Why misconceptions about safe spaces lead to conflict
As safe spaces pop up on university campuses across the country, so too does the debate of limiting free speech. All too often, critics of safe spaces say the concept is designed to keep out ideas or opinions that conflict with a particular set of beliefs or values. And all too often, I’ve heard people call these spaces “closed-minded,” and complain that students are being babied and coddled.
These arguments barely have a leg to stand on. In some cases, this dislike towards safe spaces is a genuine disrespect of an individual’s right to want to get away from various forms of oppression. However, I do feel much of the aversion to these spaces stems from a lack of understanding of what a safe space actually is. I rarely see any critiques of safe spaces actually take the time to properly explain what a safe space is, or the complexity of safe space policies in general. So, before breaking down why the spaces actually contribute to campus and student life, it’s important to look at what constitutes a safe space.
While the specifics of any particular safe space vary, at its essence, it’s a space where individuals can feel protected from unwanted or unsafe situations based on gender, race, age, sexuality, religion affiliation and other aspects of identity, orientation or beliefs. In these spaces, respect for every individual’s background and experiences is key. In communities as diverse as Montreal and Concordia, students from all walks of life have different relationships with the world, and it’s vital that we provide a space that allows for a respectful conversation about these differences.
Certain groups with particular goals or mandates will create safe space rules that reflect their values. This summer, executives—including myself—at Concordia’s LGBTQ+ resource centre, Queer Concordia, rewrote the organization’s safe space policy. In it, we highlighted the importance of creating a space free from not only homophobia and transphobia, but also sexism, racism and ableism, among other aspects of identity. The policy also has specific rules against hate speech, and outlines a specific protocol for addressing various offences of the safe space policy, including the handling of offensive language.
Canadians have a fundamental, undeniable right to free speech as outlined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—but even those rights fall short of protecting against hate speech. In that regard, safe spaces like Queer Concordia’s don’t deny anyone any freedom of speech rights already implemented in the law.
Where the confusion comes in is perhaps the prohibited use of “offensive language” and the difficulty in defining what can be considered offensive. Everyone has a different line as to what they find offensive, and it’s difficult to draw one solid line in the sand. However, safe spaces like the one at Queer Concordia try to create a “call-out culture” where “calling out” offensive language and sentiments can be used as an opportunity to educate people about why certain language or expressions are considered offensive.The process of “calling out” involves explaining and discussing why a phrase, expression or action is offensive—the total opposite of shutting down all conversation. This isn’t stifling free speech, this is creating a culture where we can break down the language we use, and understand how it’s harmful to marginalized groups or individuals.
It’s also important to note that “calling out” doesn’t happen only to privileged individuals or those with different political views, but it could also happen to marginalized people who may speak offensively without realizing it. “Calling out” shouldn’t be considered shameful or mean—it’s a way to generate conversation and realize our own biases and problematic tendencies.
For marginalized students, safe spaces can be one of the only places they feel they have the power or security to discuss these ideas. It’s easy to say bad ideas can be defeated in a sort of “free market” of ideas. However, when you consider that these marginalized individuals have long been denied the opportunity to discuss their ideas in any way, how else are new ideas from these marginalized communities supposed to develop?
Safe spaces provide a place for different ideas to develop and grow without being shut down by a system that was never created to account for differing perspectives—like modern-day versions of 18th century salons in France, home to intellectual discussions lead by marginalized groups. If nothing else, the increase in safe spaces across university campuses is a sign that the concept of a safe space is succeeding in this “free market.”
These safe spaces are generally small pockets scattered across campuses, not large, university-led initiatives. Having safe spaces on campus isn’t affecting the whole student population. Even the use of trigger warnings in class won’t end the possibility of debate or discussion—they simply give students the opportunity to leave the room if they feel the need to do so. In a cinema course I took last year, one of the films screened was I Spit On Your Grave—the 1978 film infamous for having the longest rape scene in history at around 25 minutes. By warning the class, the professor might have saved victims of sexual violence from reliving their traumatic experiences. It’s unrealistic to expect victims of sexual violence to disclose this sort of private and personal information to their professors. The 30 seconds it takes to warn students about something like this takes nothing away from other students’ learning experience.