There are No “Safe Spaces”

Today, I bring good news. Not all millennials are little snowflakes—maybe not even a majority. At the beginning of this semester, I asked my students to a write short essay on whether they thought so-called “safe spaces” are appropriate at universities (see here for another Rightly Considered post addressing safe spaces). Because you see, at my university, the students have had safe spaces shoved down their throats lately. A safe space was immediately set up after Trump’s election, and counselors were made available. They were set up again at the start of spring semester. Somewhat surprisingly, a majority of my students seemed to be against them, expressing that they came to university to have their ideas challenged, not coddled.

In the discussion we had leading up to the essay, I asked them to explain just what a safe space is. The safe space, they said, was a place to vent. You could say whatever you wanted with no fear of anyone saying anything negative about the content of your venting. The “no negativity toward others” was paramount, they said.

In their essays, students expressed some serious problems with safe spaces. For instance, one student, who decided to give them a try, found it impossible to make them truly safe. Students would come into the safe space, thinking they could say whatever they wanted without blow-back, and say some really nasty things. And, it turns out (surprise!) that the other people in the safe space remember what was said when they exit the safe space. She reported that friends would go to the safe space; when one friend would start venting, the other would hear things she had no idea that the first friend thought. “Wow,” the student thought, “I had no idea that so-and-so was such a narcissist.” The friends would leave with a poorer relationship. Another student, born in Cuba, expressed that safe spaces reminded him of his communist birth place and its lack of free speech.

If safe spaces deteriorate friendships, how much more likely is it that mere acquaintances or strangers are judging venters? They may not be saying anything negative back to the venter, but you can’t stop people from thinking the negative things. What’s worse is that you can’t keep safe space spies out–people pretending to abide by the safe space rules, only to later report on safe space activities to the outside world. So, these spaces are not truly safe, or judgment free.

These are good insights by my students. What’s worse is that the very idea of a safe space, as defined by my university, is incoherent. Imagine, in the wake of Super Bowl 51, my university decided to set up a safe space for those, such as myself, traumatized by New England’s overtime victory, where ‘safe space’ is defined the same way as before—a space for anyone to come and vent their feelings, and where nothing negative would be said in response. Suppose further that I go to the safe space to express my utter hatred for Tom Brady and dismay at his victory. In another dorm room, a Patriots fan, happy with the victory, but disturbed by the vitriol directed against his team, decides he would like to also seek refuge in the safe space, and maybe get a cupcake. He arrives just in time to hear my diatribe against his team. This sets him over the edge; he needs to vent. But now there is a dilemma: either Patty the Patriots fan vents, and that venting includes emoting about my diatribe against Tom Brady, violating the rule against saying anything negative about what someone else said, or Patty the Patriots fan holds back a little bit, knowing that if he really lets go of his feelings, he’ll violate the “no negativity” rule. But, by holding back, Patty has discovered that the safe space is not truly a space where he can say whatever he wants. So, either spaces cannot admit everyone, contrary to how they are advertised, or safe spaces cannot forbid all negative responses to those venting in the space, also contrary to how they are advertised.

It would be better if we abandoned the notion of a safe space, and trained our students to be secure adults who are not traumatized by disagreement.

Walter Montgomery

Walter is a philosophy graduate student in New Hampshire. He sometimes wishes he was a lawyer, and other times wishes he was a basketball coach. Some of his favorite childhood memories involve traveling with his immediate family, grandparents, and cousins’ family in big gas-guzzling vans towing campers. He sees philosophy as a tool for getting at Truth, and thinks too many contemporary philosophers see it as a tool for advancing their ideological preferences.

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    • True, Urban II. I almost went to the “safe spaces” after the election, just out of curiosity. I’m very confident that, although at my particular institution they were advertised as for all, you wouldn’t have found any Trump supporters.

    • Good to hear most of your students are not fragile little snowflakes, but the loudest students sure appear to be. I don’t know, maybe the majority of students have better things to do than protest, play with play-doh and cuddle with stuffed animals, like maybe homework.

  1. Good post, but I think it’s only a small (but important) progress towards understanding the issue and hopefully understanding where to go from here. Much of your post I interpret as merely set-up for the critical insight.

    Here is your critical insight and the point that others have only vaguely seen:

    “So, either spaces cannot admit everyone, contrary to how they are advertised, or safe spaces cannot forbid all negative responses to those venting in the space, also contrary to how they are advertised.”

    The stated definition of, and practices surrounding, the typical ‘safe space’ (almost exclusively instantiated within educational institutions) really does seem to be predicated on the following:

    (1) Some sufficiently amorphous/thin/flexible progressive liberal belief set defines the institution’s self-conception of what truly is the community.

    (2) The community determines the safe space.

    The ‘unobjectionable’ nature of a safe space relies on (2) for it’s superficial validity. This is why proponents of safe spaces often seem to believe that the only counterargument they must defend against is infantalization.

    There are many other interesting tangents here, probably because the underlying structure of a ‘safe space’ is a symptom of political polarization, a symptom of political monopoly/hegemony, and an exacerbating element of each.

    • Jordan,
      I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I’m sorry I’ve been slow to respond. It’s been a busy week! Yes, you’ve nailed what I take to be my critical insight.

      Your two points seem right to me, though it would help to put a little more meat on those bones. I think a commitment to globalism and/or multiculturalism is part of the liberal belief set that defines the instutition’s self-conception. If that is the case, a Trump voter is almost by definition excluded from the community, since most Trump voters prefer nationalism to globalism, and are skeptical of multiculturalism. It’s odd that they are excluded from the community though; they are certainly physically present in the community. They go to class, hang out on campus, go to some activities, and yet, are somehow not part of it in a relevant way. What do you think?

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