College Safe Spaces: Therapeutic or Intellectually Stifling?

The New York Times has a brand new article on “safe spaces” in college. Judith Shulevitz defines these spaces as “an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being “bombarded” by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material…In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions — subtle displays of racial or sexual bias — so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity.” While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, “the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.” And this brings us to the heart of the matter:

…while keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?

Is this “safe” mentality on college campuses a good idea? Should students, say, be banned from participation due to controversial views? Check out the article and give it some thought.

4 thoughts on “College Safe Spaces: Therapeutic or Intellectually Stifling?”

  1. Suppose it is the case that someone experiences very strong reactions to the presentation of an idea, and that it would be valuable for them to learn to control that reaction. It wouldn’t follow that the best way to teach such control is to simply expose them to the idea repeatedly any more than the best way to get over a fear of spiders is to be forced to eat them until the fear goes away. Instead, we often try to understand such reactions by evoking them in nonthreatening circumstances–interestingly, having the opportunity to do this is a very effective way of discovering aspects of what provokes the reaction which would never otherwise become salient.

    So my problem with the linked article isn’t that it argues sloppily or misrepresents the phenomenon it purports to characterize or assumes the Enlightenment ideal without argument, but that it makes no attempt to understand the benefits of safe spaces. These benefits illuminate some stuff that wouldn’t be easy to notice otherwise, and which the relatively disadvantaged benefit from to a greater degree than the privileged. Arguing against something which benefits the most vulnerable ought to occasion at least passing notice of that fact.

  2. I don’t disagree with anything you said above, Kelsey. As one who is a big supporter of therapy (which I go to myself), I can definitely see the need for something like a safe space. The main thing I wanted to highlight was the mentality trickling into classrooms and elsewhere and expanding beyond “safe spaces” to “safe ideas.”

  3. Thank you, Walker.

    Although not exclusive, the “trigger warning” mentality seems to pervade the “female space” more than not. It’s disturbing to me. If women really want equality, they need to learn to manage their own neuroses rather than demand society accommodate their feelings at every turn.

    So, as you suggest in the comment, if you have an extreme reaction to something, an appropriate response would be to get help or therapy or whatever you need to bring the reaction back to the normal realm. The response should not be to censor everyone else in order to keep discussions in your personal comfort zone.

    The other concern I have about the “safe space” idea is that the topics which can be so designated aren’t remotely universal. You’ll never see a university create a “safe space” for those who want to enforce genetic gender identity, promote man/woman marriage, or anything else currently out of fashion.

    In other words, only some groups/causes will get a safe space and the rest of you will have to deal with the real world.

  4. I work at a large public university and understand the need to limit outright hate speech, but “microaggressions” get my goat. It’s like “it’s not bad enough to really count but I don’t like it anyway so they shouldn’t do it.” There’s such a thing as being too sensitive. Most people aren’t intending to be insulting or hurtful and we all generally think we’re the good guy. It’s probably more fruitful to assume good will and explain why something is upsetting rather squawking with righteous indignation. People will listen better.

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