This past year has frequently directed my attention towards the notion of a safe space. I was reminded that safe spaces are controversial when even somewhat left-leaning publications like The Atlantic argued that they obstruct meaningful academic and political discourse. I was reminded that safe spaces are controversial as they became continually satirized by mainstream media, denigrated as indulgent arenas of millennial entitlement. Last November, I co-wrote an article about the “red zone” for the Tufts Daily on behalf of Consent Culture Network. The “red zone” refers to the heightened risk of sexual assault students face within their first 75 days at university—roughly between the first day of classes and Thanksgiving break. Beyond explaining the consequences, the piece maintained a strong, survivor-centric stance, and reiterated the importance of resources, safety, and empowerment for survivors. The article soon received various inflammatory comments, several of which implied that “retreat” to safe space, particularly in cases of trauma, was both naïve and ineffectual. One online commenter wrote,
“As for ‘trauma’… None of it made me retreat to a padded room, suck my thumb and hug a teddy bear. Life is hard; life is pain; then you die; and then you get to be dead for a very long time. Suck it up and deal; speaking of which, the best way to deal with negative emotions or memories is simply to ignore them.”
I myself have become frustrated with the notion of a safe space, but for a different reason altogether: the misconception that safe spaces are insular. The popular belief is that safe spaces exist as a solace for those affected or offended, a place that muffles critical input, or perhaps even intentionally excludes solutions. Based on this perception, the safe space not only coddles, but also stagnates—a notion that understandably is not without concern. What appears problematic in the way we conceptualize a safe space, in both its critique and in its conventional esteem, is that it is seen as a space deliberately separate from, or in denial of, the discourse surrounding it. In this paradigm, safe spaces exist solely as an escape. Yet, safe spaces are—and should be—so much more.
In my own experience, a safe space is not isolationist; it does not whimsically ignore the overarching dialogue. In fact, the space methodically responds to such a dialogue, empowering members in the space to reclaim and subvert the dominant narrative imposed on their own experiences. In this sense, a safe space is only safe to those whose narratives have been systematically silenced by the external dialogue. For example, a survivor-centric network, such as Consent Culture Network, would not provide sanction to an accused rapist, a rape apologist, or an abusive partner. The same cannot be said of its surrounding institutions. In this sense, safe spaces hold people accountable in the way that they ought to be—but are not—beyond these spaces. I agree with opponents who argue that safe spaces are not refuges for all. I agree with opponents who say that safe spaces are not platforms for uncensored speech. I agree with opponents who say that safe spaces are not “reality.” But, the thing is, they shouldn’t be.
When faced with the outpouring of critiques of safe spaces, I also wondered, “Why now?” and “Why this sudden attack?” While some publications insist otherwise, safe spaces are not a product of the millennial generation. In fact, safe spaces have existed for decades—as long, or longer, than many authors disparaging such spaces have been alive. In Mapping Gay L.A., activist Moira Kenney suggests that the term “safe space” was used to describe gay bars and neighborhoods amidst anti-sodomy laws. These spaces were not “safe” in that they were deliberately excluded from the laws, but rather, were deemed “safe” as a place where those typically suppressed could seek respite from or resist against such oppression. A similar idea was employed in the form of “consciousness raising” groups throughout much of second wave feminism. These groups sought to create a platform for women to share their experiences without contest, to strategize, and to operate beyond the confines of heteropatriarchy.
Paradoxically, opponents call safe spaces indulgent and ineffective, yet also portray these same spaces as inflammatory, or even dangerous. When Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt of The Atlantic wrote about “the coddling of the American mind,” they suggested that safe spaces allow students to “force” the omission of words that student activists “do not like,” or, more patronizingly, allow for the omission of ideas that “scare” such activists. Conor Friedersdorf writes of the dangers of “weaponized” activism within safe spaces, and the apparent “intolerance” of those within safe spaces to accommodate the “unheard” voices of opponents. Scholar Richard Dawkins suggested that such spaces breed unmotivated, oversensitive students, tweeting, “Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin?” Later, Dawkins claimed that those in the movement for safe-spaces were hostile and hyper-aggressive. The inconsistency within each of these suggestions is readily apparent. The timid “sensitivity” of safe spaces is also branded as “vigilance,” their call for awareness seen as both fragile and tyrannical. Accordingly, it seems plausible that safe spaces are not critiqued because of their uselessness, but because of their power. If safe spaces were truly fragile, why would they demand substantial attention from institutions? With this in mind, it appears as if the movement against safe spaces is a response to a resurgence in grassroots activism not seen in past decades. The post-radical 1980s and early 1990s saw a rebirth in social conservatism, a highly racialized “War on Drugs,” and the erosion of fundamental gains made in reproductive, civil, and economic equality. The same years brought rapid, unforeseen globalization and Wall Street optimism likely fueled by post-Cold War enthusiasm. However, more recently, the Great Recession, “Occupy,” and Black Lives Matter movements, and recent success of Bernie Sanders, a candidate whose popularity would have been unthinkable only 10 years ago, given the ideological composition of the electorate at the time, all seem to suggest that activism—the unsavory variety which disturbs typical neoliberal conversations—has resumed, and has done so in full force. Not coincidentally, we now find ourselves drowning in critiques of the concept of safe space.
Safe spaces are unsettling to many because they are often comprised of those who are not politically or socially powerful. While in part this is true because they foster mobilization, the mere existence of safe spaces also undermines the status quo. Safe spaces present the notion that some political arena, some area of discourse, some anything is obscured from those in power, who historically have not only led conversations, but tailored these conversations to satisfy their own needs. To those of you who are critical of the concept of safe space, both on the Tufts campus, and beyond, think about what spaces you exist in and what roles you have been given within these spaces. Question your ability to exercise speech freely within your peer groups, your classrooms, your workplaces, your communities. Chances are, you already exist within a “safe space.” You just have the luxury to call yours “the real world.”