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The danger of 'safe spaces'

Display of banned books or censored books at Books Inc independent bookstore in Alameda, California, October 16, 2021. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
Display of banned books or censored books at Books Inc independent bookstore in Alameda, California, October 16, 2021. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
This article is more than 1 year old.

The first time I heard the term “safe space” was in a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing poetry class about eight years ago. We’d gone around the room reading stanzas from a deeply disturbing poem by Frank Bidart about a man who has raped and murdered a child. It’s an extraordinary and audacious piece of work. While I had no desire to read it again, I admired Bidart’s willingness to even try to enter the mind and heart of such a man, and even more, his ability to find some pain that reminded us, however fleetingly, of the vulnerability and humanity of even the most vile of actors.

One of my classmates didn’t share this view. She condemned the teacher for having failed to issue a trigger warning (a caution that the content might arouse distress or reignite past traumas), and though generally skeptical about this practice, on this most rare of occasions, I sympathized with her.

But she lost me when she argued that this poem transformed the classroom from being a “safe space” and thus should not have been taught at all. At the time, I reacted just to her objection to the poem. What is the point of art, I wondered, if not to make us uncomfortable, to give us some insight into people unlike ourselves, to excite empathy under even the most challenging of circumstances?

What is the point of art, I wondered, if not to make us uncomfortable, to give us some insight into people unlike ourselves, to excite empathy under even the most challenging of circumstances?

Since then, the term “safe space” has become ubiquitous, particularly on college campuses. Motivated to root out implicit prejudices and ensure equity, progressive students have castigated professors not just for their actions (such as the University of Michigan music professor who showed his class a film of "Othello" featuring Laurence Olivier in blackface, without offering any context or explanation for his choice), but for their apparently inadequate or misguided apologies for their actions.

Eager to whip up distracting culture wars and fuel white grievance, the right has in turn seized on these types of overzealous reactions, branding as “Critical Race Theory” any effort to provoke self-examination. In May, the Tennessee State Legislature banned schools from “instructing students that one race bears responsibility for the past actions against another, that the United States is fundamentally racist or that a person is inherently privileged or oppressive due to their race.” Not coincidentally, this body also killed legislation that would have required the teaching of Black history in fifth and eight grade.

Like consummate poker players, conservatives have seen and raised the progressives’ alleged aversion to discomfort. It’s safe to say that Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race in Virginia on the strength of thinly disguised efforts to bar provocative and potentially upsetting content about race from the classroom --  including Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning "Beloved" (about which the high school senior-age son of an irate mother in a Youngkin campaign ad said, “It was disgusting and gross … It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.”). Who’s the “snowflake” now?

Predictably, Texas leads the way in this flavor of repression. Its new law, which proponents maintain is intended to bar any content that might lead white children to question whether they are themselves racist, goes well beyond even that inglorious goal. It bans “political activism, lobbying, or efforts to persuade members of the legislative or executive branch at the federal, state, or local level to take specific actions by direct communication; or participation in any internship, practicum, or similar activity involving social or public policy advocacy” from any required class. Apparently in Texas, the only good citizen is a mute citizen.

This quest for safe spaces extends beyond the classroom, though. It increasingly crops up in the workplace, in civic organizations, in families — anywhere where the bar to disagreement is low and the emotional stakes are potentially high.

I stress the word “emotion” because in this new usage, safety doesn’t mean just being free from physical harm or danger. It means being shielded from disagreement or emotional discomfort. Indeed, Merriam-Webster defines a “safe space” as “a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.”

But as Paul Tapp, an attorney with the Association of Texas Professional Educators said, “The point of public education is to introduce the world to students. It's not there to protect students from the world.” If safety means warding off emotional discomfort or conflict, if we allow feelings to take primacy over facts, then we are putting our knowledge, our resilience, and our ability to innovate at risk. Were individuals and institutions to routinely abide by this definition, safe spaces would be dangerous.

“The consequence of insisting on a safe space is that someone doesn’t say what needs to be said, of if they do, that the person they’re addressing doesn’t hear it,” says Leonard Glantz, Professor Emeritus of Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights, Boston University School of Public Health.

If I am afraid to broach anything that might make you uncomfortable — whether it’s that COVID-19 kills more people than do vaccines, or that my child, though privileged by virtue of her white skin, is not responsible for the actions of all white people, or that no, you shouldn’t drive home after rapidly downing six beers — I will not say things that perhaps should be said. If we agree that your feelings take primacy over facts or even over debate itself, your ability to hear and even consider what I’m saying is impaired.

If we don’t allow for and learn to tolerate discomfort or disagreement, our individual worlds shrink.

The alternative is to create what social justice educators Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens describe as “brave spaces,” classrooms in which learning and discussion are based on five principles: “Controversy with civility,” “Owning intentions and impacts,” (acknowledging that discussion has affected someone else’s emotional well-being), “Challenge by choice,” (giving students the option to participate in or sit out challenging conversations), “Respect,” and “No attacks,” — an agreement to refrain from intentionally inflicting harm on one another.

If we don’t allow for and learn to tolerate discomfort or disagreement, our individual worlds shrink. Each of us is confined to a bubble that is not only small but opaque, making it impossible to see our surroundings or to let others see into our own hearts and minds.

The consequences of perpetually feeling unthreatened extend beyond the classroom. If we insist on feeling safe, we deny the realities of threats like climate change that should scare us into dramatic and immediate action.

The only thing more dangerous than disquiet is its absence.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.

Related:

Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” and “Burning and Dodging.”

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