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Trigger warnings, safe spaces, and political correctness are among the three most controversial topics surrounding higher education. This January, Northwestern University’s president Morton Schapiro wrote an article in which he defended safe spaces on their campus. He explains, “experts tell me that students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that comfort.”

Opponents of safe spaces argue that this movement shelters individuals from serious and challenging conversations that occur in real life. A conservative critique in The New York Times claim “People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it.” Later in the article, the author describes these students as “overcome by their own fragility.”

This divide consists fundamentally over who are accessing these safe spaces—overly sensitive college students or college students who have been overly exposed to emotional/psychological distress. The divide cannot be greater. If it’s the former, then safe spaces hinder higher learning. If the latter, then providing safe spaces aids education.

Advocates for safe spaces point to minority groups which have historically, and currently are, experiencing day-to-day difficulties. LGBT folks, people of color, and women are three common demographics who are subjected to microaggressions. One study defines that as “the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation…” Things such as racial and sexual slurs permeate daily life for these individuals.

Opponents of safe spaces, such as Jonathan Helwink of The Federalist, grant that “Students, especially those from historically underrepresented groups, deserve to feel they are full members of the college community.” They recognize that these microaggressions exist.

They, however, make a classroom-quad distinction. While they agree communal areas such as the college cafeteria should be regulated more heavily, they think that classroom regulation is counterproductive.

Helwink argues, “Trigger warnings and safe spaces don’t solve the problem of harmful speech. Error, in this context, is not the assaultive speech, but the prejudice behind the assaultive speech. When certain thoughts are forbidden, the erroneous thought goes unaddressed and is, consequently, allowed to fester.”

While this is the case, Helwink here optimistically assumes that those (i.e. Professors) facilitating the classroom are not subject to the same prejudices as the students. While this is the hope, cases such as this and this show otherwise.

Everyone Uses Safe Space

When it comes down to it, we all somewhat use, reinforce, and understand safe spaces.

For example, you wouldn’t talk about strong, controversial political beliefs over Thanksgiving because in that space, it will cause unnecessary conflict. We also know to avoid topics of alcohol and violence at domestic abuse help groups, because we understand this people group will be more harmed than benefited from that conversation. 

Safe spaces are just a more explicit iteration of what we all do anyways—check the room temperature and audience. Then, we proceed to create a place that is as inviting as possible to the greatest number of people. We know honesty should not be mistaken for insensitivity, and freedom of speech should not equate verbal assault. 

The difficulty is now that these spaces are ‘officially’ enforced. It has moved beyond the sensitivity of nonverbal communication to the sphere of rules and regulations. Nevertheless, supporters and opponents of safe spaces agree that our students should grow as individual thinkers in a difficult world.