Safe Spaces 101
Features / October 20, 2016
Just before the fall semester began, a letter addressed to students in the class of 2020 from the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students, John Ellison, went viral.
In the letter, Ellison says that the university’s commitment to academic freedom means they cannot support trigger warnings for subjects in their classes, which may prove controversial or difficult for students to take. He also derides “safe spaces” in his letter, arguing that they are places where “individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
The letter has been shared, applauded, attacked, dismissed, responded to, and discussed throughout September, as students flock back to colleges and universities across North America. Even here at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the debate rages on.
Kimberley McMartin, Board Organizer for the Kwantlen Public Interest Research Group, is an advocate for trigger warnings and safe spaces.
“Safe spaces are places where people who have been historically oppressed can gather together, talk, organize, create events, and educate people [while] feeling safe and supported enough to speak out about oppression,” says McMartin. “Within our white, colonialist culture, there are a lot of things that are intrinsically racist, homophobic, [and] sexist. This is part of systemic violence, and it keeps people down and in boxes.”
KPIRG Director of Campus Life Lincey Amora echoes McMartin’s sentiment, arguing that, at their core, safe spaces are meant to be “inclusive” areas where both instructors and students can raise awareness about social justice issues.
Both Amora and McMartin’s ideas of what a safe space is differ from the picture Ellison paints of them in his letter to new students. Instead of a haven for intellectual cowards, as he alleges, they are a place of freedom from potentially oppressive material that marginalized students have to face.
“Safe spaces provide a buffer—a break from what a person experiences every day,” says McMartin. “They are where people can go and take a break if they are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, when previous trauma becomes too much to bear.”
Much like safe spaces, Amora recognizes that “trigger” or “content warnings” also offer students a respite from problematic experiences. Professors can offer such warnings in advance of potentially offensive material to help promote “acceptance, respect, and education” in the classroom, says Amora.
Not everyone at KPU agrees with these sentiments, however. Psychology instructor Gira Bhatt believes a rigorous commitment to academic freedom is more important to a student’s development than safe spaces or trigger warnings.
“I am not here to convert people to my views, and I am not going to accept somebody telling me that ‘you cannot say this in the classroom,’” she argues.
Bhatt believes it is the instructor’s duty to find a balance between material that challenges their students and material that could potentially be harmful. When that balance is lost, she thanks her students for having the courage to speak openly with her before and after class about their troubling experiences.
“A certain openness [in the classroom] has to be there,” says Bhatt. “We need to be guarded about what we are saying but not censored. There is a difference between being cautious and being censored. We can be respectful without being censored.”
Bhatt echoes a few of Ellison’s ideas about what a university education and campus should be. Both believe critical thinking and respectful dialogue can coexist without the barrier of safe spaces or trigger warnings separating one from the other.
“Students must be prepared,” says Bhatt. “Different viewpoints will be expressed here. The emotion part needs to be taken out of the equation.”
Gerald Walton, Educational Studies faculty at both KPU and Lakehead University, agrees with both Bhatt and Ellison’s belief that a university space “should be about new ideas, controversy, debate, and discussion.”
“While it is certainly the case that some university spaces can be upsetting and may give rise to emotion of various kinds, I do not think it is necessarily the case that this is a bad thing,” he says.
Walton argues that, by confronting a negative experience through course material, a student can move past their emotional response and begin to think critically about a subject they would not otherwise be able to confront. Though he is wary of trigger warning, he does acknowledge that absolute dedication to free speech does not come free of charge.
“There is a price to be paid for free debate and discussion in academics,” says Walton. “Some of that price might be paid in emotional upset and offence. In the name of education and working through that debate and discussion, this is the cost that needs to be paid.”
So who bears the brunt of that price? Do marginalized students pay more for the right to freely debate controversial topics than their more privileged classmates? And what happens when students and instructors don’t agree on where the line between offense and freedom of expression rests?
According to Educational Studies faculty member at KPU David P. Burns, the balance can only be struck when a high bar of mutual respect has been established between the faculty and the student body.
“In the classroom, it is important to make sure that persons are able to represent themselves in the most authentic way possible and still be respected,” says Burns.
According to him, there are several different ways that a member of a classroom can cultivate a space safe. “One of them is to avoid controversial topics likely to trigger persons. You could disagree with the pedagogical practice of trigger warnings and not reject the notion of safe space.”
Burns, however, is careful in his application of content warnings in his classroom, given that there are inherent educational purposes to difficult dialogue.
“There is a difference,” Burns argues, between “being intentionally exposed for educational reasons to unsettling things and being exposed to things that cause psychological harm because they do not adequately reflect, say, some part of your person.”
“I do not give trigger warnings unless it is something quite conventionally disturbing to the senses. The assumption is, especially since I teach classes like social justice, that you will be dealing with difficult conversation.”
Conversely, some proponents of safe spaces, such as Journalism and Communications faculty member Katie Warfield, argue that empathy and inclusivity are the remedy to most anxiety-inducing conversations. This is because engagement with controversial and potentially triggering material becomes inherently risky for some and, at times, traumatic for others.
“It is not human to assume that students should be able to bracket their emotions, their personal experiences, their embodied reaction to ideas, from their cognitive digestion of [these] ideas,” she says.
The humanity of the students, Warfield believes, comes before the absolute free flow of ideas. She believes that self-expression is inappropriate when it infringes on the rights of others, or hampers their ability to feel secure in a classroom setting. In cases like this, she favours the limiting of boundless academic freedom.
“We also have the criminal code, which articulates that certain types of communication, of expression, are inappropriate. We have laws in place that restrict hate speech,” says Warfield. “If I think comments in class, or ideas in class, are going to infringe on people’s’ sense of safety and security in the classroom, then I am not going to permit that type of communication.”
In Warfield’s view, this clashing of freedoms is again remedied, at least in part, by empathy—in addition to slow cultural changes.
“This is part of a long-term cultural shift, where the liberal state comes to expand the list of forms of diversity that it reflects, respects, and identifies,” says Burns. “It takes a long time and lots of little cultural shifts for people to start paying attention to things they did not think of before. The passing of generations of students educated in more modern values make these changes. The fights we get in are in moments of dramatic change.”