clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Safe spaces, explained

The term "safe space" often gets thrown around, and mocked, in debates about social justice and free speech on college campuses. To some, safe spaces symbolize the "coddling" of America’s youth, the oversensitivity of modern progressivism, and even a serious threat to free speech.

Take the University of Chicago’s warning to incoming first-year students that made it very clear there would be no safe spaces or trigger warnings.

"Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own," reads the letter from Dean of Students Jay Ellison, college newspaper the Chicago Maroon reported this week.

But the term "safe space" also came up recently in a very different context: the horrific mass shooting that killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Gay clubs like Pulse are supposed to be "safe spaces," where LGBTQ people can feel welcome and accepted in an often-intolerant world. The violation of that space was a terrible reminder of what that intolerance can lead to.

No space can ever be 100 percent safe — but this is much more true for some groups of people than others. As Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos observed, "The feeling of safety in a gay bar and actual safety are two different things. Though they are connected, there’s no such thing as a safe space for LGBTQ people. LGBTQ people know this better than anyone. We live it, and our history is marred by it."

For people in marginalized groups, psychological safety (or what some would call "coddling") and physical safety are closely related and not easy to separate. That's where the concept of safe spaces is rooted in the first place, and that's why the need to have them is so powerful for so many.

What are safe spaces, and why can they be valuable?

Malcolm Harris has a good brief history of the term "safe space" at Fusion. He cites scholar and activist Moira Kenney’s book Mapping Gay L.A. to explain that the term originated in gay and lesbian bars in the mid-1960s:

With anti-sodomy laws still in effect, a safe space meant somewhere you could be out and in good company — at least until the cops showed up. Gay bars were not "safe" in the sense of being free from risk, nor were they "safe" as in reserved. A safe place was where people could find practical resistance to political and social repression.

This was a time when not only was consensual gay sex against the law in many states but also LGBTQ people couldn’t even dance together or hold hands without risking criminal punishment. Today it's not just legal for same-sex couples to express their affection in public; it’s also much more socially acceptable. But that's unfortunately not true everywhere in the world, much less in the United States.

Even in more tolerant and cosmopolitan areas, though, many LGBTQ people feel they have to maintain a constant background vigilance. "You just learn this behavior where you check the room," Abad-Santos told me. "You know the public places where you can hold your boyfriend's hand, or kiss him, and where you can’t."

So a "safe space" is a place where LGBTQ people don't have to think twice about whether they can show affection for their partners — and whether they can just be themselves.

It's the same basic idea for other groups, like women and people of color, who tend to be less well-represented or well-respected by society at large. People whose voices are quite literally heard less than those of white men, since white men still tend to dominate conversations in media, classrooms, boardrooms, politics, and everyday life.

"For me as a black woman, it's really nice to just go out with other black women sometimes," said Sabrina Stevens, an activist and progressive strategist. "I have to do so much less translation. When you're black around white people, you have to explain every little thing, even with people who are perfectly nice and well-meaning."

You don’t have to explain to other black women why your hair is the way it is, she said, or what a certain word means, or countless other little cultural signifiers. "Everybody has a need to just be able to be themselves somewhere, without having to do that translation and without having to always be on guard to justify yourself."

Stevens describes many different safe spaces that are important to her own life: breastfeeding support groups that are explicitly women-only to help new moms feel more comfortable talking openly about their bodies, or hair salons that function as an informally black-women-only social space as well as a service.

Some safe spaces are intentionally created, like the breastfeeding group. Some groups are exclusive and allow only women or only people of color, for instance, just so that people in those groups can speak more freely about their interests without worrying about whether others will understand what they mean.

Other safe spaces emerge organically, like hair salons, gay clubs, or black churches. The shooting at Mother Emanuel in Charlestown was also a violation of a safe space, which added another layer of devastation to an already terrible crime.

Safe spaces aren't always about literal physical safety from violence; sometimes they're a refuge, a place to relax. Yet emotional states are also physical states. Our mental well-being shapes and is shaped by our neural pathways, our digestive tracts, our muscular tensions, our hormones — especially cortisol, the stress hormone, which is associated with poor health outcomes at consistently high levels. And it causes especially poor health outcomes among groups of people who experience systemic discrimination like racism, which causes the fight-or-flight response to work in low-level, yet incessant, overdrive.

"No one can live in a constant state of vigilance," Stevens said. "Your body is not designed to do that. The need for safe spaces is the need to literally not have your adrenal system constantly firing at full tilt."

Why are safe spaces sometimes controversial?

"Safe spaces" made headlines in a negative way recently when controversy over free speech at Yale erupted over some faculty emails about Halloween costumes and cultural sensitivity. Protests at the University of Missouri also caused controversy over the drastic step of forcing out the president, even though black students were responding to serious racist incidents on campus.

Commentators like Jonathan Chait worry that "political correctness" and "language police" are perverting liberalism. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt bemoan the "coddling" of students on college campuses, citing anecdotes about "safe space" student groups whose protests have blocked conservative speakers from coming to campus.

In a recent graduation speech at Howard University, President Obama rebuked these trends:

You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. ... So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There's been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.

He didn’t use the term "safe space," but some conservative commentators crowed that he had rejected the safe space "culture." On the right, "safe space" has become almost as much of a dirty word as "political correctness."

Some commentators see this culture as worthy of mockery, a sign of liberal intellectual weakness. Some see it as a danger to our society, because we are raising a generation of entitled, infantilized Americans: How will they ever figure out how to toughen up and run the world some day?

Some see "safe space culture" as an even more acute danger — an imminent threat to free speech in a pluralistic society, and even a threat to employment or other ways of life. Some professors say they are terrified that their oversensitive students could force them out of a job.

