In October 2014, Adam Shapiro, CC ’16—then a junior—wrote an op-ed in Spectator explaining to the University and the rest of the world why he turned his dorm room into a “dangerous” space. After a flyer was slipped under his door inviting him to publicly declare his room a safer space, Shapiro responded by creating his own flyer, advocating a dangerous space instead. His subsequent Spectator op-ed was among the first few serious thought pieces that grappled with the question of safe spaces, and it helped launch a national conversation about their merit—or lack thereof.
It’s almost exactly two years later, and the biggest piece of higher-ed news capturing the interest of students and non-students alike is a letter from John Ellison, the University of Chicago's dean of students in the college, to incoming freshmen. In it, Ellison informs students, “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times, this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.” Rather than shying away from the unsanitized reality of free and open conversation, Ellison instructs his students to expect distress. In reiterating the university’s commitment to free speech and its determination to ferociously uphold that value, he explains why the university does not support trigger warnings or safe spaces. He beseeches his readers to remember that “the members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”
While Ellison explicitly lays out the university’s policy on safe spaces, he does not engage critically with the term and its implications. He does not explain that there has never been an election of a committee or individual that is tasked with amending the definition of “safe.” He never states that the determination of the safe/unsafe binary is arbitrary and endlessly ephemeral. He never demonstrates that for every individual with a distinct collective identity and a different set of experiences, the idea of what constitutes safety will differ—sometimes radically—and with that being the case, “safety” for one student will not necessarily be “safety” for all students.
What the “safe space” does, rather than provide an impenetrable bubble of armor protecting students from the harsh realities of the real world, is elevate whatever the majority opinion happens to be in any given context to that of singular correctness. It becomes all too easy, when diverging viewpoints arise, to relegate them to the sphere of “unsafe,” all but ensuring their censorship. Guaranteeing that unpopular ideas never get debated on their merits, the safe space stifles discourse and weakens our ability to critically engage with and challenge those ideas that trouble us. There’s also a more immediate and tangible danger that inevitably arises when students have diverging ideas over what constitutes their personal “safety.”
Take the example of a Barnard resident adviser who, last year, posted on Facebook that she wanted to “keep my space free from Zios.” It’s possible that this student, for one reason or another, did not enjoy the company of Zionist students and found their presence in some way threatening. But in advocating for a space free of them, she made Zionists on this campus—some of whom were her residents—feel remarkably “unsafe.” What one or several students deems safe or unsafe cannot determine the limits of what we are and are not allowed to say; such a reality would essentially reimagine mob rule within an intellectual and scholarly context, especially when we arbitrarily rule on what is and is not a threat to each other’s safety.
The debate over where free speech ends and hate speech begins has always been a complex one, and private corporations—including universities—have the right to define what they will and will not deem acceptable. It should go without saying that actual threats of violence and intimidation have no place here or anywhere else. But as Shapiro bravely wrote two years ago, “there is a difference between calling someone a [n-----] and, for example, arguing that affirmative action is unnecessary.”
At the university, a place, by definition, dedicated to intellectual growth and development and exploration, a place committed to pursuing nuances and multiple vantage points, a place that should be devoted to diversity of thought, we must be capable of separating what makes us uncomfortable from what makes us unsafe. The failure to distinguish between the two ensures the collapse of all for which Columbia stands. It’s worth noting, however, that trigger warnings and safe spaces are two entirely different concepts deserving two entirely distinct contemplations. Those who argue that trigger warnings are inherently oppressive are missing the forest for the trees. If, for example, a professor suspects that one or more of his students are survivors of sexual assault, nothing is lost in his/her sending the class a one line email—if he/she chooses to do so—warning that the next seminar will analyze a text that includes graphic descriptions of assault. It is the idea that people must preview heated topics that gets us into ethically murky waters.
Ellison’s letter, in addressing these complex questions, earned him both commendation and condemnation. But its uniqueness, the very quality which made the document a newsworthy story, sheds light on the sad state of our classrooms and thus, above all else, makes for a profoundly sad text.
To all the first-years reading, a note of greeting, and a plea: Welcome to Columbia. I wish I could tell you that this is a place where you can say what you think, and that as long as you can defend it with some sort of reason or logic, your case will be heard. Sadly, that is not the case, save for in a few of your classes. Explore all that this great institution has to offer, and fight for its continued success. This space shouldn’t be safe, but it is yours: Help it reach new heights, and don’t be discouraged for being different. Have the audacity to think for yourselves. Dare to disagree.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.