The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Intern Blog: Do Safe Spaces Impede Civic Discourse?

August 16, 2017

One of the oldest and most sacrosanct ideas in academia is that the clash and interaction of ideas leads to a better and more complete understanding of the truth. Historically, American higher education prided itself as the vanguard of free expression and the free exchange of ideas. Nonetheless, the concept of safe spaces originated fairly recently as places for people to express themselves without judgment and share their struggles that may not have been accepted or understood by the rest of the world. However, somewhere along the line this seemingly innocuous idea has begun to undermine open discourse and even threaten First Amendment rights. The demand for physical areas that do not allow opposing ideas to be expressed has substantially increased. A sharp departure from the original concept, students today are creating safe spaces to insulate themselves from opposing viewpoints and potential criticism. Students demand that the entire campus become a place where words don’t offend or even challenge their ideas and beliefs. But during college, students should be exposed to ideas that they disagree with and learn how to respond to them in constructive ways.

Unsurprisingly, individuals on both sides of the political spectrum have a tendency to create echo chambers within their social spheres. In the era of social media, many adults create their own safe spaces via online platforms. For example, a Pew Research Center study found that 47% of consistently conservative citizens say that posts on their Facebook are likely to line up with their beliefs. The same study found that on the other side of the spectrum, 44% of consistent liberals have blocked or unfriended someone because they expressed contrasting beliefs. For both political parties, listening to opposing beliefs appears to be challenging.

In his book Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, Cass Sunstein found that a lack of exposure to diverse views tends to move people to extremes. Extremism prevents compromise. Echo chambers and safe spaces can significantly impede the flourishing of a liberal democracy. Grappling with opinions that contradict our own personal beliefs generates the crucial toleration that makes democracy work and gives the opposition a chance to raise questions that would otherwise go unasked.

Tired of the echo chambers and yearning to hear others’ perspectives, Corey Cargill, a rising junior, created “Cube,” a project that I participated in at the University of Akron designed to bring students, professors, and members of the community together to talk about controversial topics. To explain, imagine a cube, with a different color on each side. Each color represents someone’s view of the world. Alone, we can only see our side of the cube. However, if we put all of these views together, we can see the “whole,” or the cube.

Since its founding, Cube has facilitated discussion of topics such as feminism, abortion, immigration, gun control, and the 2016 presidential election. The goal isn’t to convince the attendees to adhere to a certain viewpoint, but instead, to understand why they think and feel the way they do. Focusing on conversation rather than debate has more importance than most realize. In a culture where political debates are entertaining, arguing over controversial issues can sometimes feel like a sport.

Cube also transcribes these exchanges so that others can view the results. A week before the 2016 presidential election, a Cube discussion was held about what students thought the future would look like depending on the winner. Views varied, but the conversation concluded that no matter what the results were, change was coming. With tensions running high on campus in the week leading up to the election, we decided to extend our conversation to the rest of the campus. Attendees teamed together that weekend and created a mural that posed this question: “As citizens, what can we do to change our country, our community, and ourselves?” The day of the election, we stood outside the library with a handful of pens and sticky notes and asked students to answer the question and stick it on the mural. The answers crossed the political spectrum. Our community didn’t reply as a monolithic Trump or Clinton supporter, but as thoughtful citizens, reflecting each participant’s experiences and background. Like we hoped, participants engaged in conversation with others’ responses after writing their own.

Our project made an even larger impact on our campus following the election. Where some universities across the nation held vigils or canceled class, life went on at the University of Akron. Our project allowed those who were celebrating and those who were disappointed to continue engaging in conversation, even with those who cast a vote for the other side. Cube provides an example of a constructive way to approach controversial issues that colleges should follow. Colleges should teach students how to embrace diverse ideas rather than hide from them. While it may not always be comfortable, it will always be rewarding. 

Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns conduct research for the What Will They Learn?™ project. This is the seventh in a series of guest blogs written by our interns, who chose topics relevant to higher education. Marissa is a rising senior at the University of Akron where is she is a double major in political science and economics.


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