HINT: It is NOT an assault on free speech.
Safe Space: a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.
I had a conversation with a 15YO last month after he was given a very privileged position at a conference to propose something revolutionary, regardless of feasibility. This teenager, who had never been to college and actually started his talk with a “joke” asking the audience to help pay his tuition, railed against the culture of “coddling,” claiming that “safe spaces were ruining youth.” Much of his statement was drawn from the talking points of many conservative pundits who claim that being aware and considerate of the plight of other people is an assault on free speech. A sentiment easily summarized by this political cartoon…
I approached him when he was done and asked for his definition of a “safe space.” He said,
“A space where no one has to be hurt by anything and coddles people from reality.”
He didn’t see the flaws in complaining about something without a formal understanding of the word and the construct. Having said that, I can’t blame a 15YO for not understanding massive social concepts; instead, he is a symptom of a culture that disregards facts and meaning in the interest of truthiness, or arguments that feel good regardless of the facts.
Furthermore, this child is not alone in his arguments. This post has been making the rounds among people that I consider educated on the matter of humanity, education, and sensible deliberation.
It is clear that the author of this New York Times Op Ed is unaware of how things operate on campuses and in these “safe space” classrooms. Instead, he, and other pundits complaining about the coddling of college students, ignores the actual experience of this generation, who, more than any other generation, feel the need to have their voices heard. This applies to both historically privileged and historically disadvantaged students.
More importantly, the authors of these think pieces are not working in college classrooms or engaging with college students, and yet still complain about what is wrong with college students, professors, and campuses. In the interest of improving discourse through proper definitions and guidelines, allow me to explain the rules of my classroom, and why it is a “safe space.”
1. Everyone must prepare for class discussions.
Although this seems obvious, it is not. I have implemented daily homework in my classroom to engage in educated discussions. It is not sufficient for students to come to class with what they believe words to mean, or how they have used them in their discussions with others. Everyone must have a shared working dictionary-based definition of all of the key terms that we are discussing that day. This ensures that we are working with the same set of facts and language.
Fortunately, students often disregard the formal definitions that they have prepared in the classroom. In one class, I asked a student the definition of feminism, she said, “The belief that men are always wrong and women are always right.” The rest of the class looked at her, shocked that she would come to a class on race and gender and the media with such a colloquial shortsighted definition given that they all did the homework. Just so we are clear and on the same page: Feminism is the belief in social, economic, political equality for all genders. Although a quick image search of feminism results in a very different narrative, like this 2003 classic from Maxim Magazine.
We used this moment to work out the differences in actual definitions vs. social constructions of how a “feminist” looks and acts. It was a great conversation and eye opening to many of the young women in the classroom who had never questioned why femininity and feminism were framed as mutually exclusive and why being feminine was socially constructed to be more valuable than being empowered and having the same opportunities as men.
In a safe space, this level of preparation often invites students to question their understanding of a term before they come to class, and figure out that their understanding of a term is not the same as its technical meaning. We then juxtapose the colloquial definition with the textbook definition and explore why these two things are not the same. Instead of simply hurling “facts” back and forth until people become frustrated and heated, we explore why these “facts” are not in synch and what that means for how we talk about and treat others.
2. Everyone will have the opportunity to speak and be heard.
I do my best throughout the class to call on every person with their hands up and when no one has their hands up, I sort through a stack of cards and call on students to contribute the content that they have prepared for their homework (e.g., definitions, examples). Therefore, students get to interact even if they are somewhat hesitant with class speaking in general; the best way to learn is to connect the material with one’s lived experiences. Some students (and generally some people) work through these things out loud, whereas other students would rather just listen.
However, in classes where everyone wants to share an experience, as is the case with diversity classes, there can be several hands up for a single prompt. In these scenarios, I call on the students with their hands up from right to left (or left to right) all at once, and the students speak in that order. This ensures that everyone’s perspective is heard.
THERE IS NO OVER-TALKING. All students listen to the thoughts, experiences, and opinions of their classmates. This is the most important component of my “safe space” classroom, that everyone’s voice is heard; if you are talking when another student (or the professor) is speaking, then you clearly demonstrate that you do not care or cannot be bothered to respect your fellow classmates.
I remind the students: if you have to wait to speak, write your comments down so that you can pay attention to your classmates’ comments, and not practicing your own. If we are waiting to speak, then we are not listening. Understanding the experience and emotions of others is not a skill that can be taught, it can only be practiced.
