Safe spaces and the lies we’ve been told

Safe spaces host freedom of expression, not the thought police

Graphic by Kelly Campbell

The current war against political correctness saw the conservative side celebrate a major victory when University of Chicago dean of students John Ellison warned future undergraduates that trigger warnings and safe spaces would not be tolerated on campus.

“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,” Ellison wrote in a letter to the incoming student body.

This is just one misstep of many by free speech warriors since the concepts of safe spaces and trigger warnings came to popular culture after being relegated to the realm of radical scholarship and the LGBTTQ* community since the sixties.

Safe spaces were conceived by those living on the fringes of society as a way to provide refuge from the daily trauma of living in culturally repressive times. In Mapping Gay L.A., scholar and activist Moira Kenney made the argument that the original safe space is found in gay and lesbian bars. This was because of their character as natural communal centres for members of the LGBTTQ* community, where the stigma of public identification was lessened in the face of fraternity.

Those opposed to the idea would like us to believe that safe spaces, as caricaturized by Ellison, are places where one retreats to in order to cease uncomfortable debate and discussion. Many who seek the abolishment of the safe space call it the practice of intellectual coddling. Alas, the ever-misconstrued safe space.

Brace yourself, for this cartoonish version of the safe space is brimming with debauchery.

Supposedly, the cowardly go here to suit up with ideological plates of armour. The all-powerful trigger warning is the law of the land.

In this imagined hellscape, hordes of radicals foam from the mouth and scream, “Check your privilege!” amidst debate whenever they lose ground on the political battlefield. Some claim their victory cry, the wailing sobs of straight white men, is trumpeted while they trample the grave of Lady Liberty herself.

What’s wrong with this picture? Only the fact that it is wildly and irresponsibly inaccurate. Safe spaces are not spa retreats for the feeble-minded who lack the necessary rigour to participate in stimulating debate. Safe spaces are not where liberals go to put on noise-cancelling headphones after hearing the opinions of an economic conservative. No, there is not a trigger warning for “privatization.”

Yet this is the way safe spaces and trigger warnings are described by those who seek their removal from campus classrooms. These caricatures are not only dehumanizing to individuals who have experienced significant trauma, but they are also incredibly insulting to the intellectual integrity of those who seek safe spaces.

Fundamentally, safe spaces are havens from oppression for those who have suffered institutional harms with interpersonal ramifications. Denying those who legitimately seek them imparts deep disrespect on the naysayers’ side. Collective society is to blame for the maltreatment of marginalized groups, so it requires great hubris for the privileged to wallow in their comfortable complacency rather than even lift a finger to help establish safe places for those who seek respite from oppression. All one must do is simply allow safe spaces to form. I question why many choose the alternative and instead do everything in their power to make safe spaces impossible. It is morally suspect that one would rather waste their time mud-slinging at those who make the case for safe spaces than do the bare minimum and accommodate disenfranchised individuals in their academic circles.

What exactly is the big issue? Is it a matter of mere convenience? Should that be the case, it’s high time we stop spitting in the faces of those who have it the worst only to say, “tough luck, things as they are work just fine for me.”

Beyond convenience, many commentators deploy with glee the “freedom of expression” argument against safe spaces and trigger warnings. Really, what at all does this mean? Demanding the revocation of bigotry and hate speech in our classrooms debilitates freedom of expression? This is the Achilles heel of intellectual debate? Such a proposition is totally asinine.

Safe spaces accomplish the exact opposite of what is claimed by its detractors. Rather than imposing on freedom of speech, accommodating trigger warnings and granting safe spaces leverages unheard voices in our communities against the everyday bullhorn of popular opinion. In fact, without safe spaces, freedom of thought is compromised due to the lost opportunity for disenfranchised persons to share their ideas on an equal playing field with their peers.

It is, in fact, women who are being censored when only eight per cent of sexual assault cases are ever reported to the police in Canada. Even fewer make it to trial due to the arbitrary barriers complainants face in preliminary court processes.

It is, in fact, First Nations people who are being censored when the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women was shelved time and time again by the federal government for just under a decade.

Living daily as a member of a marginalized group can be exhausting emotionally, mentally, and even physically in the case of certain hate crimes. Safe spaces and trigger warnings are one of many tools universities can use to mitigate these effects.

So instead of flaunting false bravado, claiming to champion free speech and intellectual stamina by condemning these safeguards, remember this: they do not exist for you, but for the members of wounded communities. Channel that righteous anger pointed at that which you do not understand into compassion and respect for your fellow humans.

But go tell a straight man in your women and gender studies class to check his privilege. I guarantee you it will be he who is the most “triggered” person in the room. I guess it’s a good thing his safe space is the entire world.