Recently, I sat in a class where the professor told us, “I’m going to teach you a lot of theories. I don’t need you to agree with all of them, I just need you to understand them.” College is about exploring the world, and with the privilege of exploration comes the necessity to engage with that which makes us uncomfortable, with which we disagree and which makes us question our own beliefs. While exploring, it is important to remain conscious of diversity and of the differences between others’ experiences from ours.
Last week, an opinions writer for the New York Times, Judith Shulevitz, wrote about how colleges are infantilizing students by creating “safe spaces” and allowing individuals to “hide from scary ideas.” While I believe that education involves social and emotional learning, as well as intellectual learning, I also believe that institutions should create an environment where all individuals feel safe.
There is a important distinction between allowing victims of trauma to remove themselves from situations in which they feel afraid or threatened and allowing people who wish to learn more about an issue access to certain information. In her article, Shulevitz criticizes a Brown University student for her opposition to a planned event on campus. The event involved a debate between Jessica Valenti, a feminist, and Wendy McElroy, a libertarian. The student, an advocate for victims of sexual assault, tried to block the event, claiming that McElroy’s speech would, “serve to invalidate people’s experiences.”
While I believe that victims of various kinds of abuse can experience real and uncontrollable reactions to certain triggers related to their traumatic experiences, I also believe that the student was not entirely correct in saying that the speaker would invalidate victim’s experiences. The truth is that we do not all have the same experiences. Some people have been traumatized by certain events and others have not. Some people have experienced discrimination while others have not. As colleges become more diverse with each matriculating class, it becomes increasingly difficult to pursue social education without triggering negative reactions from some of the student population.
While McElroy’s opinions may assault the dearly held beliefs of some of her audience, she has the same right to her beliefs, derived from her experiences, as anyone else does. McElroy may even be misguided or unfairly biased, but her presentation of beliefs entirely her own does not diminish the beliefs and lived experiences of people who have different feelings and opinions. While Brown still allowed the debate to take place, student volunteers created a “safe space” for victims of sexual assault to retreat from the debate and be supported.
The safe space, as described by Ms. Shulevitz, contained, “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” She claimed that the nature of the space served to infantilize victims by allowing them to “hide” from opinions that do not match their own. Her argument and condemnation of safe spaces reproduces the untrue idea that safe spaces and intellectual engagement are mutually exclusive. In her criticism, Ms. Shulevitz misinterprets what it really means to create a safe space.
A safe space does not necessarily need to be a room filled with cookies and Play-Doh, but the institution of spaces where victims can find support from specially trained peers can help increasingly diverse schools to allow intellectual exploration without causing additional trauma to those who have been victimized. While institutions should invite speakers with whom not everyone will agree, they should also create safe environments for members who have experienced life differently than others.
Allowing controversial speakers, even those who go against an institution's dearly held beliefs, to speak on campus allows students to engage intellectually with various social issues. A safe space is where everyone feels that their opinion is heard and appreciated, not a space that demonizes intellectual exploration and education. As colleges become more and more diverse, it is important for us students to support our peers in relation to their experiences, but it is also important for us to learn to understand different beliefs. To change the world, we do not need to agree with others’ potentially problematic opinions, but we do need to understand them.