Recently the American media has highlighted discussions on college campuses surrounding conversations about safe spaces and political correctness. Hundreds of articles and news stories have articulated the fear that safe spaces and political correctness limit speech, including Fox News, Dallas News, Salon, the New Republic, the Columbia Spectator and the National Review. These articles all touch on many of the points made in a recent, heavily shared, New York Times op-ed, where Judith Shulevitz argues that students’ desires for safe spaces on campus have hampered mature conversations. While there are many important conversations that need to be had about what constitutes a safe space, and what safe space even means, most of these articles boil down to the assumption that desire for safe space and freedom of speech are inherently in conflict. The problem with this media construction is that it doesn’t accurately depict these conversations as they are taking place on college campuses.
Firstly, many of the articles criticizing safe spaces on college campus fail to understand that the phrase “safe space” is used to describe two different ideas. Safe space can be both a physical space labeled to help students find comfort during difficult times, and a description of an environment filled with intentionality (thinking before speaking or acting) and respect for other people. The New York Times article cited above fails to make this distinction, equating every request for a safe space to be a space in which difficult issues are not talked about. Luckily this is not true. Safe space, when referring to a physical location, does indicate a marked area of campus in which certain topics are not discussed. These spaces, however, are always temporary. Specifically marked “safe spaces” during difficult times allows students a break from dealing with difficult concepts.
For example, during Sexual Assault Awareness week, Grinnell typically uses the CRSSJ as a space filled with journals, art, and specially trained advocates so victim/survivors of sexual assault have a place to go if the perpetual discussions of sexual assault become overwhelming. These spaces are necessary because the ideas being discussed are deeply personal for many students. When the rest of campus becomes a space in which important, yet triggering interactions (images or words that remind students of traumatic past experiences) are constantly had, specially marked safe spaces allow for students to recuperate and better engage in the conversations. That these spaces exist, in fact, indicates the intensity and seriousness with which these issues are being discussed on campus. Furthermore, they help facilitate the difficult conversations that happen on campus by providing students with support so that they can continue to participate in dialogues that make them uncomfortable.
These specifically marked safe spaces, however, are different than the phrase “safe space” being used as a guide for how to have important and difficult conversations. In Grinnell, labeling an event or a conversation as a “safe space” typically means a number of rules are followed. We often use the Posse Foundation’s rules for “safe space,” meaning that we critique ideas, not individuals, only let one person speak at a time, and preserve privacy of the people participating in the discussions. There are a number of norms that also help enforce “safe spaces,” such as not using offensive slurs when speaking to each other. All of these rules and norms help facilitate respectful and powerful conversations about difficult issues. While “safe space” in one context means that students have a physical location where they can recuperate after having difficult conversations, “safe space” in the other context means that issues such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are discussed in a manner that makes all students feel comfortable and respected. Rather than “hiding from scary ideas” the rules of a safe space make these conversations more inclusive by encouraging students to first respect each other as people when covering difficult concepts.
These articles use a number of techniques to discredit political correctness and safe-spaces. Firstly, they often equate protest to censorship. In this Fox News clip Meghan Kelly repeatedly implies that students’ protests of a rape-apologist somehow limited her right to speak and prevented students from hearing opinions different from theirs. This is simply untrue. Freedom of speech in no way means freedom from criticism or dissent. When students protest certain speakers or events, they are using their freedom of speech in order to make their opinions heard. Opponents of “safe space” often point to the increasing number of rescinded invitations for speakers on college campuses to prove that students shut down conversations. This, however, is a form of free speech. Students and their families pay a lot of money in tuition and rightfully have a say in how that money is spent. When students declare that they do not want their money to support speakers that they do not like, they are in no way limiting the speakers’ “right” to share their opinion. We have heard many students express dissatisfaction with speakers being brought to campus, but we have never heard students argue that those speakers should not be able to share their opinions in any context or that those opinions should be illegal. Ultimately, the fact that students take the time to research the speakers who come to campus thoroughly enough to cite the speakers’ previous work indicates an intense critical engagement with ideas that students may not support. While various media outlets chastise students for taking an active role in discussions that happen on campus, we think that our role should be celebrated.
Up until now, we have mostly discussed how safe space conversations play out on other college campuses. While there are hundreds of examples of how safe spaces work on Grinnell’s campus, we would like to highlight an experience that happened recently. Our GWSS seminar, Masculinities, is going to install an art exhibit called (Re)Masculated addressing various aspects of masculinity in society on Monday, May 4th at Bucksbaum Center for the Arts at 4:30. We have spent much time working on our individual art pieces as well as discussing the exhibit as a whole. A few weeks ago we had a long conversation about how to make our exhibit a safe space for students. Many of the art projects deal critically with issues surrounding race, class, gender, and sexual violence. Because of this, we wanted to find a way to make the space open to discussions of these difficult issues while making sure students feel comfortable with our exhibit. After a long discussion about intentionality and respect for the student body, we decided to place content warnings on the doors of Bucksbaum, hold the exhibit after classes have ended, and that each student would be present to discuss their projects in case anyone felt uncomfortable. During this discussion, some students wondered if they should change their pieces to make them less potentially triggering to students. The class largely objected to this idea because we felt that these pieces represented important discussions. This discussion, along with many other surrounding safe space at Grinnell, exemplifies how intentionality surrounding safe spaces not only promotes difficult conversations but allows for many people to participate in them.
Safe spaces at Grinnell and other college campuses are really about intentionality and respect, not silencing or hiding from different opinions. Are there problems with safe spaces? Sure. Should Grinnell continue to work to improve safe spaces and make them more inclusive? Absolutely. Do these spaces prevent difficult conversations from taking place? Absolutely not. College should be a time in which we think about many different ideas. The ideals of a “safe space” allow these conversations to happen in respectful and intentional ways.