Campus protests and student activism have been the targets of intense criticism from news sources including US News, The Atlantic, and more in the months since tensions escalated at Missouri and Yale. While the increasingly dull and repetitive pieces continue to characterize students as being oversensitive and coddled, the lack of rigorous journalistic inquiry paired with sloppy generalizations is what truly mitigates any potential good of these entries. What happened at Yale is radically different from a few students at Oberlin protesting bad food.
Nonetheless, Connor Friedersdorf, a staff writer for The Atlantic, has literally written the same piece upwards of six times – reiterating his clumsy condemnation of safe spaces in relation to Oberlin, UCLA, Yale, Amherst, Missouri, and Claremont McKenna (with repeats), claiming that they victimize students, prevent important dialogue from taking place, and defecate upon the First Amendment.
As a student at Villanova, I will not be commenting on the campus climates at Yale, Missouri, or any other college that has come under scrutiny by the press recently. Neither will I attempt to dispel the ideology of Friedersdorf, First Amendment trumpeters, unfiltered libertarians, or white supremacists who demonize student activism – that has thankfully already been done in Salon, The Guardian, The Yale Daily News, and in countless Facebook status and independent blogs from black students and other people of color (despite the common mantra that student protestors refuse to engage in critical dialogue or conversation).
What I will do in the following paragraphs is give an account of what “safe spaces” look like at the college I attend – Villanova University – in order to illustrate that the homogenized accounts provided by multiple media outlets is incorrect, unrepresentative, and does a disservice to public dialogue surrounding race, campus climates, and the importance of student activism. Contrary to the white libertarian mind, safe spaces do not coddle students. They do not provide a haven away from important dialogue. In fact, they help facilitate the dialogue necessary for deconstructing racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, and more in our communities.
In the August of 2013, I embarked on my collegiate journey at Villanova University as I participated in a week long freshmen program which preceded the first week of classes. An integral part to this program was a one credit class called IGR, or Intergroup Relations. Straight from Villanova’s website, IGR “is an educational experience about issues of social justice. The focus of IGR is on creating understanding relationships among people from different social, economic, racial and ethnic groups. Communication skills related to careful listening and meaningful dialogue are also discussed and developed for all who participate.”
The first thing faculty and upperclassmen facilitators did in my IGR class (comprised of seventeen freshmen, four upperclassmen facilitators, and three professors) was describe safe space rules. We, as freshmen, were then able to add to these rules and approve the ones suggested by our facilitators. Below I will highlight a few of the traditional safe space rules and explain how their effect is not one of silencing, comforting, or coddling students, but is actually one that promotes free dialogue, genuine understanding, empathy, confrontation, and intellectual growth.
1. Attack the idea, not the person.
A common mischaracterization made by sloppy journalists is that the very idea of safe spaces makes majority groups – particularly white males – the subject of demonization or silencing. But this common safe space rule attempts to provide intention and deliberation to dialogue, exhibiting the opposite effect. Even if I, as a white male, were to say something explicitly ignorant and offensive, the purpose of the dialogue is not to demonize me. It is to address the idea, so that I can better understand why that idea might come across as offensive and why it may carry racist or sexist undertones. In other words, this rule actually makes it easier for students – particularly white students who may be scared of coming across as offensive – to speak freely, as long as they’re open to critical analysis and examination.
“There’s also an inverted sense to which this rule operates, regarding how dominant identity holders should receive what marginalized identity holders say,” observes fellow Villanova junior, Kinjal Dave. “Attacking the idea and not the person means distinguishing individual people from their participation within an identity group. Ultimately, you cannot have a racist society if no one is racist. The goal is to recognize how we as individuals are contributing to racism in society. So, we’d try to talk about ‘whiteness’ or ‘white culture,’ which is very different than talking about you as a person who happens to be white. Basically, the rule is ‘don’t take this personally.’ The point of dialogue is to demonstrate that individuals can think and act independently of their identity group, but it doesn’t mean that we can ignore how that identity group behaves. Do white males behave condescendingly towards me on a daily basis? Yes. Does Eric Aldieri, who is a white male, behave condescendingly towards me on a daily basis? No.”
