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What the conservative caricature of “safe spaces” gets wrong

Do safe spaces stifle free thought on college campuses? That's the wrong question.

There’s a big issue with the current discussion about college campuses and safe spaces: A lot of people are getting the definition of safe spaces wrong.

Many conservative critics portray safe spaces as places that engulf entire university campuses and bar any controversial or challenging ideas. The big fear is a largely liberal student body will block any conservative speakers from campus, because they’ll see those speakers as presenting controversial ideas that a majority of students don’t support or want to hear.

The problem: This is a caricature.

So what are safe spaces? On Twitter, Kevin Gannon, a history professor at Grand View University in Iowa, offered a great explanation. (He previously wrote about the topic for Vox.)

The short of it: Allowing safe spaces doesn’t mean that whole campuses are cordoned off as places devoid of any controversial or challenging ideas. Safe spaces are, instead, a specific place where people of certain groups — racial, religious, and so on — can go temporarily to talk to and hang out with peers in a similar place without having to do the kind of cultural translation that a more diverse crowd might require.

Here’s Gannon’s full tweetstorm:


This really isn’t that complicated. Take gay bars as one example: If I, as a gay man, want to meet other guys and talk to other guys about guys without the fear of bigotry, it would be nonsensical to go to a straight bar. A gay bar is obviously a better, safer place for that.

Going to that gay bar, however, has nothing to do with whether I will, back in political science, constitutional law, or sociology class, hear and take part in a debate about whether same-sex marriage should be legal or if same-sex parents are just as capable as opposite-sex parents. My presence in a safe space like a gay bar is temporary, and it doesn't set my expectations for general public discourse outside that safe space.

The same would apply to a campus LGBTQ organization, gay-straight alliance, or even the gay social network app Grindr. I might participate in these spaces sometimes, but that won’t define everything else I’m doing.

For more on safe spaces, read Emily Crockett’s explainer.