Social Question

DominicY's avatar

Has the concept of "safe space" gone too far?

Asked by DominicY (5657points) November 11th, 2015

Recently in the news there have been a number of stories about racial tensions on college campuses.

One such example was Yale, in which [mainly black] students erupted after a professor sent out a message that students should “look away” from Halloween costumes that offended them, arguing in favor of freedom of speech and expression. What resulted was the professor being ambushed by angry, yelling students who accused him of not creating a “safe space”.

In other words, sometimes freedom of speech is trumped by the desire to make the campus “safe” and prevent instances of offense. Some say the students are intolerant and pro-censorship. Others say the professor was green-lighting racism.

How important are “safe spaces” on campuses? Was the professor in the wrong?

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27 Answers

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

There is no such thing as a safe space. If students want to isolate themselves from the real world and pretend that campus is different (hiding behind the ideological bubble) then they are in for a rude awakening once they leave.

ibstubro's avatar

The Westboro Baptist Church has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no guarantee of a safe public space under US law.

Cupcake's avatar

@ARE_you_kidding_me They are in for a rude awakening, true. But don’t they deserve a space between childhood and adulthood where they struggle these issues out?

I think safe spaces are important. Given that sexism and racism are alive and active (and with potentially life-long if not deadly consequences), they are essential. But more important is the discussion, the passion, the moral outcry. College campuses are a unique place, both in space and in the time they occupy in ones life.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

It is possible to create safe places. It is also important to understand that not every place we go is going to be a safe place, and we have to adjust ourselves accordingly.

I choose to be in as many safe places as I can, and I minimize when I’m out of them.

Honestly though, I carry the best safe place with me wherever I go. I am my own safe place. I love myself, thus I’m always safe.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

@Cupcake I don’t think so. I honestly think it’s unhealthy for people to develop in such a space and then be forced into spaces that are not. It’s like convincing a toddler that they already know how to swim without actually teaching them and then throwing them in a lake and expecting them not to drown. Also, safe spaces can be used for horrible things like pushing ideological agendas to impressionable minds. That DOES happen. The word “safe space” is bullshit too. a safe space is where you will not get torn to shreds by bears. It’s really an artificial fantasy space. If it was truly a safe space the prof would not have been called out for simply suggesting that students don’t get confrontational when they see a costume that may be offensive to them I.E. putting themselves in a dangerous situation. I support free speech, suppressing it is a mistake. The cost is someone may say something hateful and offend you..boohoo. Political correctness is crushing rational, objective thought.

DominicY's avatar

@ARE_you_kidding_me I tend to agree with you. To me “safe space” sounds like something completely artificial, temporary, and fantastical. It doesn’t sound like something realistic in the least. It doesn’t mean safety from assault or outward racism like it may have originally been intended to mean, it now means “safety from differing opinions”. The Yale issue seemed so pertinent to me because it isn’t as if these students were protesting and yelling about actual racism or discrimination, no, they were literally upset because someone supported free speech. It’s just very telling of what the climate on universities has become.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

@DominicY Agreed 100% I’m really concerned for our culture when I hear things like this.

Cupcake's avatar

I get where you are both coming from. I think campuses can be a bit delicate about certain issues (such as sexual aggression/violence). I’m not speaking specifically about this situation.

Speaking specifically about this issue, I tend to agree with you.

flutherother's avatar

Creating a ‘safe space’ for ourselves often means creating a more dangerous space for someone nearby. The concept is a myth, there may be an asteroid up there with our name on it. All that is required is respect for one another.

LuckyGuy's avatar

What costumes will be acceptable? Will schools have to limit them to Disney characters, Zombies and Marvel/DB superheros?
Seems ridiculous to me but I’m a middle aged white guy with thick skin. If someone wants to dress up like a middle aged white engineer I’m cool with it.

ibstubro's avatar

College is life.
You expect a safe place in the classroom, much like you expect a safe place at work.
Expecting the university to moderate campus activity that’s not against the law is unrealistic and unworkable.

Undesirable, too, IMO, for valid reasons stated above. Who would they whine too if they were flipping burgers at McDonald’s?
Maybe they need to make a year in the workforce a requirement for acceptance to a public university. No living with mom and dad, but Section 8 housing available.

tinyfaery's avatar

You tell us, @DominicY

The idea of “safe space” comes from previous generations of people who were outsiders (women, racial and cultural minorities, LGBT) entering new places (college, work) and needed a space of refuge from traditional culture that still viewed them as less than. “Safe spaces” were places where women (for example) could go to to get away from harassment, where they could tell their stories and not be ridiculed, etc.

