Growing up with overprotective helicopter parents and surrounding ourselves with trigger warnings, current college students—and more broadly, Millennials—are labeled as hypersensitive by older generations. In contrast to the Free Speech Movement of 1964, where college students fought to have their voices heard on current events like the Vietnam War, college campuses today tend to police speech to protect those who might be offended. In light of the recent events at the University of Missouri, is there a place for what has been termed the “safe space” in the twenty-first century?
Perhaps safe spaces have a place somewhere—but college campuses are not that place. While racism, sexism, and all other forms of discrimination are never appropriate in any forum, safe spaces do not prevent marginalization, but rather, inhibit dialogue on campus, breeding misunderstandings by shaming some out of clarifying their confusion and discouraging others from participating in a rational debate in which to contemplate controversial issues. Safe spaces, instead of stimulating a clash of ideas, serve to encourage clashes of identity.
Together, we are SMU—a group of individuals coming together from different cultural, socio-economic, and geographic backgrounds. Your background should neither validate nor invalidate your ideas. Only a dangerous space, where ideas are exposed, challenged, and questioned, will enable us to develop our thoughts, explore other perspectives, and critically examine our conclusions. Adam Shapiro, a student at Columbia University featured in a controversial New York Times article by Judith Shuleviz regarding safe spaces earlier this year, protested firmly against them, asserting that he would make his dorm room a “dangerous space.” As he argues, “I don’t see how you can have a therapeutic space that’s also an intellectual space.” Are we willing to hazard the chance that others have cognizant, valid ideas, even if those ideas contradict our most deeply-held, personal philosophies? When we dehumanize those who disagree with us and fail to seek to understand other paradigms, we divide ourselves; we begin to see others not as individuals but as adversaries and opponents. If we can remove our focus from ideology or identity and rise above cultural stratification, we will expand our horizons and become more informed citizens.
There is no place for maltreatment of any individual on the basis of identity, and some may attempt to misconstrue this Op-Ed as an excuse for hostile, belligerent, or disrespectful behavior toward minority groups or as a jibe against political correctness. Political correctness is often used as a pejorative term, but it is a concept that deals directly with respect for those who differ from us. Every space on campus should be a place of courtesy, consideration, and civility, but it’s important to distinguish between those characteristics and the censorship in the name of sensitivity that dominates safe spaces.
We are all at SMU, and while we all have different experiences here, the mere ability to attend an institution of this caliber is a privilege we all share. There is also no place for narrowing our perspectives to exclude and mute those who either have differing opinions or look to clarify and question an issue. College is about intellectual growth, both inside and outside of the classroom. The social atmosphere of a university should reflect the intellectual rigor that is present in directly academic settings. In any volley of ideas, coherent, respectful discourse is paramount. Conversations require questions—when those questions can’t be asked, the conversation closes.
If we are cognizant that others have valid ideas, take the time to consider the significance and merit within them, and then perhaps rethink or adjust our own perspectives as a result, we can be assured that our ideas account for all facets of an issue to form well-constructed, thoroughly developed arguments, based purely on reason, not emotion.
As Judith Shuleviz, wrote in a New York Times op-ed earlier this year, “While keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.” The concept of safe spaces as we currently know them is incompatible with the objective of a college campus. As SMU students, let’s unite to foster an environment of respect and regard as well as open-mindedness instead of cocooning ourselves—and, by extension, our ideas—in a façade of safety. To create an optimal learning environment, college campuses need to develop a compromise between mutual respect and willingness to engage intellectually.