The small patches of university campuses sometimes called “safe spaces” have been the subject of many opinion pieces over the past little while. These op-eds frequently point to the existence of these spaces as a sign that millennials are too soft and are willing to jeopardize the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom on the altar of social justice. What most of these opinion pieces lack, however, is any attempt to define a “safe space.” In addition, some op-eds also, without further explanation, link safe spaces to trigger warnings and even to anti-harassment policies, even though these three things are distinct in origin, purpose and practice. As an academic, I like my debates to be precise.
So let’s look at an actual example of a safe space. I have studied and worked at Queen’s University for eight years, where safe spaces have existed since 1999. At Queen’s, they are called “Positive Spaces” and are primarily focused on creating a positive environment for LGBT people (and TQQIAAP* people, for that matter), but the staff and students working in the spaces are expected to respect all other marginalized groups as well. It is possible to imagine a safe space that does not judge people who need to communicate via an interpreter or people who have Tourette’s, or a safe space that is open to certain cultural practices that might be deemed outside the Western norm.
The Positive Spaces at Queen’s can be found within the offices of the two student societies, the labour union offices, the campus radio station and, significantly, the offices of individual professors and graduate students.
How does a space become “positive”? A majority of the people who work there must take a training session that educates them on LGBTTQQIAAP identities and teaches them how to show respect to those identities. Showing respect means several things, but it includes restricting usage of the word “queer” to its literal and technical meanings, and not yelling out “But you look like a woman!” when a transgender man identifies himself as male. Really, it is basic stuff. Those who complete the training get a sticker to place outside their office, designating it a Positive Space. The entire program is optional: nobody mandates that individual professors make their office a Positive Space. Similar programs exist at many other American and Canadian universities.
“Wait!” I hear you say. “It sounds like safe spaces are really just about common decency and respect. What is so special about them?” To which I reply: exactly. There is nothing special about them, except that the people working in them have made a commitment to show common decency and respect (which sadly, is not always so common).
At no point in the Positive Space training does it say that trainees must censor their political opponents or anything of the sort. In fact, at their core, positive spaces are about enabling free expression, not stifling it. LGBT people regularly talk about how they are always self-censoring. To cite just some celebrity examples, actor Ellen Page said soon after coming out that “It’s so nice to just, you know, be at work and talk about an ex, or, you know, get to wear what you want and not have a conversation about it.” Similarly, Caitlyn Jenner told Vanity Fair that before her transition, she was “always telling lies” and keeping her real thoughts hidden. A safe space extends an invitation to people who regularly practise these and other forms of self-censorship to relax and express themselves freely.
Yes, this invitation comes with a promise that the people working in the space will not speak judgmental words. A Positive Space sticker means “I invite you to be yourself here and promise to behave in a manner in keeping with my invitation.” That may sound like a zero-sum arrangement, but it is not, because the person working in the office has “suspended” their speech willingly. And if it is a willing suspension, it’s not an imposition against speech; it is simply a choice to say some things instead of another, a choice that we make every time that we open our mouths. For too many, the choice to self-censor is not a willing one, but one made out of fear of persecution – which is actually pretty close to plain old censorship, not just self-censorship. If someone feels that they cannot wear a kippah or a hijab without hearing slurs shouted at them, or if someone does not come to office hours because they are embarrassed about having a speech impediment, then they are the ones watching what they say and do; they are the ones biting their tongues in obeisance to some conformist social norm.
There are those who might say that no professor should ever agree to rule out any speech or line of thought; to do so would be a violation (willing or otherwise) of academic freedom. And I agree – no professor should ever completely rule out any line of conversation in a classroom or in their research. Research and teaching are where the real work of academia happens. I would humbly suggest that promising to tread carefully around certain topics in office hours does not affect the intellectual health of academia. And it is not necessarily the case that there are off-limit topics in a safe space; it is just that certain issues need to be approached tactfully and professionally.
The example of Positive Spaces at Queen’s is only one type of safe space. Different kinds may have different consequences. Activists at the recent University of Missouri protests unilaterally setting up a safe space in the middle of a university quad invites questions about public spaces that do not apply to offices. (The protesters, by the way, far from being coddled, were very open to criticism and apologized for harassing a student journalist, an act of maturity that many politicians cannot bring themselves to perform). Other examples, again dissimilar to Queen’s Positive Spaces, have given me pause. But the fact that there is more than one kind of safe space just shows that we need to look at the hard evidence when it comes safe spaces. Nothing in academia should be outside of criticism, including safe spaces themselves, but there is a time – and a place – for everything.
* Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual
Matthew Scribner is a scholar of medieval European literature. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.