Your generation and younger seem to be dismissing identity politics, and the idea of spaces for certain types of people has become more about separating people than allowing for people to feel comfortable being with others they consider like-minded and safe to be themselves with.

Frankly, I’m torn. The civil rights movement was/is about inclusion, and now that we have a achieved a modicum amount of entrance into mainstream culture maybe it is time to move on from those “safe spaces” and identity politics. But, this country, and the world, is by no means post-racial, post-feminist, post-sexuality, etc. Maybe we still need those identity politics. Maybe we still need the safety of our groups.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

@tinyfaery Fostering a world of inclusion and tolerance by segregating and only allowing certain opinions seems like a load of feel-good bullshit to me. Over time continuing this strategy will only alienate groups from each other because it separates them and may actually plant seeds of hate where they were not before. Really a bad idea all around. Identity politics is just that.. politics.. these days anyway. Not too surprising to see younger people ignoring or even belittling it.

ibstubro's avatar

It seems to me that you and @DominicY (‘s details) are defining “safe space” differently, @tinyfaery.

It appears that the Yale students are demanding that the college campus be made a ‘safe place’, while you define “safe place” as “space of refuge from traditional culture”.
The college campus is a place of traditional culture. I doubt anyone would argue that Yale fails to provide students with ‘spaces of refuge from traditional culture’.

ibstubro's avatar

‘Offensive’ Yale email, with my highlight of the “offensive” part:
Yeah, I read every word.

Nicholas and I have heard from a number of students who were frustrated by the mass email sent to the student body about appropriate Halloween-wear. I’ve always found Halloween an interesting embodiment of more general adult worries about young people. As some of you may be aware, I teach a class on “The Concept of the Problem Child,” and I was speaking with some of my students yesterday about the ways in which Halloween – traditionally a day of subversion for children and young people – is also an occasion for adults to exert their control.

When I was young, adults were freaked out by the specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics, or spiked with razor blades (despite the absence of a single recorded case of such an event). Now, we’ve grown to fear the sugary candy itself. And this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.

I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.

It seems to me that we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels: we can talk about complex issues of identify, free speech, cultural appropriation, and virtue “signalling.” But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.

As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it. I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.

Which is my point. I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours. Why do we dress up on Halloween, anyway? Should we start explaining that too? I’ve always been a good mimic and I enjoy accents. I love to travel, too, and have been to every continent but Antarctica. When I lived in Bangladesh, I bought a sari because it was beautiful, even though I looked stupid in it and never wore it once. Am I fetishizing and appropriating others’ cultural experiences? Probably. But I really, really like them too.

Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you? We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word).

Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.

But – again, speaking as a child development specialist – I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?

In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.

Happy Halloween.

Yours sincerely,


tinyfaery's avatar

Maybe the old ways (omg, this was 40–50 years ago) when the second wave started separate and safe spaces were needed. Maybe today’s youth have no need for a safe place, and if so, hurrah! But obviously, some young people think differently.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

Yeah, I don’t know. I’m also on the fence in certain ways. @tinyfaery said a lot of what I was thinking.

However, after reading the entire email, I also agree with a lot of the points she made. Outright banning certain things, especially when it comes to freedom of expression, doesn’t teach anyone anything. I fully believe that America still has a very long way to go when it comes to equality and it makes tons of sense to me why people would get livid about blackface, or wearing costumes designed to look like Native American dress, or just dressing “as a race” in general. Going as Mulan is okay, going as a Native American in general… not so much. But should it be banned? No, I don’t think so.

If we ban such things, even though they are pretty despicable, the discussion goes away. We can’t teach or be taught by each other when we just close our eyes and act like a problem doesn’t exist. Let people who wear blackface (or whatever else) be ostracized so that they can learn why it’s not such an acceptable thing to do. Genuine change can’t occur if nothing can even lead to discussion.

ibstubro's avatar

“if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

Haleth's avatar

White people in America love to talk about political correctness gone too far. Has anyone else noticed that we are the ONLY ones who say that? I’d like to kindly suggest that we are not the experts on what is and isn’t racist. When people who are actually affected by actual racism raise an objection to something, maybe we should take the time to listen to them.

Also, it really chaps my ass when people describe these reactions as “offended.” I think, in the context of someone responding to racism, it’s a weasel word. “Offended” implies an irrational irritation at a trivial problem. Like, you might be offended if someone is talking with their mouth full. I don’t think that’s the correct word for being black and seeing someone wearing blackface, and then having your concerns dismissed by your college.

