that accommodation extend not only to what we say around them, but also to what we say anywhere — or what we allow to be said anywhere?  And if it is not O.K. to say certain things, anywhere, should we even think them?”

Stephens presumes that college is a “safe space” for everyone but conservative students; that other students are protected from speech and actions that represent profoundly different perspectives lest those ideas “hurt people’s feelings or trigger their anxieties.”

I can only speak for my own college, but nothing could be further from the truth.

My students are deeply embedded in The Real World.  Let’s talk about the student who sends part of their student loan home to their family, because their family relies on that income to hold their world together.  College is not a place where they can suspend their responsibilities and spend money only on books. Let’s talk about the student who is sexually assaulted. They are not protected from the violence of that act because they’re on a college campus.  Let’s talk about the student who weathers daily racist insults, and whose fellow students fly a confederate flag in their dorm-room window.  College is not a place where they are insulated from the inequitable racial power dynamics of American society.  Let’s talk about the trans student who isn’t accepted for who they are. They are not assured, because they are students, that they will be believed about their own gender identity, much less shielded from hateful speech and action.

We can strive to make our campuses inclusive spaces, to recognize the harms perpetuated by society upon our students, faculty, and staff.  But we cannot magically hold off the societal forces that seek to diminish the worth of the people around us.  College is only magical, conflict-free space for a tiny minority of students – students who are overwhelmingly protected by wealth and whiteness. For everyone else, college presents an environment that mirrors the problems, inequalities, and challenges of the world at large.

It is worth pointing out that there is a vast difference between pain and oppression which Stephens elides when he talks about “safe space”.  The students I know who most need space to talk with like-minded people, or people who share a similar position to them in the world, are students who are oppressed by the structures of our society, whose humanity is denied on the basis of race, class, sex, gender, religion, and disability every day.  The people who oppose them are not merely engaged in a thought exercise, they are actively engaged in discriminating against them, and are aided and abetted by structures and institutions that back up their position.  That’s a very different thing from being a white, male, conservative who is pained because others don’t want to hear their voice.

Safe spaces, as implemented on our campus, are informal places where people who share an identity can speak freely, without concern for moderating their language or holding back their thoughts because of others who do not share their experiences.   This is a feature not only of college campuses, but of the whole of our society – think of male-only golf courses; women’s book clubs; networking events within a given industry; Alcoholics Anonymous.  The list is as varied as we are.  So why should students be denied respite from the world in which they live less than everyone else?

In sum – safe spaces are not limited to college campuses, and college campuses are not places where students can live a coddled life, protected from the opinions and actions of others.  To argue as much is to make assumptions about who’s in college, their life experiences, and the source of solutions to intractable social problems in the United States.

My students lives are real, their experiences are real, and the world is unwelcoming and dangerous for way too many of them.











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