Tackling the Term: What is a Safe Space?

This past fall, the University of Chicago welcomed incoming freshman to campus with an unambiguous message on safe spaces. “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” wrote Dean of Students John Ellison in a welcome letter sent to all first-year students. The letter whipped up a nationwide frenzy, sparking a debate on free speech and safe spaces by Op-Ed columnists and incensed internet commenters alike. Some praised it as an admirable and much-needed defense of free speech.

But it also garnered a fair share of criticism from people arguing that the letter was an embarrassing disappointment. In the firestorm following the letter’s release and subsequent circulation, it is useful to unpack the motivations behind the letter and the context in which it was written.

The Original Safe Spaces

What do we even mean when we talk about “safe spaces?” Today, it’s particularly difficult to have productive conversations safe spaces due to the term’s multiplicity of definitions. For example, a recent Slate article criticizing the UChicago letter explained that “‘safe spaces’ on campus typically describe extracurricular groups that are intended to be havens for historically marginalized students.”

That’s certainly one meaning of the term. Emotional refuges like OSAPR and Room 13 as well as cultural groups are often referred to as “safe spaces.” With this definition, “safe” denotes emotional protection. These groups provide students the opportunity to feel secure in times of distress and dysfunction, and they also provide a sense of community. Few would dispute the importance of these emotional spaces on campus. Judith Shulevitz noted in the New York Times that these spaces are able to promote certain types of conversations. According to her, “In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions… so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity.” Shulevitz’s commentary reveals that this type of “safe space” emphasizes respectfulness and discretion so that people feel comfortable, which is definitely necessary in certain pockets on campus.

But there’s another different (but also beneficial) type of “safe space”: academic safe spaces. The idea of an academic safe space stresses the end goal of encouraging individuals to speak. In this type of space, people are still made to feel uncomfortable, yet it’s “safe” to take intellectual risks and explore any line of thought. Here, “safety” protects your right to make others uncomfortable with ideas and rational arguments. It’s important to note that in this setting, free speech is the end goal. This type of safety is commonly emphasized in in classrooms and discussion groups, where open dialogue is particularly valuable.

In an interview on the radio program On Being, Harvard psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji described this concept. She explained, “It is my job to tell people to feel uncomfortable, to squirm, to go back and think hard about where they come from and so on. And now I’m being told that when I say that, I’m making somebody possibly uncomfortable. And I’ve argued forever this is a safe room in which we can say anything, and we will deal with it.”

We see that these two meanings of the term “safe space” are distinctly different. Emotional safe spaces offer comfort and respectfulness; academic safety refers to the freedom to make others uncomfortable through intellectual debate. When used correctly, emotional and academic safe spaces are both beneficial for students.

Confusion and Conflation 

But because the term “safe space” is used interchangeably to refer to two very different ideas, the concepts themselves become conflated. People begin to have bloated and unclear understandings of how academic spaces should be considered “safe”. A new iteration of the concept has emerged—some students advocate to expand emotional safe spaces to encompass the campus as a whole. This new space is a false extrapolation of the originals, mistakenly operating under the unshakable credo that in an academic setting, people should feel emotionally secure.

A problem arises in this case. There exists a tension between emotional safety and academic safety. If the goal of an academic setting is to keep people comfortable, then the acceptability of speech will be determined by how objectionable it is. And if arguments are limited based on how offensive they seem, people are expected to adhere to an implicit set of polite ideological norms. Speech is allowed so long it doesn’t appear to conflict with the socially accepted opinions on certain touchy topics. In this way, new safe spaces become less about respecting and empowering individuals than sanctifying certain ideas. Provocative speech is censored, which has pernicious effects on the academic tradition.

Failing to consider the manifold meanings of the term also inhibits constructive dialogue about safe spaces. Most people understand the value of protecting disagreeable ideas in a classroom, and they appreciate the existence of cultural groups and organizations like OSAPR on campus. But in a dorm or house, what should be the priority—courteousness or freedom of discussion? I would argue the latter should reign supreme in an academic institution like Harvard. But it is impossible to have a meaningful discussion on how “safe spaces” should be implemented if people are referring to different concepts when they use that term.

The Slate piece mentioned earlier considered “safe spaces” only as referring to cultural groups. But when considered in light of the differing meanings of safe spaces, it is clear that the University of Chicago does not oppose “havens for historically marginalized students.” Instead, the letter sought to address the expansion of a niceness requirement to the academic sphere, which the university saw as coming into conflict with freedom of expression. By avoiding the complexity and loaded nature of the term “safe space”, either intentionally or not, it’s easy to attack those who seek to meaningfully address the implementation of “safe spaces” on campus. To achieve constructive dialogue on this issue, and to clarify the distinction between different meanings of the term “safe space,” it’s essential to recognize and address its diversity of denotations.

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