Safe Spaces Foster Inclusive, Productive Campus Conversation

Editorial Board

Content Warning: This editorial discusses potentially triggering issues like rape, sexualized violence, abuse, suicide and offensive language.

Dubbed the “Me Me Me Generation” by Time Magazine in its May 2013 issue, millennials receive no shortage of bad press. It’s almost too easy to blame technology and the instant gratification that comes with it for creating a generation of lazy, narcissistic, entitled brats who only look up from their iPhones to complain about their Starbucks orders.

Columnist Judith Shulevitz’s latest op-ed equates college students to coddled children afraid to examine frightening concepts like rape, assault, abuse and suicide or engage with racist, misogynistic and anti-queer language (“In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas,” The New York Times, March 21, 2015). She claims that schools like Brown University and Smith College pander to these “immature” demands for safe spaces, trigger or content warnings and the cancellation of various speakers and events for perpetrating “threats to stability” or other potentially offensive or triggering material. This is no way for an institution of higher learning to act, she argues, as college is where you learn to confront these “scary ideas.”

Safe spaces are useful and valuable if organized properly, and they can take many forms. Most commonly, safe spaces are either physical locations to which people can retreat to avoid offensive or triggering content, groups organized around a particular identity or communities that prohibit discussion of particular triggering topics or offensive language altogether. Despite the number of forms safe spaces take, none will perfectly protect students from every type of harm.

Students have the right to remove themselves from unsafe situations. It’s not coddling or weak to avoid certain topics or situations, it’s actually very necessary for self-care. Knowing what situations to remove yourself from in order to protect yourself is a kind of advocacy that forms self-aware, mature and independent people.

The pretense that academia is never personal has the potential to inflict harm by ignoring the emotional and academic relevance of lived experience. Safe spaces allow us a moment to gather ourselves, self-reflect and engage deeply with the work we do. Oberlin has had a long history of trying to create an inclusive community, and regardless of whether it actually lives up to that intention, the College should provide safe spaces and other accommodation services. In unsafe spaces, the voices that are silenced, ignored or marginalized are those that are triggered by harmful conversations. A diverse, inclusive and intelligent campus discussion is a worthy goal, and by creating safe spaces, campuses increase the quality of student life and academic discourse.

The conversation regarding safe spaces and trigger warnings isn’t new. As a supposedly progressive paragon of liberal education and social issues, Oberlin’s own history with trigger warnings has lately been the topic of much debate in many major publications. Last year, Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum commented that Oberlin is a “[symbol] of the widespread scourge of campus political correctness and the glorification of victimhood” (“Why ‘trigger warnings’? We already live in a hair-trigger world,” LA Times, April 3, 2014).

Despite outside perspectives that view Oberlin as overindulgent, Review staff member and College sophomore Cyrus Eosphoros’ op-ed argues that the disability services regarding content warnings are severely lacking at Oberlin (“Content Warnings Needed as Accommodations,” The Oberlin Review, Feb. 27, 2015). So the debate rages on between college administrators, students and other opinionated individuals on the necessity and productivity of safe spaces and trigger warnings.

Providing safe spaces, respites from the nastiness that bogs down our psyches, is not the same as locking ourselves in isolated rooms for four years of our lives. Most of us encounter the outside world every break, every time we open our laptops and even on campus, where offensive and upsetting opinions still exist in classrooms and dorms without warning or moderation. Attending Oberlin doesn’t mean we are sheltered from every offensive and rude thought. However, many have learned to surround themselves with supportive, rather than oppressive or silencing, communities. And that is something we learn here that we can carry with us into the real world.

The oft-mentioned “Oberlin bubble” is more permeable than many believe. If Oberlin was an isolated bubble of respect, removed entirely from the dangers that plague the world, there may very well be no need for safe spaces. Creating safe spaces is a way of honestly assessing the world around us. As students, we aren’t going to be stunned by the harshness of the real world once we graduate; we interact with the real world every day. Understanding the role and necessity of safe spaces will help us empower ourselves and others despite the harshness of reality.