And the way “free speech” is used in this context, that phrase has also been weasled. People seem to think freedom of speech is the freedom to say/ do whatever the fuck they want anywhere they want with no consequences. Freedom of speech actually means that the government will not punish/ imprison you for your speech. So if you decide to make farting noises into a megaphone in a public square at 4 AM (which is basically what the kids in these costumes are contributing to the environment), freedom of speech makes it legal. If the college decides to ban that, free speech is still alive and well.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@Haleth I don’t disagree with your first point at all. White people have never faced racism the way that minorities have, so to complain about the “complainers” is pretty gross to me in a whole lot of circumstances.

I don’t know if I agree about the use of the word “offended” wholeheartedly, because as a woman, there’s a lot I still get offended about, but it doesn’t mean my opinions or feelings should be disregarded as BS simply because I use the word. However, I can see your point, because words change all the time and if that’s how a lot of people have come to think of and use the word “offended”, I don’t disagree with you there, either. That’s precisely why I chose to use the word “livid”, because “offended” didn’t feel powerful enough to me.

You’re right about freedom of speech. A lot of Americans don’t realize that it’s specifically enacted to protect people from the government. However, I do think it should apply in general, all the time. Yes, if the college decides to change the rules, so be it, it’s their right. That said, I still don’t necessarily think it’s a good move. It closes down dialogue and discussion. Which doesn’t mean that the people wearing blackface (etc.) aren’t despicable and gross human beings, because in my opinion, they are – but society as a whole can’t actually change if there isn’t a road to travel down.

It’s a loaded subject, and I understand why some students would want to ban certain costumes, but I just don’t think it would necessarily teach people anything. On the other hand… I can also see why students would see it as turning a blind eye to a very real social problem.

It’s a matter of trying to force gross behavior out of people, or trying to teach them why their behavior is gross so they want to change. The question, I guess, is whether forcing it out of people would teach them that it’s gross, or just piss them off make them fight change even more. I don’t know if I know which course of action would be the best, but my gut is telling me that dialogue would be the better option.

ibstubro's avatar

Really, @Haleth?

“I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.”
“In their political views?”
“Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”

Care to guess the source?

I’m hearing over and over that comedians of all stripes are avoiding college campuses because of the atmosphere of outrage.

“I know Dave Chappelle bans everybody’s phone when he plays a club. I haven’t gone that far, but I may have to, to get an act together for a tour.”

Imagine The Village People playing a college campus today.

DominicY's avatar

@ibstubro That is definitely true. They have became exactly like conservatives in that way, just about different issues. And they don’t even realize the irony in it. These college students are no different than the conservative mom who is outraged that the school is letting her children read a book that features homosexual characters because of the sin and the decadence of it. Except now it’s the “microagression” and “appropriation” of it.

Even though I only graduated college in 2013, I already feel like I don’t understand “today’s youth”. My “generation”, the people born in the early 90s, are more lax about this kind of thing, it’s a fact.

Haleth's avatar

@ibstubro Yes, really. These students wouldn’t be asking for a safe space, and calling it that, unless they felt unsafe. You don’t just wake up in the morning and decide to protest over nothing.

Haleth's avatar

From the fourth link:

“The confusion is telling, though. It shows that while keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.”

I’ve linked to this article before as pertains to women, but it’s relevant here as well. People love to use words like crazy and oversensitive to dismiss legitimate concerns. Men use those words to talk about women, as in my link. And white people use it for black people, as in your link.

My oldest friend from childhood is black, and through high school I was basically the only white kid in our group of friends. When I was 19 I lived with her family for a year. By the time these students reach college, racism is hardly an “unfamiliar idea.” More of it will not sharpen anyone’s wits. They’ve had experiences with it again and again and again through adolescence, at ages when the rest of us are dealing with problems like which boy band to like. By the time my friends reached college, they were weary and cynical beyond their years. What these students are asking for is not for offensive words to never touch their delicate ears, but for the institution where they live and study to actually address its totally fucking racist environment.

In a lot of the commentary on these events, there’s a gross undercurrent of sneery paternalism, like the students are weak and sheltered 21st century liberals who can’t face the real world and just need to grow up. Rugged individualism, bootstrapping, and Just Toughening Up are traditional American values that writers co-opt all the time to dismiss ideas they don’t like. If you imply that your opponents are weak-willed or sheltered, you don’t need to argue the merits of your position- you’ve basically already won the argument. Being college-aged and going on a hunger strike is basically as far from sheltered as you can get. Anyway, it’s the internet and I doubt that me writing this will change anyone’s mind or accomplish anything. It’s just wasting my time and energy, so I’m going to unfollow this thread now.

tinyfaery's avatar

With me you are preaching to the choir, but may I say, nicely worded!

DrasticDreamer's avatar

Me, too, and I agree with @tinyfaery. I know she isn’t following this thread anymore, but I do believe that she can absolutely reach people who are willing to open their minds. Few and far between, but sometimes the few are worth it.

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