This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most influential innovations of the past century – the World Wide Web. Sir Tim Berner Lee’s decision to make the World Wide Web public forever changed human access to information, and inspired a cultural shift of stunning proportions. Today, its influence is eclipsed by its ubiquity. It’s strange to think about a time when it could have ever been misunderstood, but novelty is never far from discomfort. No matter how revolutionary something may be, without understanding there is no adoption. And this is largely why safe spaces still face such resistance.
The World Wide Web is understood to be something to which all deserve equal access, and arguments against this notion are not only scant, but weak. In comparison, a safe space is seen as a superfluous luxury, even as learning spaces continue to provide lacking environments for charged discussions. As a dreaded millennial, I recognize safe spaces as a necessary component for any conversation that requires input from people with differing lived experiences. Although my view of safe spaces is perceived as a popular opinion within academia – this is not the case. Safe spaces are far from well-liked and are often associated with pro-censorship and conflict-free ideals. These associations complicate people’s understanding of a safe space’s value to the point that they are believed to derive no value at all.
No matter their value, safe spaces will continue to be refuted until they are understood as forging equal access to education. It seems almost impossible for this message to see the light; most conversations regarding safe spaces focus on myths and misconceptions. The veil of confusion is hard to lift because truly understanding safe spaces requires acceptance of concepts such as privilege and existing power relations. Conversations about these concepts are often stalled in their polarization. This hurdle only makes the purpose of safe spaces more critical. We need to cultivate learning spaces where discourse and knowledge can flourish, and sadly, this will continue to be troublesome without the existence of safe spaces.
So, what are safe spaces?
According to various columnists and defenders of free speech, safe spaces promote censorship and hinder learning. From this point of view, safe spaces aim to cleanse discussions of controversy and place limits on topics of conversation. Christine Blatchford of the National Post likens safe spaces to fragility. She recounts listening to a disclaimer declaring a panel to be a safe space and finding it grating that it called for “equal treatment of everyone, of civilized discussion, of the value of human rights of everyone.” It’s immediately apparent that Blatchford is blind to her privilege in making this assertion. She finds the disclaimer grating because she’s already comfortable speaking her mind, and believes her point of view deserves to be voiced.
Not everyone feels this sense of comfort without such a disclaimer. In fact, it’s clear that Blatchford does not hear the same thing I hear when such a statement is made. To her, it’s an obstacle in speaking her mind without consequence. To me, it’s a guarantee that a constructive and respectful discussion will take place. It’s acknowledgement of the lack of equality which persists in our society, and a stance to try and be better. The disclaimer Blatchford heard never mentions censorship, but rather it focuses on respecting others when voicing opinions. However, this is not what Blatchford hears.
I don’t mean to pick on Blatchford – she is far from the only critic of safe spaces. Judith Shapiro, former president of Barnard College, blamed safe spaces for promoting the “self-infantilization” of college students. Most recently, the University of Chicago issued a welcome letter to students that openly chided the concept of a safe space. The letter, written by dean of students, John Ellison, fuels the myth that safe spaces are harmful to intellectual environments. He warns new students,
“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”
These messages are harmful. They continue the misconception of a safe space, and rob students of positive learning experiences facilitated by the creation of a safe space. Cris Mayo, Director of the LGBTQ Centre at West Virginia University, sees that beyond providing psychological protection for marginalized persons, safe spaces serve an untapped pedagogical function for “students to unravel, build, and rebuild knowledge.” This point stands in direct opposition to messages disseminated about safe spaces and that shows most people don’t really understand their purpose.
So, what are safe spaces, really?
When you dig a little deeper, you can find that a safe space, as defined by those who study the concept, produces a space where “risks can be taken, mistakes can be made, and understanding can be gained.” Safe spaces are borne out of an agreement to treat emotionally charged and controversial conversations with respect and honesty. A safe learning environment is a place where difficult questions and complexity are welcomed, rather than restricted. Baxter Madgola, Professor of Educational Leadership at Miami University, defines the goal of an academic safe space to be the creation of an “inclusive and effective learning environment in which opportunities for complex, cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal development exists for all students.” Not surprisingly, most definitions of safe spaces place a heavy emphasis on nurturing intellectual growth and aiding communication.
