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Misappropriated Words: SAFE SPACE
A verbal series. Part 3.
[Part of an on-going series on word misappropriation]
Trigger Warning: This post is NOT a safe space.
But, what IS a safe space anyways? And what is it safe from? Attempting to find a proper definition, I couldn’t help but notice that numerous dictionaries have been updated with the latest and most trendiest of definitions. When did that happen, I wondered?
No doubt many will point out that language evolves and has evolved throughout history. That’s correct. For example, the word gay means something rather different today than it did in its former glory years (though, some may argue, just as fun). Such changes, however, take time. They are true cultural shifts, not forced and rapid ones.
The origins of the term “safe space” are hard to trace. Some connect it to the 1960s women’s movement. In the 80s it became part of the gay liberation movement. But there’s evidence that it existed long before that, too. In subsequent years, the term has taken a life of its own — especially on college campuses, with a transitional period from the 90s/2000s, to present day.
Let’s take a look at a few definitions:
Merriam-Webster: a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.
Never mind that a discourse free of “criticism” seems to run counter to the whole idea of what an education should be. After all, what’s a professor’s grading mechanism if not a form of criticism? That’s just for starters.
Oxford’s Lexico: A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.
A similar stance, with the added caveat that people will not come into emotional harm. How is that even a possibility? Anyone with a remotely sensitive disposition (like myself) would be lying if they claimed to never have been emotionally hurt even when there has been no intentional attempt to do so. We can certainly try to avoid minimizing emotional harm, but no one can ever walk into any space—safe or otherwise—“confident” that they will feel no emotional harm. That’s called life. And it often leads to growth.
Now, Collins Dictionary has a definition that seems to match my own conception of it a little better.
a place or forum where people can openly discuss controversial subjects without fear of reprisal.
That’s what universities used to be all about, at least in theory. Where else can you discuss topics ranging from Plato to mythology, Marxism and libertarianism, political structures, and the nuances of modern art as passionately as on a college campus? These were destinations where ideas were discovered, explored, and yes, debated. Those debates were centered on the ideas, not the individuals. It’s not about who said it, it was about WHAT was said. It was a chance to be wrong, brilliant, and anything in between.
But today’s definitions of a safe space seem to contradict the origins of that precious term. If one’s primary concern is not hurting someone’s feelings and avoiding criticism, how can ideas and thoughts be fully explored? Civil disagreements and debates are crucial if we are to develop our own thoughts and views, let alone reach new ideas and understandings. Diamonds form under intense heat and pressure, so do good ideas.
Not all is lost, however! There’s an intersection where the old school idea of “safe space” and the new conception meet. Here’s where that is: Each definition deems that a “safe space” should allow conversations that are free of personal and physical attacks —regardless of someone’s race, sexual orientation, but, I’d argue, just as importantly, also differing perspectives. Something that’s rarely protected these days.
Perhaps safe spaces should be renamed: tolerant spaces. But whatever you call it, a safe space should not be where one can retreat to in order to avoid perspectives at odds with one’s own. It’s a place to face them.