I sit, shoulder to shoulder with my closest friends, nestled between panes of icy cold glass and cups of piping hot coffee at our table in my favorite campus cafe. We sit there and we debate, unencumbered by the potential consequences our words could have on each other.
The topic of our debate and the context we are situated within are not crucial here. Instead, I call to attention the metaphysical idealized space where we coexist — the so-called “safe space” with which both our University and the country have become so infatuated.
I am not for a second saying that safe spaces do not matter, nor am I promoting their abolishment. To do so would be absurd for it is only natural to carve out a place of security. However, there is a glacial difference between seeking comfort amid the chaos and hiding from the chaos within the self-constructed confines of your own comfort.
The idea of a safe space is without a doubt wonderful. A tiny sphere cut off from the world, free of physical harassment, assault and subjugation. But, extending this idea beyond the physical to the ideological has not only made students more intolerant of diverging viewpoints and more staunchly fixed in their own, but has highlighted divides between different groups of students. Some live blissfully unaware of the microaggressions and intolerances they perpetuate, and others are vocal but only speak among others like them.
Safe spaces have become places on campus where like-minded individuals can be together without bringing up ideas that offend each other. Safe spaces have become shelters where students take part in a chorus of voices instead of taking a step back, reflecting on what they really believe in and creating a space where new ideas can be heard.
Instead of promoting student discourse, safe spaces have harmed, or even stifled, its flow. Instead of unabashedly screaming at the tops of our lungs to make ourselves heard, we have grown accustomed to persuading those who are already nodding in agreement. Instead of risking offending another for the sake of raising a new perspective, we run and hide amid peers who look and feel just as we do. Instead of bravely having a conversation with non-like-minded peers, we tentatively whisper our thoughts across the void.
Furthermore, our infatuation with safe spaces has not only cemented pre-existing divides between students, it has also called a time-of-death on open and honest campus debates. By creating such pockets of “safety,” we have inadvertently silenced the discussion and muted unheard voices.
In 2015, Judith Shulevitz wrote a line in her New York Times op-ed that rings true three years later: “Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.” We have not, however, invested nearly as much effort in making these “unsafe” spaces safe. Moreover, our safe spaces seem to be increasingly becoming environments that foster toxic behavior.
Our spaces have become so safe that they are now unsafe.
Born in Hong Kong, a place wrought with socio-political upheaval, and raised by a pair of political activist parents, I was always taught to take pride in the spotlight and not shy away from it. I was raised to believe that being deeply offended or feeling wronged or aggrieved is how I find my voice and learn to string together words to fight back. From my experience, I knew that there exists a delicate but tangible difference between verbally harming others and simply expressing your freedom of speech.
I grew up in an environment that cannot, by any means or metric, be classified as a politically correct landscape. Racism and rising authoritarian politics reign to this day over classist undercurrents. Yet, it is precisely within this incorrectness that our voices and opinions can find life and flourish.
The debates I had with friends and family growing up were truly wars of words. People did not shy away from the controversial, they did not stifle their opinions for fear of insulting another or out of some peculiarly constructed social norm. Over steaming bowls of food, we would debate. From Caitlyn Jenner and attempts to understand how queerness could fit into our ultra-traditional city, to Beijing’s slow but surefire takeover of Hong Kong, we would leave no stone unturned.
We are college students at a time characterized by its political turbulence. We need to think about how turning something as complex as political correctness into a black-and-white situation stifles the first sparks of real, engaged discussion.
Coming to Yale, instead of having four years to discover my voice, I find myself increasingly afraid to speak out. I have grown from the outgoing child with no verbal filter to the young adult who overthinks every inkling of a thought. More times than I have fingers for, I have left thoughts unarticulated for fear of being an affront to the collective safe space. I have been afraid to ask questions, to speak my mind, to clarify points of confusion simply because I don’t want to be the next kid attacked in a Yale Daily News op-ed for being an ignorant, intolerant buffoon.
Last semester, the Yale College fraternity Leo was called out once again for allegedly being racially selective in letting people into parties. However, unlike previous allegations, this time, it seemed to be a justifiable rejection for two reasons: First, Leo parties are historically open to anybody enrolled in Yale College and can produce a Yale ID to prove it; and second, all evidence pointed to the fact that the person in question was not a Yale student.
Caught up in the fervor of the aftermath, I wrote an article arguing that the “boy who cried wolf” phenomena seemed to be becoming prevalent — wherein a burst of anger against every single controversial occurrence culminated in the opposite of the intended effect. By crying that the sky is falling every time an injustice occurs, we diminish the gravity every time the sky actually comes crumbling down.
This piece of mine still sits unpublished on my laptop, read only by my eyes.
Paradoxical as it may be, my apprehension towards safe spaces and my fear of speaking out has led me to forge a safe space of my own. Mine has come in the form of an international friend group, where few share the same country of origin, but all unite, fearlessly and unapologetically ourselves. In this small social circle we have made, we are free to be us, to vocalize our thoughts and question the world around us in true, open and honest debate. The only catch here is that our insulated space does not intersect with others. Just like other safe spaces on campus, our debates fall on deaf ears.
A safe space understood as a physical location for healing makes sense. But when the therapeutic space infringes on the intellectual space, our classrooms and corridors and dining halls become echo chambers intolerant to genuine debate.
We are bubble-wrapped instead of being armed with the intellectual conviction and stamina that we should be developing at our time in university. If this is how we carry forward, maybe we really are the special snowflakes we have been accused of being after all.
Hana Davis | firstname.lastname@example.org