Khanna: Safe Spaces

The spaces where we thrive are necessary for free speech.

by Maya Khanna | 4/25/19 2:10am

To most people walking through Robinson Hall on any given day, Room 110 wouldn’t seem to be anything but ordinary. If anyone did stop by, they might notice that the small, rectangular chamber has a few lopsided old couches and a rickety wooden table accompanied by four creaking chairs and a layer of dust. 

Despite its slightly grimy, cramped appearance, Room 110 has become my safe space at Dartmouth; ground zero for the rest of my life here at the Big Green. Though it might not seem special to a bystander, for me the room will always be a source of laughter that makes my sides ache. The soft chords of guitar music that often echo softly off its walls harmonize to the quiet scratching of my pencil on paper, the notes carrying me through problem sets and midterm exams. Most of all, the individuals who frequent 110 have a way of making me feel both protected and strong enough to take on any challenge. They are my friends but have also served as my confidants, cheerleaders, sounding boards and sources of tough truths as the day requires. Room 110 and its inhabitants have created a space in which I feel comfortable expressing my thoughts and feelings without fear that my words, experiences or identity will ever be used against me — a safe space, in the truest sense of the word. 

The term “safe space” has been used in popular discourse to refer to areas within an institution intended to benefit marginalized students. Though some safe spaces are specifically constructed for this purpose, others emerge organically in response to the wide range of student experiences and needs in a diverse environment like Dartmouth. Still, safe spaces hold the same underlying objective: to provide students with a community and a place where they feel comfortable talking about their experiences. 

In recent years, safe spaces have come under fire as a part of a national reckoning about the role of free speech on college campuses. Many argue that safe spaces shield students from having to confront ideas and practices different from their own. In creating safe spaces, the theory goes, colleges are justifying censorship and fail to provide students with an education that challenges their preconceived notions. Others may claim that safe spaces enable students to hide away from the negative realities that often incite movements for social change. 

Detractors of safe spaces often reference an absolutist tradeoff between free speech and the emotional security of students. Yet this conviction fails to recognize the interplay between the two objectives. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs claims that an individual’s self-esteem and self-actualization are necessarily dependent upon their ability to first fulfill their needs of love and belonging. Though it is worth noting that psychological inclination is not binding in all cases, many students have difficulty attaining self-actualization amidst a life with many competing demands. As such, many students must have access to an environment that allows them to gain friendship, intimacy, acceptance and community before they have a good shot at fulfilling their personal and academic potential. In order for students to effectively engage in meaningful discourse, many will first need access to an environment where they can collect their thoughts, emotions and reflections with people they trust. Safe spaces provide this forum for many students and are thus a critical component of creating intellectual discourse.  

Dartmouth’s students have diverse identities. Though one of the College’s strengths is the ability of its diverse study body to create an intellectually stimulating environment, students must have a comfortable and secure place within which to critically reflect upon their pre-existing assumptions. A balance of emotional comfort and non-judgment enables students to express thoughts that are “in the works” to people whom they trust. 

It is important to ensure that safe spaces are sustained in conjunction with concerted spaces for open debate such as the press and community events, creating a balance of security and enlightenment. Safe spaces should be held accountable for the responsibility of upholding both tenets of the student experience by providing opportunities for members to participate in campus discourse. Participating in cross-campus discourse backed by the safe spaces they participate in will enable students to express their perspectives more articulately and thoughtfully. Safe spaces, therefore, are not a restriction on free speech but its very foundation.