2. Speak from the “I” perspective.
The premise of this stipulation is to avoid generalizations, and more importantly, avoid speaking for a group. By speaking from one’s own personal experiences, ideas are rooted in reality – not in stereotypical or dogmatic sentiment. Additionally, what I say is not misconstrued as me speaking for a group or about a group. It allows opinions to be unpacked, interrogated, or defended more fruitfully. I do not represent all white men. Kinjal does not represent all brown women, etc. At the same time, we don’t forget that the sentiment I am voicing has been informed, for twenty one years now, by my perspective and position in society as a white male.
3. What is said here stays here. What is learned here leaves here.
This common rule ensures a degree of anonymity among people who are not in the room, but also ensures that the lessons learned in dialogue permeate into everyday life. When students are assured that a potentially ignorant or offensive thing they said does not travel across campus – “so-and-so said (insert racist sentiment)!!” – then they are encouraged to, once again, speak more freely, in the hope that potentially harmful ideas are called out and addressed respectfully and fruitfully. Alternatively, students sharing traumatic stories in order to provide a genuine example of pain or violence, can rest assured that their story will not become the subject of some campus social talking point. The intricacies of dialogue are protected, while the general lessons are taken out into the world.
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but it provides a basic understanding of what students (at least at Villanova) mean when they call for a safe space on campus. Contrary to journalistic musings of The Atlantic, safe spaces aren’t meant to silence students. They are explicitly designed to provide the opposite effect. Safe space rules are a kind of setting up rules of engagement, promoting intentionality, clarity, and communication. They are about how things should be received and what kinds of comments the dialogue is supposed to solicit. An alternative to the term “safe space” is the term “brave space” to denote that you should feel okay to say what’s really on your mind and, more importantly, that people listening will keep in mind that you’re in the process of understanding your position relative to your identity group.
As far as condemnations of being “overly PC” go, social justice circles and IGR classrooms have little interest in this tripe. Once again, my experience has been that students would rather you say something offensive than harbor it internally, so that it can be respectfully addressed and unpacked, and so one may understand why their speech may be riddled with dehumanizing or prejudiced sentiment.
Safe space guidelines also help to explain another attitude condemned by “Free Speech defenders” in these articles – the attempt to block out unadulterated media observation. While Melissa Click, the journalism professor at Missouri who attempted to forcibly remove a “journalist” from a public protest on campus, seems to have gone to excesses, disinviting, or at least regulating media sources from/in environments which attempt to promote free and productive dialogue actually makes tons of sense. Students and faculty are both more likely to speak freely when they know that every word is not being recorded, when they know that their speech won’t be filtered into misrepresentative soundbites.
When Villanova University’s President and Board of Trustees decided, with very little public dialogue and almost no transparency, to institute an armed campus police force (arguably as a knee-jerk reaction to campus shootings), Villanova students and faculty held our own public forum. Since we wanted all voices to be represented, without fear of sounding offensive or ignorant, we introduced a series of safe space guidelines to follow through the course of the forum. When the local news source showed up at the forum – camera crew and everything – we politely told them they were not welcomed in the hall. They understood our reasoning and exited. Afterwards, students who wanted to specifically talk to news sources had the opportunity to do so outside. Sometimes publicity – especially filtered publicity – is actually not conducive to the exercise of free speech.
The Villanovan, our school newspaper, however, was allowed to be present since it is comprised of members of the Villanova community interested in our concerns, and served as an imperative liaison to the rest of the Villanova community who could not make it to the forum . They were not, however, permitted to quote anything specifically said, and instead provided a general outline of issues discussed – again in the spirit of facilitating a productive dialogue where students and faculty were not afraid to speak.
Defenders of free speech must realize that the call for safe spaces and the condemnation of hateful speech across campus actually promotes free dialogue and the enjoyment of the First Amendment for all citizens. Calling out hate in the form of racism, sexism, etc. does not curtail free speech – it is actually a necessary and productive utilization of free speech against existing power structures and linguistically enforced hierarchies. It encourages majority groups to vocalize their sentiments so that they may be fruitfully addressed, in the hopes of eventually protecting minority students from incessant verbal attacks. If anything, free speech defenders should be more worried about Republican politicians who attempted to defund football scholarships for players who engaged in protests. That represents a far more drastic, perverse, and entitled restriction to First Amendment rights than the employment of safe spaces.