The dangers of safe space
On Tuesday the Coalition Against ROTC at Columbia bemoaned a lack of “safe space” for its side of the debate. (Of course, shouting “racist” doesn’t exactly make a space safe either.)
I find this whining for and expectation of safe space disappointing and profoundly worrying.
The concept of “safe space” is well intentioned, even admirable, but it is not without major ideological problems (an obvious one being: What does the term even mean?). One problem is inherent in the concept itself, for it is ultimately a system of delineation that works not to dissolve but entrench conflict. To demarcate a space as “safe” is to assert that all other space is “unsafe.” An example is the LGBTQ/alphabet soup/insert-politically-correct-label-of-the-moment-here posters that Columbia students hang on their windows and doors declaring “safe space” for the full spectrum of sex, sexuality, and gender. But if I don’t hang one of those posters, does that mean my space isn’t “safe”?
We so fervently seek to carve out these so-called “safe spaces” as bastions of liberal hope on an otherwise hostile campus. Instead, we should envision and maintain a campus culture in which all of campus is “safe space,” thus rendering such delineations obsolete. We draw lines and distinctions to facilitate understanding and bring issues to the fore, but we should do so with the intention of transience. For if after we’ve reached better understanding, we don’t move swiftly, responsibly, and decisively to dissolve those demarcations, in the long term all you end up with is ever-polarizing barriers. The walls of the divide build higher, and pretty soon we find ourselves hanging barbed wire, staffing armed guards, and even, God forbid, tossing cows.
A second problem is even more pressing. In much of the world outside the College Sphere, safe space is the exception to the rule. Our collegiate space is remarkably open and safe for all manner of discussions; in fact, such discussion, as it is in the classroom, is often required. But we must learn to be able to speak and stand up for our beliefs when there isn’t even the space to do so, to be brave, responsible, and well equipped for speaking and acting outside of “safe space,” where no one is listening, where it is dangerous and may incur cost. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read a newspaper. Especially the section on the Middle East.)
I do not wish to completely demur the value of creating safe spaces. Safe space has its place. But if our actions and beliefs, and our ability to act on those beliefs, are dependent on safe spaces and limited to their confines, we are deluding ourselves at the expense of welfare of the world.
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