Widgets Magazine


In defense of safe spaces

On March 21, 2015, Judith Shulevitz published an op-ed in The New York Times titled “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas.” In this now widely-shared article, Shulevitz details a number of instances in colleges across the country where “safe spaces” were created for immature students who were scared of “discomfiting or distressing viewpoints” and describes how these safe spaces ultimately hurt college students and environments. Scare quotes abound every time Shulevitz mentions trigger warnings and safe spaces, and her disdain for the entire idea of a safe space permeates the piece. Safe spaces, she says, are only “good to the hypersensitive” and students who use these spaces will “never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.” Shulevitz dryly remarks that undergraduates these days are “puerile” and “resort to the … terminology of trauma [to] force administrators to respond.”

To begin with, I am astounded by the number of students I have seen share a petition asking for more funding for CAPS — Stanford’s Counseling and Psychological Services — who have also shared this op-ed. It seems fundamentally contradictory to support better mental health on this campus while demeaning safe spaces, spaces that are often made explicitly to serve the mental health needs of students. Shulevitz’s opinion, that safe spaces are childish and that those who use them are scared of new ideas, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of safe spaces and students who use them. I see in the support for Shulevitz’s article much of that same misunderstanding.

So let’s take this article to task.

Shulevitz quite observantly notes that “once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe.” She makes this sentence scathingly, but the irony is that she could not be more right. Practically every class I have taken at Stanford has failed to acknowledge the existence of transgender or nonbinary people. Slurs demeaning women are thrown around in broad daylight, in frat houses and heard in passing walking through White Plaza. I have seen people of color called “monkeys” on Yik Yak. “Deal with it,” Shulevitz and her supporters would say. “It’s just a different opinion.”

But when I go home for spring break, I see the same rhetoric. I see people dying. I see people disenfranchised by the very system that is supposed to support them. When I turn on the TV or go online, I see the same slurs, the same erasure, the same misogyny and racism as I do on city streets and on campus.

And Shulevitz writes that safe spaces “shield [college students] from unfamiliar ideas.”

What we need to realize is that other people are not all like us. What we need to realize is that shying away from confronting new ideas is not at all similar to seeking a respite from a lifetime of rhetoric that tells us that we do not deserve to exist. “I can deal with things that make me uncomfortable, and therefore so should you!” people say. But try telling someone in a wheelchair that they are scared of new experiences because they won’t walk up the stairs.

Shulevitz also argues that a “safe space mentality” is permeating too many spaces and stifling learning in a college environment. I find this claim to be in many ways inaccurate. I see classrooms and lecture halls as places where students from marginalized communities sit and smile patiently as their peers bluntly ask why they can’t use the n-word or call someone a “tra*ny,” day after day. I see some minority students forced to teach their peers about classism, racism, transmisogyny, ableism, imperialism and colonialism while simultaneously trying their best to learn the course material, perform well on a varsity team or get their research done. Many students just shake their head and try to ignore just how unsafe these spaces already are. We pick our battles.

This is not to say that marginalized students are infinitely victimized, or that we get free passes in thinking critically about pertinent issues. There are almost always critical spaces that push students from any and all communities to continue questioning and dealing with hard concepts, intersectionality and conflicting worldviews. Most of these spaces are inherently unsafe in that some discussed ideas may be triggering or upsetting. I am not arguing that we should get rid of those spaces — the idea, however, that the presence of safe spaces detracts from the value of critical spaces is ridiculous.

Shulevitz’s article reveals many of the ways in which she and other privileged people view their lives and the lives of other people. I am sure that it is easy to see safe spaces as infantile if we refuse to acknowledge the invisible burdens that some people carry more than others and the different needs that they might have. These differences do not make us inferior. These differences do not make us immature, or childlike, or intellectually repressed. Our lives are marathons of survival as we learn to live in a world that does not value us. Do not judge our existence if you only notice when we take breaks.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

About Lily Zheng

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!
  • Flabbergasted Alum

    This is just embarrassing. The word “safe” has officially lost all meaning in the hands of millennials.

    I can’t believe you are unable to distinguish between what you observe in the outside world (i.e. people DYING) and what you claim are the dangers of being exposed to “upsetting” viewpoints in classrooms at Stanford (which, in the ordinary sense of the word, is one of the safest places on earth).

    Hint: nobody at Stanford is telling you that “you do not deserve to exist.”

  • IronicAlum

    Goddamn the millenials and the way they’re already screwing over the world.
    Its not like we dealt them a fucked up world or anything.
    Its also so silly that they would be troubled at the very least when people are dying by the sentiments underneath the same “upsetting” arguments that they are hearing.

    Also lowkey: millenials be inventing new uses of words and its a shame cause language is a static thing nah mean?
    Also lowkey #2: millenials should just take it when they are devalued and not stand up for themselves when deragatory terms are being thrown around. Its not serious at all, and its definitely not devaluing their existence.

  • Ugh

    Lowkey #3: the whole problem with safe spaces (as defended in this column and as described in the NYT piece) is that it is the OPPOSITE of standing up for yourself when derogatory terms are being thrown around.

  • Lily Zheng

    Highkey #1: the whole problem with that critique (as I very explicitly discussed in my column) is that it assumes that marginalized communities can stand up for themselves in every space, all the time, every day, forever. Can we be allowed spaces where we can take a break? Is that too much to ask?

