Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Safe spaces

I actually like the idea of safe spaces in college. But not because they allow students to hide from the world; on the contrary, I like them because they offer a training ground.

In a way, the only reason we would need safe spaces at all, is because we are engaged in unsafe activities. Risky discussions, dangerous thoughts. Students deserve "safe spaces": classes that are designed so carefully, and so kindly, that they can explore conflicting opinions without the risk of repercussions. Students need to have a chance to explore merits of controversial ideas, ask problematic questions, all while knowing that they are covered by some kind of a "blanket intellectual insurance".

(And by the way, it does not feel like colleges offer these safe spaces right now. At least here at Bard students seem to feel very unsafe when controversial topics are brought up. It's a challenge. Discussions don't happen; everything just shuts down.)

Think about it. Questioning Aristotle does not mean that you disagree with Aristotle in your private life, as a private citizen, and subscribe to, say, the philosophy of Plato (let's assume it is out of vogue for solid moral reasons). It means literally what it means: that you are currently, temporarily, engaged in questioning Aristotle. It is your assignment, perhaps, to question the validity of Aristotle's logic, or his claims, or the practical consequences of his thought, and so that is what you do. Because you were assigned to explore this position. Once the class is over, you are free to go your way, and be as Epicurean or Cynical as you wish, but right now the topic of the day is "questioning Aristotle", and so students in class should (ideally) feel comfortable enough to do so.

Safe spaces are good. A gym with mats is a safe space - because it has mats. The fencing room with masks and bending sabers is a safe space as well. The safety harness on a rock climber is, well, exactly the thing that turns their climbing practice a (relatively) safe exercise. The same is true for college. It is an intellectual harness, an intellectual mat; a mask perhaps (rich metaphors here). It is absolutely necessary.

And once the "safe space" is there, we can use them to discuss morally questionable topics and opinions. Because we need to discuss morally questionable opinions, it is our civil duty! If we stop questioning the morality of our opinions, or any opinions for that matter; if we believe in them unthinkingly; if we don't weigh them on the poorly defined intuitive and intellectual scales of morality, we are doomed. Opinions exist to be questioned, ethically, intellectually, morally; and where else if not in college would one practice this skill. To stay tactful and kind against all odds; to experience anger, disgust, and indignation without letting them breach on the surface, but using them as fuel for deeper thought and even more careful, deliberate dialogue. Not a debate (debates are ultimately evil, for a different reason), not as an attempt to win, to prove, to break, or impress somebody. But as a slow, sincere, painstaking attempt to establish a working relationship with a different opinion. And maybe (but not necessarily), arrive at a compromise, or maybe (again, not necessarily), reject one of the opinions as unproductive: the outcomes may differ, but the process is the same.

With that, hail to safe spaces, and to morally questionable discussions in the classroom! They are absolutely necessary.


  1. I might be missing something, but this is not my understanding of what a safe space is. Here's the wikipedia definition: "The term safe space has been extended to refer to an autonomous space for individuals who feel marginalized to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization".

    To me, this is a place where you stay away from controversial opinions. If you're puzzled by the concept of non-binary genders or feel alienated by the rejection of mens rights with regards to children then this is not the place to discuss it. The safe space is not for open discussion of controversial ideas .. its for making marginalized people feel safe.

    And there's nothing wrong with that, but it means we still have a problem of making our students feel comfortable exploring and learning new ideas.

  2. Well, you are certainly right. That's the textbook definition of a safe space. My feeling though is that while textbook safe spaces are very important (I actually do buy into the textbook idea as well), the opposite of a textbook safe space is also crucial, and in fact IT IS also a safe space of sorts. Just of a different kind.

    A space where it is safe to explore controversial ideas because you are granted a blanket forgiveness for engaging with them. A space where it is safe to think. Even if the position itself is morally questionable (because, again, in my opinion ANY opinion SHOULD be morally questioned, and thus has to be morally questionable).

    I'm trying to be somewhat provocative, but I'm not good in being provocative (which may be for the best actually =). Still, I'm trying to appropriate two existing terms and subvert them, showing that their extreme generalization offers a sort of a compromise between the self-identified "free speech supporters" and those who disagree with them.