Others see safe spaces as a threat to social movements they care about, fretting that groupthink could get out of control and cause infighting, shatter unity, and derail important goals. Conor Friedersdorf cautions at the Atlantic that the rhetoric of safety could actually backfire on student activists, and that the often messy work of fighting for social change could be undermined by those who insist on living in a mess-free bubble.

This dynamic can get tense even among groups who consider themselves allies, working toward similar goals. After Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted a presidential forum with Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley at the Netroots Nation political conference, the progressive movement erupted into a mini culture war over whether the protest’s tactics were effective or wise, and whose business it really was to judge that.

Finally, a lot of tension over "identity politics" comes from the perception that white men are being discriminated against or at least treated unkindly — that their views are being dismissed simply because of who they are, or that they are being unfairly blamed on a personal level for the problems that marginalized groups face. There’s a perception that "callout culture," or calling people out for saying something problematic or insensitive, has been weaponized, and that a tool intended to curb abuse has itself turned into a tool of abuse.

Should we be worried about safe spaces?

As Amanda Taub wrote for Vox last year, plenty of professors are not terrified of their liberal students — and if their jobs are really so insecure that they could be toppled by student complaints (which are perennial and often unrelated to identity politics), then professors should be a lot more worried about how universities have been steadily disempowering faculty by slashing tenure jobs and relying on poorly paid adjuncts. As Max Fisher noted, sometimes the "PC police" are conservative — and they tend to wield a lot more institutional power than student groups.

Safe spaces also don’t just exist on college campuses, and they’re not just for privileged young people. There’s an argument to be made that we as a society spend way too much time and energy worrying about how students at elite universities choose to spend their time and energy, especially when most of them are young people who are still finding themselves and experimenting with their identities and politics.

Perhaps we should all just relax and trust that the kids will be all right. Perhaps we should also remember that belittling the pain of others is actually an abusive habit, and that emotional safety matters and isn’t something to be mocked. Nor is it always something to be debated, as my colleague Dara Lind noted in an essay on the safe space controversy at Yale.

An op-ed in the Yale Herald was widely mocked for this line: "I don't want to debate. I want to talk about my pain." But given other context from the op-ed, that line makes more sense:

My dad is a really stubborn man. We debate all the time, and I understand the value of hearing differing opinions. But there have been times when I have come to my father crying, when I was emotionally upset, and he heard me regardless of whether or not he agreed with me. He taught me that there is a time for debate, and there is a time for just hearing and acknowledging someone's pain.

Some critics fear that there’s never a time for debate when it comes to safe space culture — that it’s all mushy subjectivity and no analytical rigor, all emotion and no rational perspective. There’s a fear that social justice issues are an impossible minefield of irrationality, that white men in particular can never say anything right, and that marginalized people are always ready to pounce with a new accusation of offense.

But that’s not just a tiresome false choice; it’s also not true. "There actually is a logic to it — it’s just a logic that people refuse to learn," Stevens said. "You have to be sensitive to and aware of other people and how your actions affect them. That’s a struggle for people who don't typically get asked to do that."

There’s some truth to the argument that safe spaces can sometimes harbor "groupthink," or that they can become toxic or splinter into warring factions. As Harris writes for Fusion:

There are dangers to turning "safe space" into a label of compliance, the way a juice might call itself "organic." One is that, since the ideal is unachievable, people will give up on the aspiration. Another is that it’s alienating to the uninitiated, especially when those in the know come to believe that true respect can only be articulated in their proprietary dialect. A third is, if you’re not careful, the demand for safe space can itself play into existing power relations.

Stevens acknowledges that managing these issues can be tough. "I think there are a lot of situations where people struggle to manage communities well," she said. "It’s very hard when you’re trying to go against the grain and cultivate spaces that don't automatically operate according to the norms that we're used to."

But that’s also true for any community. Strife, power struggles, and difficult social dynamics are a reality almost anywhere you go. And if you’re worried about "groupthink," you might consider taking a look at the broader culture first. Ask yourself: What sort of groupthink have you yourself been subjected to as a result of your own social circles, the area you live in, and the media or social media echo chambers that you consume? White people and other members of dominant cultures have "identity politics" too, even if they don’t acknowledge them as such. In terms of race in the US, white people tend to socialize mostly with other white people, even as they might fret over whether it’s a problem that black schoolchildren "self-segregate" at the lunch table.

Some people get upset because they don’t understand why they can’t be included in a certain group, or why their input on certain issues might not be welcome. A man might ask in good faith whether catcalls are really just "compliments" when women are trying to discuss their own experiences with street harassment, and he might be taken aback when those women get immediately upset or exasperated with him. To him, perhaps he was just asking an innocent question and trying to have an intellectual debate. But to the women, it’s pretty insulting to suggest that their life experiences are up for "debate" — plus they’ve heard remarks like these a hundred times, and nine times out of 10 it just derails the conversation, so they’re just sick of dealing with it.

The question of who belongs and who doesn’t, who is excluded and who isn’t, is a constant worry for most of us. But on top of the personal rejections that everyone faces in life, people in marginalized groups also have to face the feeling that society wasn’t really designed for them; that it considers them an afterthought at best. People in dominant cultural groups are used to rejection, but they’re probably not used to that kind of rejection. And they’re probably not used to being forced to pay attention to all the little social cues and codes that others pick up when trying to navigate a society that isn’t inherently made to fit them.

It’s not easy to deal with shame, hurt feelings, or fear during these kinds of cultural clashes. But particular spaces or identities are rarely the most productive things to blame for the strife. Inside or outside of safe spaces, the real problem is usually a failure of empathy, and the real solution is treating others with humility, respect, and compassion and being willing to learn from our own mistakes.

Correction: An article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt was originally misattributed to Jonathan Chait.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.