  • Vacenza

    In the language of millennials, the term “unsafe” has become a synonym for “uncomfortable,” and no longer has anything to do with actual safety.

  • My thoughts

    You should have waited until today to publish this, cause it’s surely a joke, right?

    I haven’t read the NYT piece, but she’s probably onto something and you’re just defensive and illogical.

    You say you want to take a break from some constant onslaught of isms, well hide yourself in your room or find friends who you feel good around without having to explicitly label some place as safe. I’m a Jew, I know if I go to Hillel on campus I won’t be confronted by anti-semitism. You’re Asian, so there’s tons of Asian groups. You’re a women, there’s the women’s center.

    Deal with your problems as an adult. You brought up someone in a wheelchair– that’s a crappy hand to be dealt but they can never take a break. What makes you special?

  • Big Hair Don’t Care

    The only thing informative about this are the comments. No one in their early 20’s read this massive block of text. We docile.

  • mogden

    Sure, but wouldn’t that be known as your “home”?

  • jgrace

    The logical jumps in this article completely invalidate the argument.

    1) Going to a safe space and going to a mental health professional (such as CAPS) are absolutely NOT the same thing. “Safe spaces” — such as the one described in the NYT piece– are designed to remove an individual from an experience that they may find upsetting so that he/she can avoid the emotional discomfort of listening to viewpoints not aligned with his/her own. Going to a therapist is entirely different in that it allows an individual to reflect on state of mind, life, well-being, experiences, etc. It is not done with the intention of discomfort avoidance– in fact it is often the opposite, as therapy (when it is constructive) should cause slight discomfort, as least in my experience, as the patient confronts his/her emotional problems.

    2) The comparison between emotional discomfort and physical disability is really NOT OKAY. Living as a trans person must be immeasurably difficult, especially at the college age, and I would never claim to know even the beginning of that struggle. However, equating the inability of a student in a wheelchair to walk up stairs with the inability of a student to listen to or witness opinions that offend them is frankly ridiculous and misguided. In my opinion, it is an incredibly privileged stance to take to say that nobody should offend you. Or that everyone else— including the university!!!— has some sort of responsibility to make you feel “emotionally safe.” There is a difference between comfort and safety. What our generation is missing is the emotional toughness required to listen to someone say something that offends us or “triggers us” and then move on from the experience, categorizing it as an opposing viewpoint rather than a personal attack. There is a difference between personal, verbal bullying (that would actually merit a threat against your emotional safety) and a dissenting viewpoint (that may upset you, but in no way threatens you.)

    3) “Practically every class I have taken at Stanford has failed to acknowledge the existence of transgender or nonbinary people.” News flash: why on earth would they? That is like saying “why aren’t they speaking about the discrimination towards atheists in my chemistry class?” “why aren’t we acknowledging sexual assault’s existence and severity in my CS class?” I mean really. If it is a gender studies class, obviously the circumstances are different, but the vast majority of academia is not centered around gender identity. The plea for more inclusive literature in English courses is a good example: “why aren’t we reading books about trans individuals, or Haitian individuals, or rape victims, or bald people?” Because that’s not what English classes are about!!! The curriculum is NOT designed to make every single little facet of every single person’s identity feel included and spoken for. It’s to LEARN.

    4) “Our lives are marathons of survival as we learn to live in a world that does not value us.” I don’t know the writer’s life or what she’s been through as an individual, so I’m going to speak to the idea of minority marginalization/ living with these “differences” and “invisible burdens” rather than to the writer personally: every single person on earth is hated by some group of people; white, black, gay, atheist, Mormon, female, teenaged, etc etc, the list is so long. Some people do have it worse than others, obviously. So if you can’t be accepted for who you are by everyone in the world, if you can’t make everyone love you or “value you” then screw them and focus on something else. These lives that are so centered around making sure everyone uses the correct terminology and says the right things and thinks the right way about your minority group etc etc is so misfocused. Let’s stop focusing on who has the most privilege and who has the hardest set of circumstances to overcome. Go invent something or create something or learn something! It will help you more in the long run than worrying about some idiot who doesn’t understand your difference or isn’t sensitive towards it.

    5) To the writer: you speak about Shulevitz’s privilege as if privilege is a dirty word, and you use it to invalidate her argument and her opinions, as if she can’t think critically about an issue without having experienced certain things first hand, which I fundamentally disagree with. One can understand, empathize with, and equally criticize a tribe without belonging to it. (It’s called anthropology) I find it disheartening and also ironic that you basically spit on her validity because she is what you call privileged while also attending the best university in the country. You, by virtue of the education you are receiving currently, are among the most privileged in the world, and you probably will remain so for the rest of your life. At the risk of sounding condescending, the sooner you realize that and use it to your advantage rather than limiting yourself to the victim mindset, the more successful (and probably happy) you’ll be.

  • Bob

    I pray for this nation. Safe spaces is a joke. Being exposed to things that offend you or opics you don’t agree is part of life. Get used to it! This nation is going to taken over by a bunch of self absorbed cowards who can’t live in the real world. Very troubling

  • Norm Hull

    I don’t see the issue.

    Christians have safe spaces and still do, even at public schools. It’s called church. So why not one room for people who feel marginalized?