The Language of Safe Spaces

On August 24, University of Chicago administrators penned a letter to incoming freshmen inveighing against “intellectual ‘safe spaces’” and re-affirming the university’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression” as one of UChicago’s “defining characteristics.” The UChicago letter spread widely in the media, but is hardly the first time ‘safe spaces’ and trigger warnings have entered the national discourse. The letter arrives amidst a broader debate over ‘safe spaces,’ trigger warnings, and a supposed culture of political correctness. The September 2015 cover of The Atlantic declared “Better Watch What You Say! How the new political correctness is ruining education – and mental health,” the headline set in a cartoonish thought bubble that is partially aflame.

The idea of safe space can be difficult to define, and at Tufts the term itself has been replaced by the vocabulary of ‘intentional spaces,’ particularly within campus spaces including the LGBT Center and the Women’s Center. According to Women’s Center interim director Bryn Gravitt, the Center made this transition in language under the guidance of former director Steph Gauchel. The central problem with the language of ‘safe’ space, explained by both Gravitt and LGBT Center director Nino Testa, is the guarantee of a ‘safe’ experience. This guarantee is predicated on an assumption that “inherently homogenizes groups,” according to Gravitt. The term ‘safe space’ is “sort of guaranteeing that you can experience a space in a sort of way,” the process of which “essentializes the experience of women,” and other marginalized groups. In short, guaranteeing a safe space assumes a singular or essential gender experience that, in Gravitt’s view, doesn’t exist.

According to Testa, the language of ‘safe’ space has roots in the LGBT community. “People used to talk about safe spaces as spaces that are populated with LGBT people only,” and that they are literally “safe for people to be out in,” Testa said. In the national conversation, however, the term has been applied more broadly to describe spaces that are “safe” for people of all identities. But Testa and Gravitt both expressed serious doubt that a space could be totally safe for anyone. “I don’t know how anyone could promise such a thing,” said Testa.

Outside of organizations like the Group of Six, the term “intentional space” is neither widely known nor understood. According to Testa and Gravitt, this is a major reason why safe—or intentional—spaces are accused of stifling exactly the debates intentional spaces can enable on campuses across the country. But according to Gravitt, prioritizing intentionality creates spaces that might “level the playing field” in a way that encourages critical thought, the production of knowledge, and actively makes space for those traditionally excluded. In the eyes of Gravitt and Testa, the essential goals of ‘intentional’ spaces actually begin to resemble the values that UChicago letter claims to defend: “freedom of inquiry and expression” and the “free exchange of ideas.” It’s a central irony of the discourse on intentional spaces that to hear Gravitt and Testa outline the role of intentional spaces is to hear, almost verbatim, UChicago’s language in defense of “academic freedom.”

The fear UChicago’s administration expresses in the letter is that “intellectual ‘safe spaces” allow students room to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” But the idea that intentional spaces seek to anesthetize students from the discomfort of learning does not mesh well with what appears to be the dominant understanding on the Tufts’ campus of what an intentional space is. Gravitt understands intentional space as an attempt to “interrogate this line between productive discomfort and actively oppressive discomfort.” This understanding requires a belief in such a thing as “actively oppressive discomfort” as distinct from “productive discomfort,” a distinction the UChicago administration refuses to recognize.

The progression from the language of safe spaces to the language of intentional spaces is related to this line between “productive discomfort” and “actively oppressive discomfort.” Considering the conclusion that, as Testa said, the promise of a safe space can never be fully fulfilled, the most we can hope for is conscientiousness. The focus of this mindfulness is often language, with an eye towards developing an awareness about how our language affects others. The question for those in intentional spaces becomes how to fulfill an intellectual mission that privileges learning while avoiding the discomfort that, for some, makes learning spaces oppressive.

For Testa, that question is open. “I can’t give you a list of ways that are the ways to engage in every space…as a group of people who want to create intentional space you have to do that together.”

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