How Relevant Are Safe Spaces?

November 7, 2016


A Shade of Grey

Tina Al-khersan

Throughout this political election, multiculturalism has been a hot topic. However, the idea of valuing differences has plagued America’s history. Because we as a society, and as a campus, have not yet fully succeeded in creating a method that both respects and bolsters the differences among people on campus, marginalized groups are still being targeted.

Typically, marginalized communities have been subject to microaggressions, prejudice and discrimination throughout their lives. When these communities are targeted, it brings up painful memories and intensifies their effect. Furthermore, the University of Michigan is perceived as accepting; the jarring reality that discrimination occurs even in places considered home exacerbates the effects. On top of this, students have to manage academics. This all culminates into a feeling of isolation, anger and sometimes fear. To combat these negative effects, safe spaces are often created in order to provide the community with the means to effectively digest the events, find support and recoup.

While these spaces have a positive intention, they are also constantly criticized by the media. Prominent figures continue to argue that safe spaces are not relevant. In fact, they say that they create a destructive environment that represses intellectual freedom by keeping students from hearing opposing viewpoints.

I do not disagree with these critics when they say that blocking out opposing beliefs threatens intellectual freedom. In fact, I completely agree. Choosing to selectively listen to people based on their viewpoints prevents education, growth and understanding.

However, these critics and I differ because of how we define safe spaces. I believe that commentators have reduced the varying contexts in which safe spaces can exist by focusing on one setting. Because they deem this one context harmful, they claim that safe spaces in all contexts are harmful. Furthermore, they have assumed that political activists on campus define the term in the same manner, but I do not believe that safe spaces are created in response to one type of event or that all safe spaces have the same intention.

Before defining types of safe spaces, we must first define what is a marginalized community. These groups have less power when compared to the respective majority group. People initially think of race, but religion, socioeconomic status and survivors of sexual assault are also marginalized groups. Already, it becomes apparent that safe spaces can serve a variety of purposes for each group.

Firstly, in terms of sexual assault, many critics do not discuss how safe spaces can prevent a survivor from being retraumatized. If the survivor has already been targeted, safe spaces can create an atmosphere where the individual can begin to heal. Rather than being a place that shields an individual from opposing viewpoints, it becomes a necessity that preserves a survivor’s personal well being.

Moreover, the safe spaces that I have attended did not consider their primary purpose to be protecting attendees from dissenting viewpoints, like critics claim. Rather, some allowed attendees to brainstorm responses and provide resources, while others encouraged discussion of opposing viewpoints. And even if a safe space is created with the intention of no debate, it is because marginalized groups often live their lives outside of that space debating and fighting for equal treatment, which should be a right. These settings might lessen the opportunities one has to learn about dissenting viewpoints, yes, but marginalized communities are bombarded by opposing beliefs that negatively impact them daily.

Therefore, these safe spaces often serve as the one place where like-minded individuals can gather. That being said, I do agree with critics when they say that not every uncomfortable event or speech with which we disagree requires a safe space; however, where we draw this line is still unclear because unsafe and uncomfortable are relative terms. Furthermore, because marginalized communities are continuously targeted, a safe space may be crafted in response to multiple events although it appears to be responding to only one.

Overall, I think that semantics, a lack of definitions and disacknowledgement of varying contexts has stifled the conversation and reduces the topic to black and white. Activists must be careful when they use the term “safe space” so that the meaning is not delegitimized and critics must acknowledge the variety of settings in which safe spaces occur. All in all, we must continue to expand the conversation by exploring the gray areas. ◼

Tina Al-khersan is a senior studying International Studies and Arabic/Islamic Studies with a focus on comparative culture and identity. She spends her free time working with refugees through organizations like the Karam Foundation and Michigan Refugee Assistance Program.


On Safe Spaces

Dominic A. Stanchina

Thinking in the most charitable way possible, the most idealistic, barebones definition I can construct for a safe space on our campus is this:

“A place of refuge and recovery for those who are distressed”.

One may ask, “Who would ever be opposed to a place like this?” The answer is no one. No one opposes a place exactly like this. What people like myself do oppose is not within the definition. The arbiter of the safe space is the one who decides what warrants a safe space; at the moment, I oppose them. Who is the arbiter on our campus, and why do they exist? The answer lies in the differences of two universities. One is a university of learning, the other is a university of community.

