Safety and Subjectivity: Defining Safe Spaces

by Kaijing Janice Chen | 9/20/17 2:20am

There are some words that feel ubiquitous at Dartmouth. Some, like “facetimey” and “@now,” innocuously seep into life on campus and render us barely intelligible to students outside of Dartmouth. Other terms have acquired a more universal status across American college campuses, some becoming nothing short of contentious.

One such term is “safe space.” In my two years as a Dartmouth student, I have seen safe spaces heralded as an absolute requisite for successful communication, a tool to acknowledge and validate the needs of all those present. On the flip side, I have witnessed people lampoon the term and cast safe spaces as symptomatic of a coddled and acutely emotional student body.

But, what exactly constitutes a safe space? Do they serve their intended purpose of promoting communication? Or are they in fact an insidious impediment to free speech, as some make them out to be?

For Kelleen Moriarty ’19 safe spaces have always been about expanding the confines of exchange, rather than curtailing them. While others see safe spaces as tantamount to censorship, she understands safe spaces as allowing for more honest and open discourse. She believes that when marginalized members of society are allowed the sanctuary of a safe space, they can engage in dialogue that transcends the exhausting to and fro of shouldering hateful attacks and defending their existence.

“I find … if I’m in a safe space, and I don’t need to justify my existence, I can therefore justify my ideas and my opinions,” Moriarty said.

Rabbi Daveen Litwin, who serves as dean and chaplain of the William Jewett Tucker Center for Spiritual Life, sees similar qualities in safe spaces worthy of upholding.

“Even if you feel more identified with one particular thing in one particular situation — let’s say it’s around sexual violence — and to be in a safe space with others who have had that experience and not have to try to explain something that often doesn’t even have words to explain,” she said. “That’s just human. That doesn’t feel political. That doesn’t feel like coddling.”

To those who question safe spaces as viable learning environments, Litwin says growth comes from negotiating the terms of safety within a space, and part of that is learning how to communicate ideas in the most respectful way possible. However, respect does not absolutely necessitate comfort. When talking about difficult topics that plague political life in the U.S. today, tensions and disagreements inevitably surface.

“It doesn’t mean you’re always comfortable, but it does mean you’re welcome,” Litwin said. “I think there’s a difference between that — between figuring out ways that people can share and be heard — and people being derogatory.”

Moriarty understands how safe spaces, with their often accompanying ground rules, can feel like a shutting down of different opinions to maintain the overall comfort of their occupants. In her experience, safe spaces have instead served as points of rigorous challenge, where there is opportunity to engage truthfully with new ideas that sometimes stand in stark opposition to her own.

“I think it’s easy to misunderstand the idea of a safe space as a place where people aren’t being challenged, as a place where people put on earmuffs, and sit in silence, and sort of ruminate in their own rightness,” Moriarty said.

For her, challenge is necessarily embedded not only in the actual boundaries of safe spaces, but also in the fact of their existence. In order for safe spaces to offer a moment of relief, there must be moments outside these spaces when relief does not exist, moments when individuals are vulnerable or subject to persecution.

“If you are in need of a safe space, then the rest of space in which you exist is challenge,” Moriarty explained.

Nonetheless, Moriarty acknowledges that underlying biases can color statements and inadvertently invalidate the experiences of individuals in safe spaces. When words are testament to ossified prejudices, it might feel like the promise of a safe space has been compromised.

In order to transform a safe space into a productive learning environment, Moriarty explores the burden of challenging statements that are perceived to be harmful, especially given the added complexity of how challenge is often inextricably linked to explanation.

“If [a] person does not want the burden of saying something … doesn’t feel the emotional ability or doesn’t want to, then it’s the responsibility of the rest of the community … to continue to challenge itself and the members of the community, and the members of the people in that space, to further the goal of safety and understanding,” she said.

However, what lies within the promise of safety? Is it, or should it be, a promise at all? Viewing the notion of safe space under a lens of intention and result, Litwin shows that it is difficult, if not impossible, to shelter people against words perceived to be harmful.

“We don’t have protection against people’s words, but we have the ability to create spaces where we learn how to articulate things in the best possible way so we can learn from each other,” she said. “Even when we intend things with our hearts to be loving and kind, that doesn’t mean somebody experiences it that way.”

Within a safe space, the very notion of safety is imbued with a subjectivity that makes all-too-specific definitions of “safe space” arbitrary. Kristi Clemens, associate dean of student affairs and director of case management, urges for an acknowledgment of this subjectivity, because defining safety for oneself allows for the production of individual agency and responsibility.

“How can you be active in defining what that space looks like, where we engage with each other and get to know each other in a different way, rather than just trying to put out a blanket, ‘Well, this is what it means to be safe’?” she said.

When asked about what happens when a self-definition of safety comes to hinder open-mindedness, Clemens reiterated her goal as an educator to promote a growth-oriented mindset.

“My hope is that that definition of safety is not fixed, that we can instill enough of a growth mindset in our students to say, ‘Okay, if you want to dig in and say that’s what you believe right now, you don’t want to hear it — that’s fine. But I would like to offer you some things to think about,’” she explained.

In 2013, Clemens co-authored an article titled “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces,” which calls for a reframing of the safe space to encourage risk-taking and more genuine dialogue.

“If everybody engages in the conversation as being brave, then you can still say those things that you think or feel might not be popular in the group, but you need to accept that there may be some consequences for that,” she said.

Clemens sees the value of the term “safe space” in underlining the importance of fostering a safe learning environment at Dartmouth.

“I think that students need to feel safe. You can’t be productive if you don’t feel safe,” she said.

There are certainly times when “safe space” can emerge as a fixed framework within which Dartmouth community members work to respect the legal rights of students. For Litwin, this is the case particularly for issues of confidentiality.

“For me, one particular interpretation or definition of [safe space] relates to the fact that as chaplain of the college, I have the opportunity and the responsibility to provide confidential space,” she said.

Definitions of “safe space” are complicated by the fact that the term has been foisted into absolutist frameworks by an increasingly polarized political climate. Who has come to wear the criticism-canceling earmuffs, and how can we collaboratively explore words like “safe space” and its similarly contentious partner “trigger-warning”? Clemens hopes that bolstered dialogue can further collaboration and settle unproductive polemic banter.

“You need to have dialogue in order to continue to grow as a society,” she said. “When you shut down that dialogue, we’re just going to be two different sides screaming at each other.”