A Defense and Delineation of Safe Spaces
story Nik Carverhill, Guest Columnist
Last week’s piece on the infantilization of the academic experience at Yale-NUS College is troubling. The analysis is reductive, the prose condescending, and the conclusions misguided. Nonetheless, it offers us an opportunity to outline what safe spaces actually are and why they matter.
Safe spaces are demarcated zones—on- or offline—that have rules of engagement. They were predominantly created for and continue to serve the LGBTQ community. The authors’ nebulous and vague use of the term ‘safe space’ misses this point. Policies demanding that students use inclusive classroom language does not constitute a safe space.
In reality, the authors do not speak to safe spaces at all. Instead, they lament the fall of controversial ideas in general. Based on the College’s track-record of public, in-class, and private conversations, this assertion does not carry much weight. It seems, rather, that we are approaching these conversations with a deeper understanding of marginalization, privilege and respect. Being a jerk and having ‘tough’ conversations are not necessary corollaries.
Safe spaces and vigorous public discourse are complementary. They are a place for healing, exploration of identity and the sharing of impactful experiences without being subject to further erasure. This ultimately empowers more students to lend their voices to important issues outside of those spaces.
Offering a space where critical discourse is not necessarily expected requires a paradigm shift in our thinking. Argument for the sake of argument is not only redundant at certain points, but is a way of approaching our social milieus that is deeply rooted in European intellectual traditions. Much like the authors, it seems, my upbringing has taught me that critical discourse is absolutely paramount for social progress. And yet, I’ve come to believe that this is not true in all cases. The act of only listening, without the intention or need to respond, critique or question can be profoundly reparative. A full and unqualified transference of power from those who have dominated discussions for centuries to those who have otherwise been sidelined is a powerful act of agency reclamation. We have a responsibility to be involved in that rebalancing.
What’s more, sometimes people will have irreconcilable differences that cannot be bridged by any amount of intellectual discourse. That is fine. Recognition without confrontation is sometimes the best way to maintain healthy relationships.
So what are safe spaces? Rules and expectations typically include an intolerance for slut-shaming, transphobia, victim-blaming and various other sorts of speech and reasoning that are otherwise widespread. The justifications are clear: ‘discussions’ surrounding issues of identity are not just abstractions for marginalized groups. They are lived; they are experienced; and they often imply that a debate can and should be had about a community’s fundamental rights.
Is there then merit to the claim that controversial ideas are being silenced? The authors cite one anecdote of students shying away from conversation in a Sociology of Religions class for fear of offending religious peers. This episode is only tangentially related to safe spaces—it points to the fact that we should prioritize better facilitation of discussion. There are innumerable ways to approach a conversation about studying religion sociologically while maintaining personal religious beliefs without causing deep offense—it has been done and written about countless times. Such a conversation requires us to be thoughtful, self-reflective and humble. This can be challenging, but it is not impossible. Indeed, another student from that class stresses that the experience was wholly positive for them. If questions were ever avoided, it was largely because a focus on the social phenomena of religion is actually quite distinct from personal religiosity, not because there was some abiding self-censorship.
When it is the texts in our classes that prove controversial and not questions for each other, there are still a number of ways to tease out their value while being honest about their implications. The recognition of certain thinkers (e.g. Aristotle) as misogynistic does not prevent fruitful engagement. To say that this is an “infantile response” and “steeped in the jargon of the hyper-sensitive and emotionally incapable” betrays a lack of moral imagination—it is possible to see the value of certain writing while condemning its discriminatory components. We can applaud Aristotle for his writings on politics while denouncing him for his sexism.
The authors posit that the restriction of students’ use of discriminatory language “immediately restrains students from articulating why racist, sexist, and other discriminatory language is wrong.” This is nonsense. They do not obstruct our ability to discuss the damage done by discrimination. Yale-NUS students can have vigorous debates about why racism and sexism are harmful without access to racist and sexist language. To think otherwise underestimates our collective linguistic and intellectual dexterity.
Colleges are better off with safe spaces. They do not shutter important conversations, and they make us reflect on the paradigms through which we approach such topics. Ironically, after centuries of having our conversations constrained and dictated by white, cisgender, heterosexual men like myself, it is time that we take a few moments to consider how we can better approach conversations to reach constructive—and thoughtful—conclusions.