The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Discourse Endangered by Campus “Safe Spaces”

May 21, 2015 by Christine Ravold

In the event a speaker is visiting campus and her speech will make you feel unsafe, Brown University students might suggest soft music, blankets, videos of puppies and some Play-Doh. That was how they stocked their safe space when columnist and feminist author Jessica Valenti and individualist feminist Wendy McElroy came to have a debate about campus sexual assault.

Similarly, students from Oberlin College widely protested the arrival of equity feminist Christina Hoff Sommers on their campus. Some students wanted her to be uninvited and, when they were unsuccessful, wrote “A Love Letter” to themselves. They prefaced Sommers’ talk with a trigger warning and announced an alternative ‘safe space’ event, which would be staffed with gatekeepers who would presumably keep out opposing viewpoints.

Sommers argues that although rape is a problem, statistics about sexual assault on college campuses are exaggerated and damaging to women. She also challenges the gender wage gap. Sommers’ critics on campus say these positions make them feel “unsafe.” Ironically, some students, who felt Sommers’ presence on campus would silence their experiences, attended the event after voluntarily duct-tapping their mouths shut. Something is wrong with discourse on campuses.

Recently, conservative intellectual Robert P. George and leftist intellectual Cornel West both publicly agreed that universities should not be intellectually “safe spaces.” “The Cost of Freedom: How Disagreement Makes Us Civil,” (co-hosted by Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute and the Biola University Center for Christian Thought) was a dialogue that argued that civic discourse furthers the quest for truth. They agreed that the discussions they share increase their openness to opposing ideas and have even softened their views on certain issues. They encouraged productive disagreements, which are to the benefit of society.

Sommers reported after her talk that she and some attendees went out for late-night drinks, and had intense—but civil—discussions. Those who disagreed to the point of silencing themselves, or going to a “safer” location, deprived themselves of an academically enriching opportunity.

Oberlin’s students stood to gain a lot from attending Sommers’ lecture. Change doesn’t happen in safe places. If they can’t listen to someone in the safety of their own school, then where will they be safe? When these students graduate they will be challenged with opposing viewpoints; their unwillingness to hear divergent ideas screams as a vote of no confidence in themselves.

Rather than indulging students with a safe space, colleges should encourage students who may disagree with a speaker to attend an “uncomfortable” event. Students will be shocked to find that there are areas of convergence that could be the start of meaningful cooperation and change. 


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