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The Illusion of "Safe Space"

[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]

I just finished reading a book called The Coddling of the American Mind, which delineates the recent and unabashed culture of safetyism that has infiltrated college campuses, the far left, and made life more difficult for young people. First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explore three ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education:

1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker;

2. Always trust your feelings; and

3. Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

There is a section that ideates the recent phenomenon of "safe spaces," which Miriam Webster defines as: a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations."

Example: "Student volunteers put up posters advertising that a "safe space" would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting.— Judith Shulevitz

Example: "Women, sexual assault victims, people of color, transgender students, etc. College campuses have created "safe spaces" for all sorts of marginalized groups."— Catherine Rampell

There is a certain strangeness inherent in the very ideological phrase, "safe space." It demands us to assume that safe spaces, whether physical or emotional, exist. They do not, or at least, not with any permanency. Creating "safe emotional space" is like building a castle out of tissue paper next to a raging forest fire. Nobody can create safe emotional space for you. It is nobody's job or obligation to make you "feel" safe. This is not a new idea; the stoics taught that controlling one's emotions was a key to enlightenment, way back in 50 A.D. In point:

"Just keep in mind: the more we value things outside our control, the less control we have."~ Epictetus

"When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval." ~ Epictetus

"To be stoic is not to be emotionless, but to remain unaffected by your emotions." ~James Pierce

The origin of safe spaces is unknown, although some trace it back to the 1960's Women’s Movement, as a means to create protective spaces for women against violence, and to provide a community to make change. Safe space, in this context seems valid. The classroom has long been a haven for children who suffer from abusive or unsafe homes. The recent COVID-19 epidemic and corresponding increase in child abuse is evidence enough that schools are more than mere institutions of learning. They are physical safe spaces, and they are incredibly, undeniably important. But, schools are not always safe for everyone, emotionally, physically, or otherwise. Physical fights and violence occur on school grounds, despite our best efforts to avoid them. Bullying in person and online leaves lasting scars on kids, even though, in a perfect world, bullies wouldn't exist. Bullies do exist, but there is a stark difference between bullies and people with different opinions.

The inception of the "safe space" at the university (see the Merriam Webster definition), might be an extension of a safe, suburban home where one's thoughts and feelings and emotions are validated. Receiving validation and emotional support is a hallmark of some type of privilege and/or over-parenting. Anecdotally, I grew up in a blue-collar town where the imperfect ethos of "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" was woven into the language and fabric of the culture. I learned to be autonomous and responsible young, and then I earned a scholarship to a private university, where many young adults struggled to do their own laundry, much less do anything alone. At my University, I learned about "safe spaces" for the first time and found the idea a bit weird and a bit welcoming. Suddenly, I was given permission to do or say just about anything, with no more evidence required than I felt a certain way.

The problem with the university safe space is that it's not real, no matter how vigilantly we guard it. Safe spaces may actually be a detriment to students who, upon leaving a university, find out that the world is not constructed to make them feel safe- physically, emotionally, or otherwise. To be clear, I am not condemning safe spaces entirely. I do believe that language can have lasting, harmful effects, especially concerted hate speech. But an enormous problem arises when we beginning describing any speech as hate speech, when we begin condemning people for every word they say, regardless of their intention, and when we begin feeling unduly angry and upset by the words of others.

Challenging ideas that we are so closely tied to is not violence and it's not a bad thing. The more we are able to think critically about our beliefs, challenge them, defend them, and maybe change them, the more open-minded, tenacious and intelligent we become. Feeling invalidated by the challenge of a belief system does nothing but underscored how privileged and easy our lives really are. If we are in physical danger, or if we need to focus most of our time on surviving, we do not have the mental or emotional space to let words harm us to such a damning degree.

Someone challenging my idea (like the ones in this blog) or even being explicitly mean to me with words is far from the worst thing that has or will ever happen to me. Cultivating a solid identity and finding a larger purpose in life to focus on helps us manage conflict, and makes the words or actions of other people less important. We should not condone hateful speech or hatred in any form, but we also shouldn't ascribe hatred where there is none. Being certain of who you are and grounded in a larger purpose makes small, unimportant things, like an internet troll or someone who disagrees with you politically, ideologically, or otherwise, matter less.

While the university "safe space" was built on the best of intentions, a better use of time in either secondary or higher education would be to help students cultivate a solid sense of identity, a stoic mindset, and the ability to control their emotions. I don't believe that language is violence. That's too direct a correlation to draw. Some language can be violent, but language you don't agree with is just that: words you don't agree with. As with most things in life, there is a lot of grey space here, and we can't pretend that grey space doesn't exist.

P.S. Buy The Coddling of the American Mind, and explore the author's website. Read "New College Student Survey: Yes, Speech Can Be Violence." And if you have access to JSTOR, read an in-depth look into the meaning of the word "violence," HERE.


Sarah Rose

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