Safe spaces have never been about coddling – they are concerned with forming a culture of respect that acknowledges power imbalances as a reality in all communication. A space exists within a universe that has socially constructed realities, and it cannot be neutral and devoid of meaning. The university campus is a space that was designed for a privileged class. Although today’s campus is a diverse place, its structures and roots continue to cater to this ‘ideal’ student. This should be a red flag for all educational leaders out there. Without active participation from all students, the ideas of the dominant group not only go unchallenged, but are presented as undisputed truths. Classrooms that do not seek a climate of respectful dialogue and promote participation from all actually strip students of meaningful learning opportunities.
Deep learning can only grow from deep thinking. This requires pushing yourself way past your comfort zone. It forces you to explore the periphery, which can be terrifying. Still, knocking yourself off the centre is necessary in understanding a point of view outside of your own, and seeing beyond your dominant ideologies. The more complex a subject, the more rewarding the discourse becomes when it is framed through the tenets of a safe space. Safe spaces tell us that we cannot avoid discomfort, but that we should find healthy and productive ways to mitigate it.
Without safe spaces, complex discussions become riddled with communication obstacles. We stop listening and start speaking defensively instead of focusing on having a dialogue. Healthy interpersonal communication perceives questions as genuine, requires empathy from listeners and speakers, and calls for an atmosphere of respect. The creation of a safe space moves the learning space away from the battlegrounds that silence most and celebrate the loud majority. Safe spaces put emphasis on the importance of mutual solutions to conflict and this allows dialogue to flourish. Overall, a safe space is one in which all students can feel comfortable exploring new concepts and thinking through challenging ideas; it is in this way that safe spaces promote critical thinking among learners.
Why are safe spaces so misunderstood?
It’s easy to see why safe spaces are difficult to envision. The language alone seems misguided. The emphasis on safety makes safe spaces appear incongruent with conflict. The concept of safety is also misleading because we live in an unstable world that cannot guarantee the safety of any space. Still, the principles of safe spaces will always make a space safer. The terminology may appear strange, yet it makes a lot more sense when the concept of safety is further explored. A sense of safety is universally sought-after by humans. Without a sense of safety we are not free to explore other emotions and thoughts as our bodies focus their full attention on making us feel safe. Making a space safer is often enough to make people feel able share their experiences without fear of being attacked.
No matter how imperfect the term, a sense of safety is required in navigating conflict laden topics: “While safety alone may not be sufficient to promote deep understanding a high-order reasoning, it may be a necessary condition for learning in difficult dialogues.” Many conversations that take place in the classroom require exploration for deep learning to happen, especially when numerous perspectives are at play – we need to be prepared to discuss issues that make up our everyday – race, sexuality, gender, class and so on.
Outside of terminology, the gross misunderstanding of safe spaces is fanned by improper implementation. Calling a space “safe” does not magically make it so. Instructors and facilitators need to work with students and participants to establish ground rules and handle conflict tactfully. Safe spaces require that groups of learners to embrace collaboration and to push themselves in ways that traditional learning environments have never required. Safe spaces are misunderstood because they are scary – frank conversations require us to be honest with ourselves and to be open with our emotions. A safe space is created and maintained by everyone involved in the conversation. A conversation is a living thing. Revisiting ground rules, debriefing difficult conversations, and promoting reflection need to be instilled in learning environments to ensure robust safe spaces.
Educational institutions fail their students when they fail to understand the importance of safe spaces. As learners, we cannot avoid complexity in an attempt to avoid discomfort. Discomfort challenges us to dig deeper, but without establishing inclusive learning environments discomfort cannot be a part of pedagogy. We need to be highly critical of safe spaces. Safe spaces are not perfect because they are created and maintained by people. Safe spaces can be implemented poorly, and they can fail. These failures do not mean that safe spaces are useless. Rather, they should push us to further investigate safe spaces, and to evaluate the principles that make them successful.
A safe space encourages healthy interpersonal communication, it encourages all to speak, it encourages all to listen, and most importantly, it encourages all to take ownership of their learning. In a safe space, learners are free to speak, but they are also free to listen. They are free to reflect rather than react. Safe spaces are not a utopia. They are a framework for exploration and learning. They acknowledge that everyone is deserving of learning and that current power relationships do not allow for this. So, when I read about safe spaces and see mentions of censorship and coddling I begin to think that we are not talking about the same space. The space I am talking about is a space where knowledge blossoms. It’s a space that challenges everyone within in. It’s a space that educational institutions must learn to embrace. Let’s talk about that space.