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If You Think 'Safe Spaces’ Are For Narcissistic Babies, You're Not Listening

It's not about censorship or coddling.

On Nov. 23, Oklahoma Wesleyan University President Everett Piper wrote a clearly-frustrated (if unoriginal) letter stating that his college was "a university and not a daycare."

The incident to which Piper was responding -- in which he says a student took issue with a homily about "love" based on 1 Corinthians 13 because it "made him feel bad for not showing love" -- may, in fact, be a case of social justice language being used by a student in a less than effective way.

But throughout his letter, the administrator repeats a lot of the same sentiments that arise whenever we talk about those scary academic buzzwords like "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces."

"Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic," Piper wrote. "Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims. Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them 'feel bad' about themselves, is a 'hater,' a 'bigot,' an 'oppressor' and a 'victimizer.'"

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It's a song and dance we've heard before, as more and more college students get turned on to the language of fighting social inequality, and as more and more administrators don't know what to do about it. It's also, time and again, proving to be a case of these high profile figures doing a lot more talking, hand-wringing and finger-wagging than actually listening. Using what may or may not be a egregious call for censorship as grounds to delegitimize an entire movement is a lazy, reductive tactic that equates very real concerns with a few outrageous-sounding outliers.

First, let's be real about what a "safe space" really means. There's a few different ways this phrase is used (and countless ways it's been twisted into something ugly) in all the #buzzword frenzy. The term first started to gain traction in queer and feminist circles in the '60s, when it referred primarily to gay or lesbian bars where queer folks were able to gather without being abused or arrested.

But in its modern usage, it's referring to an environment where prejudices about things like race, gender, sexuality, class and ability are unwelcome. Think of it, at its most basic, as a "don't be a jerk" policy.

Yet too often conversations about "safe spaces" get hijacked into the realm of the ridiculous. Instead of being seen as calls for the most bare-bones kind of dignity (and regardless of your perception of how the #RealWorld works, we can all afford to be decent to other human beings), they've been warped to include every random and egregious call for censorship in the last few years, from cartoonish descriptions of cuddly de-stress rooms (complete with puppies and Play-Doh) to Ray Bradbury-penned dystopia scenarios.

But safe spaces aren't about censorship or padded rooms where no one can disagree with you. When you create a "safe place," you simply form a social contract that calls for a place where people form their arguments in a way that's respectful. It's a bar so low you could trip over it -- essentially asking that people entering such spaces prepare for discourse (which, yes, can include disagreements and idealogical differences) in a way that treats all participants like people. That's it.

When a person (let's say a college student) from an oppressed group asks that their learning environment be "safe," they're just asking that they not be subjected to hateful language and actions from others over things that they can't control -- actions that interfere with their right to attend school and get their educations.

The idea of "safe spaces" does imply that the majority of other spaces -- think your hometown bar where people are shouting slurs freely, or public streets where people live in fear of prejudicially-motivated crimes -- are, in fact, not safe. But when the request for a space to be made safer is met with the kind of vitriol and "end is nigh" talk of letters like Piper's, it reaffirms the need for these spaces in the first place.

How do we make spaces safe? There's no perfect way to create this kind of environment. There is, however, a pragmatic way to get started: listening to people, and giving thoughtful, empathetic responses. Act on the side of compassion and empathy instead of relying on straw-men arguments about censorship and coddling.

If we all did that, we might just see that there's something more earnest and worthwhile behind the movement for safe spaces: the hope that we, as compassionate and empathetic human beings, can make conversations and debate accessible to people who have been beaten down by prejudice for so long. It's a hope that someday all types of students will be able to sit in a classroom and hold conversations like true equals. It's a hope for a space that doesn't automatically privilege those who are already doing most of the talking.

It's a hope that we can live in a world where everyone can agree and disagree and grow in those passionate, rowdy and academically rigorous ways that make it all worthwhile -- while still feeling safe.