Discomfort and safe space

Wrestling with incongruous ideas is a part of the liberal arts tradition and one of my favorite parts of college. Extraordinary learning comes from dialogue – evaluating competing claims and argumentations. History is rife with vivid intellectual disagreements, and these disagreements demonstrate engaging with dissenting opinions can be more fruitful than stomping them out. Furthermore, dialogue is essential to building empathy, a critical part of collegiate learning. Given the significance of disagreement, we should be sensitive to practices that could threaten open discourse. One purported threat to dialogue is the ‘safe space’ movement.

Earlier this school year, Columbia student Adam Shapiro wrote to his school newspaper justifying why he designated his room an ‘unsafe space.’ “My objection to the ‘safer space’ project is not that it is trying to eliminate racism, sexism, and homophobia,” writes Shapiro, “It is precisely the opposite. My objection is that ‘safe spaces’ are attempting to create false spaces where these evils in their truest and coarsest form are kept at bay and out of the discussion.” It is worth digesting Shapiro’s piece in full, but this gets at the heart of the objection: dangerous, unsafe ideas are often beneficial.

I am no stranger to how harmful dismissing dissent can be. I came to Concordia College from a Catholic high school where I was often targeted for being an atheist. In one instance, I was required to take a special test because I did not believe a lesson had changed my life. While other students were assigned reflection papers, one other student and I took a large test consisting primarily of rote definition recall. What could have been an opportunity for learning just entrenched us deeper into our disagreement.

In her recent New York Times opinion article “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” Judith Shulevitz argues – as did Shapiro – that colleges should not infantilize students. The primary target of her critique is the safe space. “…[T]he notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe.”

My stint in less than welcoming classrooms taught me the value of healthy discourse, but it also taught me what Shapiro and Shulevitz missed: students may need the emotional support safe spaces can provide. Attending meetings of Concordia’s then-unofficial Secular Student Group proved immensely helpful as I tried to view myself in a more positive light than some of my former teachers did. Why? Because Shulevitz is right: safe spaces are adrift in a sea of unsafe spaces.

My plight of taking a punishing test is nothing – this country can be a grim place for young people. The second leading cause of death for Americans ages 15-34 is suicide, followed closely by homicide. The Californian “Sodomite Suppression Act” has reached enough signatures to reach the ballot. The act calls for anyone who would ever or has ever engaged in same sex sexual acts to “be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method.” Meanwhile, one in four young women experience rape or attempted rape prior to or during college. A prominent columnist can see this and similar statistics, argue colleges encourage women to make false rape reports by “[making] victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges,” and be lauded. Evidence suggests women who don’t attend college fare even worse. While we are a few centuries removed from Hobbes’ Leviatihan, life can still be nasty and brutish. All the more reason for young people to have places they can identify as safe.

I see Shulevitz’s point: colleges shouldn’t hide students from controversial ideas. A former debater, I too believe in the importance of dialogue. Yet the debate about safe spaces is missing that, for too many young people, safety is a luxury. Shulevitz’s opinion could have done better to recognize that students are not just hiding from scary ideas, but from a scary reality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *