​KHAN: The danger of safe spaces

Expanding the reach of so-called “safe spaces” can have detrimental effects on college campuses

Originally, the term “safe space” was used within women's and LGBTQ movements to describe discussions between like minded individuals on sensitive topics like gender and sexuality where one was free from uncomfortable critique, ridicule and patriarchal oppression. Nowadays safe spaces are often implemented online, but recently the terminology has become a buzzword on college campuses, with student groups often labeling dialogues and discussion on even moderately sensitive issues as “safe spaces” for all. At colleges like Yale, a poisonous form of the idea is gaining support: that entire campuses should be considered safe spaces. While creating limited safe spaces on college campuses deserves our support, expanding the definition of a safe space to encapsulate entire campuses is a dangerous idea that would have serious implications on freedom of speech.

The incidents that occurred this past week at Yale are representative of the surreptitious push to create campus-wide safe spaces. Controversy erupted last week when Erika Christakis, associate master of Silliman residential college, sent out a nuanced email that proposed different ways of viewing culturally appropriating Halloween costumes, noting that it should be students who should make their own informed decisions on what costumes to wear. Her email came in response to an earlier email sent out by the Intercultural Affairs Council and Yale’s Dean Burgell Howard that cautioned students on wearing culturally inappropriate costumes.

In response to Christakis’ email, hundreds of outraged Yale students verbally attacked and surrounded the professor and her husband Nicholas Christakis (who also serves as a college master, comparable to an association dean). At the center of the email situation is a particularly revealing video that captures one student yelling at Christakis’ husband. The student engages with the professor head on, telling him the message in his email goes “against your position as master” and that it is his “job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman. You have not done that.” When Christakis responds that he simply didn't agree with assertions, the student’s anger increases. “Then why the f*** did you accept the position? Who the f*** hired you? You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here.”

This reaction to a member of the faculty is both disrespectful and vicious. But perhaps more insidious are the implications in what she voiced: that college masters should make it their goal to provide a sense of “comfort” and “home” for students — a safe space. To clarify, the position of a “master” at Yale is taken up by a distinguished faculty member who live and preside over one of Yale’s residential colleges. According to Yale’s website, masters are “responsible for the physical well being and safety of students in the residential college, as well as for fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college.” Nowhere does it say the master must enforce a set of subjective moral standards or enforce rules to create a safe space for students. Students should not expect universities to coddle them by filtering out views with which they may not agree. After the incident, some students were heard saying they cannot bear to live in the college anymore. This statement sounds preposterous when one looks at living conditions at Yale’s residential colleges, which with their numerous facilities seem akin to five star hotels. Never mind that 26.3 percent of New Haven’s populous live under the poverty line and could only dream of living in a Yale-style dormitory.

The push to expand safe spaces has also become an issue at this University. Last week, my fellow Opinion columnist Carlos Lopez argued the University should implement trigger warnings in courses with potentially emotional material to promote a “safe” environment. While a quick trigger warning may be appropriate when viewing highly provocative material, placing warnings before every sensitive discussion wastes class time and can imply the topic of discussion to be inappropriate. I have even personally witnessed professors at this University reprimanded by students on their selection of certain truly benign class topics. Other colleges also have safe space issues. At Columbia, there was a recent campus-wide push by a student group to make all individual student dorms “safe spaces” for the LGBT community, which, though a laudable effort, came off as forced.

Safe spaces can and should exist at universities; three weeks ago I penned an article on how colleges should increase support for mental health resources. But the projection of safe spaces onto entire college campuses without consent of the student body, or the utilization of safe spaces as weapons to attack anyone with opposing views seem to pose a different type of intolerance that imperil first amendment rights to freedom of speech.

Hasan Khan is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at h.khan@cavalierdaily.com.

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