Better Safe Spaces

Safe spaces should protect people, not dissenting opinions

Safe spaces on college campuses have recently come under scrutiny for discouraging intellectual discussion, even as some students at the University and even UC presidential tickets have advocated for more safe spaces on campus. There can be no doubt that certain safe spaces on campus can serve a positive purpose, especially when acting as judgment-free zones or havens for marginalized students; however, ones that stigmatize opposing beliefs do not. When a “safe space” becomes synonymous with an environment that works to eradicate controversial viewpoints, it enforces narrow-mindedness and undermines learning. Safe spaces should protect people, not ideas—making the world a more just place requires people to engage with both like-minded and dissenting opinions.

Invoking safety as an excuse to ban opposing perspectives is entirely counterproductive. Recently, student activists at Northwestern University carried mattresses around campus, using Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz’s tactic not to lobby for an alleged rapist’s expulsion as she did, but instead to protest an article that opposed the ban on student-faculty relationships, written by Northwestern Professor Laura Kipnis. The students asked administrators to officially condemn the ideas in the article due to “the violence” of its message, and for such a response to be “automatic” in the future. But there was no “violence” in Professor Kipnis’ article, and for students to ask Northwestern to officially and automatically censure her viewpoints is unjustified.

Sadly, the request and protest at Northwestern was also unsurprising, and representative of a dangerous trend on college campuses of using false attacks on safety to shut down provocative opinions; it is a pattern that contradicts the goal and culture of higher learning, which should instead foster intellectual debate. Repressing ideas that students dislike will only leave them ill-equipped for life after college, where ideas roam free.

While empathizing with upset peers is important, the purpose of an acceptable safe space should be to provide care, not to facilitate the avoidance of contrary opinions. A recent debate at Brown University about campus sexual assault, which featured speakers of various beliefs, prompted the establishment of a safe space during the debate for those who were potentially troubled by certain aspects of the discussion. The initial purpose of this safe space—to protect students—was laudable; on the other hand, when such a space is appropriated as a shelter against dissenting beliefs, as was the case for some students at Brown, it no longer has value. Students—not their ideas—deserve protection.

Places like Room 13, which forgo prejudice and offer tolerance in order to give individuals the opportunity to voice their concerns without fear of judgment, are worthwhile safe spaces. But not all safe spaces are created equal, and some harm more than they help. Colleges that allow students to opt out of conversations involving ideas with which they disagree cannot properly claim that they are promoting the growth of their students or preparing them for the real world. Ultimately, a trend that encourages people to refuse to engage with all but one view of justice is not the way to a just society.



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