In 2017, the term ‘safe space’ has become a dirty word. Often it is thought of as synonymous with no platforming and criticized as a threat to free speech. However, this is not the case at all. Safe spaces and academia do not have to be mutually exclusive and can instead be mutually reinforcing.
To understand the concept of safe spaces, we must first look at how and why the idea came to be. In terms of educational institutions, ‘safe space’ was a name that indicated that an institution or designated area of an institution would not tolerate anti-LGBT violence, harassment or hate speech. This term has now evolved to mean a space where marginalised individuals can come together to discuss and reflect on their feelings and experiences.
Allowing people to grow secure in their opinions and perspectives rather than subjecting them to scrutiny and debate over sensitive subjects would benefit free speech and academia, would it not?
The topic of no-platforming hindering free speech can be debated. However, the concept of safe spaces cannot. Implemented correctly safe spaces can be extremely beneficial to academic progress and pose no threat to free speech. If individuals with shared experiences and identities want to gather to share and discuss sensitive or triggering issues, specific to them, or their group and have it be a ‘safe space’ then they have every right. This is no way harms anyone.
The topics discussed in safe spaces are mostly traumatic ones meaning participants are often not comfortable enough to debate these issues in a mainstream setting or structure.
The confidence to bring sensitive issues to the center stage can be encouraged in a safe space of mutual trust and understanding. Allowing people to grow secure in their opinions and perspectives rather than subjecting them to scrutiny and debate over sensitive subjects would benefit free speech and academia, would it not?
It is also important to point that in no way should safe space adherents assume that these spaces or the guidelines be the same everywhere and they should also not try and force it to be this way. A central part of academic rigor, especially on university campuses, is debating with opposing ideologies and opinions. That is why safe spaces should be used as intermediate bridges rather than isolated structures. As intermediate stepping stones or places of self-care but ultimately not isolated structures. In the long run, safe spaces can run the risk of becoming echo-chambers where participants can become unable to challenge opposing opinions or handle critique or disagreement.
A keystone of university is to question everything and explore any idea. The topic of identity politics can often be a touchy one. We must always acknowledge their position and privilege but we can also not ignore remaining sensitive to the fact that these topics can often be quite complex and personal. Disregarding the experiences and feelings of fellow students and scholars by demanding discussion and examination at all hour in all areas is counterproductive.