At a university where the focus is learning and academics, safe spaces are not necessary because all of those present would endeavor to be challenged and to learn together, and all understand the primary purpose of what they take part in. At a university of learning, community would naturally spring from the social dynamics within education and academic enrichment, and university administrators would answer to professors.

At a university where the focus is community, safe spaces are created because all present do not wish to be challenged or to be changed. There is no primary purpose or common goal among students and professors; rather, they desire wholeheartedly to remain the same and to be accepted in the community in whatever way they see fit. At a university of community, learning and academic enrichment are subject to the preservation of an unnatural, designed and directed community, where professors answer to university administrators.

The safe space is part of the modern, bloated university of community, and gives rise to questions relating to the extent to which a university should provide for its students. The answers to those questions lie in what makes a university: its professors. The University of Michigan does not operate as a university or exist as one without the educators and mentors who have come together to form it. The University’s only responsibility is to provide what the professors choose to provide to those people who wish to study with, learn from and provide a salary for said professors. When I interact with my university, I should be interacting with that which sets it apart and defines it: my professors. Instead, whenever I interact with my university, I seem to interact with those who play no pivotal role in the goals of the university of learning.

The University lavishes food upon its students, but I do not expect a professor to provide me with meals. The University constructs massive housing projects, but I do not expect a professor to provide me with a residence. The University maintains management of colossal athletic capital, but I do not expect a professor to provide me with exercise equipment, let alone a stadium. And among all the other unnamed things that I do not ask of my professors, I do not expect them to make an extra special effort to provide a place of refuge and recovery from ideas that may bother me. All these things seem like a student’s responsibility, and not that of my educator.

Instead of letting students handle distressing things themselves, either in solitude or among their peers and trusted mentors, the university administrator has decided that it knows best how to handle such things. Rather than have students decide for themselves what could cause distress or discomfort and how to act after experiencing such things, the university of community arbitrarily decides to issue warnings for whatever events seem most detrimental to its vision of a harmonious community. These come in the form of safe spaces under the guise of the protection of a victim. Thus the discussion of new, bold or controversial ideas is vilified and delegitimized.

I find the trajectory of our campus to be unacceptable. Students and professors do not need an arbiter of safe spaces when they are perfectly capable of fostering community and understanding amongst themselves. I think that it is time for students and professors to honestly establish why they are here and which type of university “here” should be. ◼

Dominic A. Stanchina is from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. His major area of study is Classical Civilizations along with separate minor areas of study in Philosophy and Latin. Dominic is currently Vice-Chairman of Young Americans for Freedom at the University of Michigan, a conservative and constitutionalist education and activism group.


Emotional Safety in the Midst of Oppression

Ini Ubong

In my opinion, safe spaces are necessary on our campus. There are two good examples that I know of: TransForm and the Coalition for Queer and Trans People of Color, both of which were created, in part, to be spaces for people with marginalized identities. One reason for Coalition’s existence is to serve as a place for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning) students of color to have a space to get away from racism, homophobia and transphobia. LGBTQ spaces are mostly white—and often racist—while organizations surrounding racial ethnic identities often leave out the experiences of LGBTQ individuals. TransForm and Coalition, among other places on campus, create safe spaces for me as well as other students to talk about our experiences without invalidation.

For me, a safe space is a place where I know I’m not going to encounter any hateful speech or identity-based violence, so it’s an area where I’m allowed to talk about aspects of myself that might be ridiculed somewhere else. Some of these places on campus are the Spectrum Center, MESA, the M-STEM office and even the offices of some professors. The people in these places understand homophobia, transphobia, racism and other forms of power-based violence; when I talk about my experiences, I go to these people with the assurance that I won’t be invalidated, that I won’t be told that I’m “making things up” or “being too sensitive” or “playing the race card.” Even if I don’t hold the same experiences as the people I’m talking to, it’s still helpful to be validated, especially in light of recent events on campus.

