I’ve never been to a Students for Life meeting, but their Facebook page indicates they plan tabling events and build a pro-life community on a campus that can often seem hostile to their views.
If I were to walk into one of their meetings and begin lecturing them about bodily autonomy and reproductive rights, they would probably ask me to leave and rightly so. Our free speech rights are in no way diminished by the fact that there are spaces where debate is unproductive and unwanted.
Conservatives are happy to construct these spaces, for example, at church or while the national anthem plays at a football game. They recognize that certain contexts should preclude protest and debate, and is consistent with our free speech ideals.
When conservatives grumble about campus snowflakes insulating themselves in safe spaces, they are reacting to a real, problematic insularity on the left, but they also misunderstand safe spaces.
A safe space is anywhere people who share an identity, or are sympathetic to it, can meet without needing to justify, explain or defend themselves.
A church retreat site where Christians can explore their faith without arguing with atheists is a safe space. The African Students’ Association, where students can share ideas and experiences without constantly needing to explain their culture, is a safe space. An apartment where Kardashian fans can keep up with their favorite celebrity family, free from judgement, is a safe space.
Those who most forcefully object to safe spaces are often those deepest inside one, surrounded by people who look like them and think like them. When someone’s identity is never called into question, they can lose sight of the way it drapes their reality, and criticize others for engaging their own identities.
The idea of safe spaces arose in the LGBTQA community, among people who knew speaking freely could invite violence. They were protecting themselves — not cowering from dissenting opinions.
While a Kardashian fan most likely doesn’t need a safe space in the same way, we all need safe spaces to live normal, healthy social lives.
Some progressives, however, take this idea too far. While everywhere should be safe from violence and harassment, not everywhere can be a safe space.
Classrooms, in particular, cannot be safe spaces. Learning often requires that identities be justified, explained and defended. There is no shared identity among the assorted students in a given classroom that would lend itself to a corresponding safe space. In general, the larger and more diverse a space and the people inside it are, the more difficult it is to make it a safe space because of this lack of shared identity.
However, some progressives fight to build expansive safe spaces surrounding their entire lives. Their friends, habits, interests and crucially, social media, begin to revolve around their politics. While there’s nothing wrong with being around like-minded people, wrapping oneself in an ideological cocoon avoids the difficult, important work of dealing with people who disagree.
In a country as diverse as ours, working with people who see things differently is unavoidable. But listening and talking to a wide variety of people with kindness and an open mind is by no means incompatible with making use of safe spaces.
Danny Bugingo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org