Story | Daryl Yang
Illustration | Yang Xuerui
Last week, our college was involved in a passionate discussion after a student posted on the Yale-NUS College Students Facebook group calling for her peers to be “mindful of each other’s sensitivities when expressing ourselves in the public space”. This was in response to another student putting up a poster of Nicki Minaj next to one of Mother Teresa on the day that she was to be canonized. The student shared that “some of us perceived it as a mark of disrespect and antagonism” towards their religious faith.
This incident made apparent an important nuance about the debate between safe spaces and free speech that I did not consider before. As someone involved in the controversy over the parody posters that mocked the transgender community, I struggled for some time on what differentiated the two incidents. Ultimately, I believe that the distinction is between feeling unsafe and feeling uncomfortable.
To feel uncomfortable is to have your beliefs and worldview challenged and unsettled because of novel and different ideas or perspectives. In The Analects, Confucius was noted to have said that “the scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar”. Indeed, there is an abundance of motivational quotes on the importance of feeling uncomfortable. For instance, American author Neale Donald Walsch once said that life begins only at the end of one’s comfort zone.
In contrast, to feel unsafe is to feel that your identity and lived experiences are invalidated such that you are made to feel inferior or dehumanized simply on the basis of who you are.
This distinction is especially critical in our college, given the sociopolitical climate towards these issues in Singapore. Nik Caverhill ’17 earlier noted in his essay in The Octant that safe spaces were first created for the LGBTQ+ community. Homosexuality is still criminalized in Singapore and LGBTQ+ individuals are often marginalized based on our identities with no legal recourse or protection. Many of us therefore literally feel unsafe about not only talking about our identities but even just living out who we are. On the other hand, there exist strict laws in our Penal Code that restrict what can or cannot be said about religion and race, as teenage blogger Amos Yee would know.
Reflecting on my own experiences over the past two years in the Yale-NUS community, I realized that though I often feel uncomfortable, I have never had to feel unsafe. I can engage in difficult discussions and uncomfortable conversations about my sexuality and other difficult issues at our college without feeling that my identity and experiences are invalidated or stigmatized.
I have been in many uncomfortable situations as coordinator of The G Spot, our college gender and sexuality alliance. My beliefs, principles and values were constantly challenged as I was forced to consider new and different perspectives whether it was the Ambassador Chan controversy or public criticism of Ally Week. At the same time, it is because I know I am in a safe space in our community that empowers me to feel capable of facing these difficult discomforts.
At Tedx Pickering Street earlier this year, I was invited to share about how the cultivation of safe spaces in our college has allowed me to engage in meaningful and heartfelt conversations with my peers from diverse backgrounds. I cannot imagine myself doing the same in law school or in any other university here. I have been told by some people that I am brave for standing up and advocating for LGBTQ+ rights but upon reflection, I think I could have been brave only because I knew I was in a safe and supportive environment.
This can largely be attributed to our strong institutional affirmation of providing a safe environment for LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff that has not been achieved by any other university in Singapore. It not only allows LGBTQ+ students like myself to feel safe just being who we are but also safe enough to challenge ourselves beyond our comfort zone to engage with our peers, to share and learn from each other.
The paranoia over safe spaces threatening freedom of expression ultimately is the result of conflating what it means to feel unsafe with feeling uncomfortable. To villainize safe spaces, like what some other universities have done, is not only misguided but potentially detrimental to the vibrant intellectual community that we have built over the past three years.
On one hand, the concept of safe spaces should not be exploited by students to remain in their comfort zone and avoid the challenges that are to be expected in a university. On the other hand, to reject safe spaces because of the perceived threat to free speech is ultimately to the loss of not only those of us from marginalized communities but also the rest of our college community. These spaces are not only “safe” spaces, but are more importantly brave spaces. Members of our community are able to acknowledge our discomfort and differences while contributing to meaningful interactions and dialogue to each other’s benefit and growth.
We have built something very precious in our community that I am at once grateful for and very proud of, and it is essential that we not do ourselves a disservice by conflating what it means to feel unsafe versus what it means to feel uncomfortable. Do that, and we risk ruining an essential aspect of what Yale-NUS means.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org