I think of safe spaces as places that include content warnings for the discussion of difficult topics, and as places that are guaranteed to be anti-racist as well as affirming of LGBTQ identities. Within the last few weeks, we’ve had white supremacists on campus along with online mockery of transgender identities from the #UMPronounChallenge. It’s been a difficult time for Black and trans students, and doubly so for the people at the intersection of these two identities. Safe spaces have been absolutely necessary for dealing with both of those events. I think it’s important to remember that while these actions were widely publicized, marginalized students deal with microaggressions every day, and safe spaces are a way to talk through it with people who will understand.

Overall, designated spaces that are free from oppressive language are good for everyone, and can serve to make this campus safer. I’ve seen a lot of pushback recently against the idea of safe spaces, trigger warnings and what’s been called “PC culture,” but I find it pretty ridiculous and even selfish. It’s easy to not talk about someone’s trauma in front of them or to not use transphobic slurs. It might take a little extra work, but I think prioritizing the well-being of already oppressed people is worth it. ◼

Ini Ubong is a senior in LSA studying Biomolecular Science and African Studies. They are involved with two student organizations: TransForm and the Coalition for Queer and Trans People of Color.


Freedom of (Only Some) Speech

Talia Katz

No one would dispute that college should help you discover your passions, sharpen critical-thinking skills and produce exceptional leaders. However, universities absurdly go to extreme lengths to treat students like fragile little flowers. They safeguard students’ idealism by protecting them from having their ideas challenged or feelings hurt. They reinforce students’ complacency with their worldviews and comfort with their ignorance. Universities are increasingly silencing any opinion someone might deem offensive, averse to the core beliefs upon which others were raised, or contrary to someone’s perceptions of truth.

Brandeis University retracted its plan to award women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali with an honorary degree because of her critiques of Islam. The University of Hawaii prohibited students from distributing copies of the Constitution of the United States outside of its designated “free speech zone.” Brown University cut then-NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s speech short because students were interrupting his lecture by shouting accusations of racial profiling.

These incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. According to FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, nearly 62 percent of universities in the United States enforce restrictions on written or verbal expressions.

Unfortunately for those sheltered by trigger warnings and safe spaces, America is a free speech zone, and after you graduate, you cannot whine and you cannot hide to protect yourself. The inauthentic and artificial environment that the university tries to foster for its students could very well produce the most unprepared and ill-equipped generation in American history.

However, the efforts of colleges to shelter students from disillusionment do not stop with ‘uninviting’ lecturers and blatant disregards for our First Amendment. For example, the University of Michigan unveiled its five-year “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategic Plan” at the beginning of this year – a plan that focuses on supporting students regardless of race, religion, ability or ethnicity. This idealistic goal is noble, but one important component that is missing from this goal is that of opinions and ideas. Only one agenda, one political leaning, one form of opinion can be tolerated both on my campus and campuses around the country. Time and again, if a student or professor expresses a difference in opinion, other students will accuse such contrarians of being “racist,” “fascist,” “homophobic,” “elitist,” and the like. These hyperbolic accusations rationalize safeguarding a student’s right to not be offended at the expense of other students’ individual rights and freedoms to provoke a discussion. Furthermore, this inflammatory rhetoric closes the door to any form of debate or free exchange of ideas.

As a student often with the minority opinion, I frequently fear that I would be shunned or silenced for simply expressing my thoughts or offering a counterexample. Some people seek me out to confess to me in private that they are politically right-winged and are afraid to publicly identify as such for fear that both the academic and social portions of their college experience would fall apart.

Although my thoughts are under attack almost daily, I am not asking anyone for their sympathy; rather, we should sympathize with the liberal student, the social justice warrior and the student who expects society to change for them. These restrictions on free speech hinder these students from criticizing their own ideas or understanding the nuances of complex issues that the next generation must resolve.

If intellectual stimulation and the free exchange of viewpoints is the ultimate goal of the collegiate experience, only those who invite debate and unabashedly express their opinions will graduate smarter and more mature than when they stepped onto campus for the first time. ◼

Talia Katz is a current sophomore at the University of Michigan in the Honors Program at LSA. She is an indoor cycling instructor, a student ambassador for Prager University and the president of ILEAD, an Israel advocacy group on campus.