3. Everyone is held accountable for their statements.
This is the most important and essential part of a safe space, that words and ideas do not go unquestioned or unchallenged. This is the cornerstone of critical thinking. Students must unpack where they learned a fact or phrase, how that fact or phrase has been deployed and defended in public discourse and media, and the historical implications of the fact or phrase. This goes for statements made by any student with any perspective based on any category, including but not limited to race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, ability, or any intersection thereof.
In a safe space, students are invited to share all of their thoughts and ideas and each one is given attention. In a safe space, all students are expected to listen to and learn from the experiences, thoughts, and perspectives of other students even if they disagree or believe the student to be wrong. In a safe space, topics that are considered to be inflammatory are explored to better understand why they provoke inflammatory responses.
As the professor in this space, it is my job to organize and maintain the conversation, and even anticipate some of the talking points that the students will raise. In my conversations with other faculty across disciplines, they express concern that they will say the wrong thing in these conversations and be labeled a bigot. Therefore, squashing any conversation about culturally sensitive topics, or expecting the students to moderate their own discussions, becomes a survival strategy for faculty (especially regarding topics with which they are not familiar).
This, IMO, inhibits learning because it prevents students from connecting their life outside of the classroom with the content in the classroom. Furthermore, if people were good at self-moderating conversations, public discourse as a whole would be better, but we can’t and it’s not. Moderating conversations is not the same as stifling free speech; it promotes an environment where everyone can speak freely, and no idea is off limits.
Why every space should be a safe space.
One of my proudest safe space moments came in spring 2015 in my introductory Communication & Society class. During the media and civil rights section, we discussed the psychological value in protesting and how the experience of coming together in groups to amplify one’s voice with others impacts social media. One student shared her experiences with going to a Blue Lives Matter protest in early 2015; although she went to support her family, many of whom were cops, she said that counter protesters were calling her and her family racists. I acknowledged that this must have been a hurtful experience and I asked her…
“Do you know why they would say things like that?”
She said no.
We spent the next 45 minutes talking about the history of policing and why someone would assume and accuse the Blue Lives Matter protesters of being racist. In this conversation with 70 students, there were no insults, there was no name calling, and there was no over-talking. The conversation incorporated the history of policing in America, the media coverage of policing and protests as well as the role of criminality in our entertainment culture. We discussed the history of the social divide informing our current environment and ways in which we can think differently about our fellow (wo)man and thereby coming to a greater understanding as a group.
Safe spaces are most associated with students from marginalized groups (e.g., students of color, women, LGBT’Q students, international students, low-income students, non-Christian students), for whom discrimination is part of their every day lives in media, society, and their interpersonal interactions, but this protection from bullying is not reserved for marginalized students.
A safe space is a classroom format that encourages everyone to share their thoughts and experiences, especially when these thoughts and experiences are met with anger and hatred outside the classroom. This is evident in the example above regarding the student’s experience as a part of a police family; my classroom was a safe space to have this young woman express her experiences and have them acknowledged and analyzed in a supportive atmosphere.
Spaces that are explicitly free of discriminatory and harassing speech is an impediment to (free) speech [NOTE: the first amendment only protects you from government persecution, not interpersonal anger] only if someone wants to engage in discriminatory and harassing speech. Ironically, the argument defending discriminatory and harassing speech as free speech is something that is, in itself, something that can only be argued in a safe space. The purpose of the safe space is to discuss ideas calmly and rationally, without name calling or other insulting language, thereby unpacking the multiple threads that impact current discourse (e.g., politics, religion, society, media, human psychology).
This is the antithesis of 21st Century conventional discourse. Our society rewards conflict with ratings, clicks, votes, and profits, so how can we expect to have any level of decorum when this is positively reinforced at every turn? Instead, we need to treat every interaction as if we were in a courtroom, where each person has the opportunity to speak and be heard, and any break from decorum is an indication that someone does not respect the space or the other people who have acknowledged the rules of the conversation.
Most importantly, we need to be aware and accountable for our words and actions, and where they are situated in the context of history and society. This can be difficult and often emotionally stressful, but it is essential for moving forward together as a community. Safe spaces help facilitate this conversation.
In the animated conversation I had with the 15YO described at the top of this post and his father, I expressed to them that the classroom was a place to engage in ideas deeply and every student is asked to think about why they say and believe what they do. This young man’s father then said that asking a person to think deeply about their words and actions was “inherently constricting.”
Safe spaces are defined by each person’s willingness to listen to the others in the space and connect each and every story to their own life experience in order to achieve a greater understanding of the human society. If this is not your cup of tea, you don’t have to participate. But don’t ask me to help with your tuition bill.