If you ask most conservatives, they would say that safe spaces impede free speech and shield students from the realities of the real world. Advocates for safe spaces, however, argue that students are well aware of the harsh realities of the world, but that they still need to know that their campus is a safe environment, free from discrimination.
One of the originators of the term “safe space” was the group Campus Pride, which launched in 2002 as “an online community and resource clearinghouse” to support LGBTQ students. It has since grown into “the leading national nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization for student leaders and campus groups working to create a safer college environment for LGBTQ students.”
Over the years, the definition of “safe space” has evolved into:
“…a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.
A place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.” – The Safe Space Network
As hesitant as I am to link to a tumblr blog as a reputable source, it is easily the most concise definition currently available that encapsulates the current (and evolving) definition of what a safe space is to most students and activists.
I understand that most of the controversy over the idea of “safe spaces” is the idea that students should not be made to feel uncomfortable. However, the key is not that they should never be exposed to uncomfortable truths, but that they shouldn’t be made to feel uncomfortable on the basis of who they are while engaging with these topics.
A wheelchair-bound student may be uncomfortable during the eugenics unit in her Intro to Disability Studies class. That does not mean, however, that she wants those lessons to be removed. Rather, what she and others are asking for is that professors ensure that she and other disabled students can engage in the conversation without being made to feel uncomfortable due to their disability. This requires that professors and universities ensure students are able to express themselves without allowing hate speech to enter into the conversation.
Speaking from experience, I can remember several instances of young white men in my university history classes who thought they were being oh-so-clever and original by arguing that slavery was actually a good thing. While I understand that freedom of speech is important, that kind of rhetoric is harmful and has no place in an institution of higher learning. Such a view is neither revolutionary, nor particularly thought-provoking, and creates an unwelcoming and unsafe environment for students of color.
Unfortunately, we are not yet at a place in history where the majority of people understand the difference between free speech and hate speech. This is why, even though every classroom may not be able to pass for a safe space due to the professor presiding over the lessons, every university should help foster and encourage safe spaces on campus.
Most universities already have student-led activist organizations, such as Campus Pride and Black Lives Matter, on their campus. These organizations create opportunities for marginalized students to share their views and frustrations in a safe, welcoming environment, free from their usual oppressors. This is not “avoiding the real world,” it is allowing someone to “check out” for a bit, for their own mental well-being.
It all boils down to the fact that we should not be normalizing hate speech. In order to avoid repeating the same mistakes, we cannot forget the terrible lessons in our history books. No one calling for safe spaces is advocating for the sanitization of history. If anything, liberal activists are the more likely than their conservative counterparts to fight against the whitewashing of history. What we are calling for, however, is that while learning about sensitive topics, we do not allow these lessons to become a vehicle for some to espouse hateful, damaging views that create a hostile learning environment.