Last month, a lot of discussion was prompted by a statement by the dean of University of Chicago opposing censorship, trigger warnings, and safe spaces. I’ve already briefly argued that the inclusion of trigger warnings is completely off-base. The inclusion of safe spaces is harder to judge. “Safe space” means a lot of things to different people, and I just have no idea what the dean thought he was criticizing.
Safe spaces under different names
In my personal experience, “safe space” is most frequently used as a description of queer student group meetings or conferences. Basically, we intentionally build an environment where people feel more comfortable sharing their experiences. This means starting meetings with an explicit agreement of confidentiality, as well as other agreements designed to head off conflict. Often these agreements have cutesy names, like “Step up, step back”, “One mic, one diva”, “Use ‘I’ statements”, “Don’t yuck my yum”, and “Ouch, oops, educate”, although I think the names might be regional.
I have mixed feelings about the explicit agreements, because they take up time and seem unnecessary. In my experience, atheist student groups also set up safe spaces, but they never call it by that name, nor are there any explicit agreements. Atheist groups also intentionally build an environment where people feel more comfortable being openly critical of religion. Many atheist students act very confident, as if they don’t need a safe space to speak their minds, but when you get to know them better you realize that some of the same students keep it very quiet around their families.
Now take a look at this quote:
[…] as a professor of religious studies, I know firsthand how debates about trigger warnings and safe spaces can have a chilling effect on classroom discussions. It’s not my free speech I’m worried about; professors generally feel confident presenting difficult or controversial material […] Students, on the other hand, do not have that assurance.
This comes from an article criticizing safe spaces and trigger warnings, on the grounds that they make students feel less comfortable participating in discussion in religious studies classes. Gee, how do you make students feel more comfortable expressing deeply personal views? You build a safe space for it! –although you don’t need to call it that. When I took a course on history of religion, we spent some time during the first lecture and discussion establishing such a space.
The author argues that “safe space” is usually associated with liberal values, and that the very phrase is destructive to the particular kind of safe space he needs (which he refuses to call a safe space). That’s fair enough, but *I* have no reason to avoid calling it what it is. A religious studies classroom is clearly a safe space, following the same principles as a queer student group.
I hope it is obvious at this point that there are multiple kinds of safe spaces, many of which are mutually exclusive with each other. An LGBT safe space is very different from a religious studies safe space. Corollary: it is unreasonable to expect all spaces to be safe–at most, a space can be safe for some things and not others.
Safe spaces, watered down
So far, I’ve defined safe spaces by drawing upon my own experience. But I realize that most people did not participate in the same kinds of student groups. So what does “safe space” mean to other people?
After some searching, one alternate meaning became apparent. Have you ever seen one of those stickers saying, “This is a safe space”? These stickers are used to say that the place is LGBT-friendly, or something.
To be honest, I don’t really know what these “safe spaces” mean. In the best case, it means someone attended some sort of allies workshop. For example, see this Safe Space program ironically located at the University of Chicago. In the worst case, someone just got the sticker to politically express themselves. I guess that means you could hold hands with a same-gender partner without getting beaten up?
This strikes me as an extremely watered down version of a real safe space. Compared to queer student groups, those stickers don’t remotely encourage me to be open with my personal experiences. These stickers might be useful in contexts that are overtly hostile (e.g. high schools, more conservative regions, earlier decades), but otherwise they seem useless.
If this is the kind of safe space under discussion, I have little interest in defending it. Ally training is fine, but anyone can declare their office/restaurant/community to be a safe space at no cost, and it means nothing. Corollary: when the dean of UofC criticizes these safe spaces, it also means nothing. Case in point, the same dean who wrote a letter against safe spaces is a part of the aforementioned Safe Space program.
I invite readers to share other examples of safe spaces.