​Demystifying safe spaces

This month, a letter written by the University of Chicago’s dean of students to its incoming class reenergized the stream of think pieces online about safe spaces. The debate is often complicated by the tendency of participants to dig into their positions at the very mention of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” We believe however, that the ferocity and political nature of the debate has obscured the simple values behind safe spaces. We challenge students to think with clear minds on these issues and reflect on their role in creating a cooperative and productive university community for themselves and their peers.

Safe spaces already exist on campus in formal and informal ways, established by intangible norms. For some, safe spaces are specific places of sanctuary like the Women’s Center where understanding and resources can be found; notably, the norms, not the physical features of places like this, are the reason for the safeness of the spaces. For others, safe spaces are communities of friends and allies who are supportive of difficult experiences or sensitive to marginalized identities. The raison d’être of all of these spaces is found neither in a thirst for censorship of opposing viewpoints nor in some ulterior motive to assail academic freedoms. Instead, these spaces are born of a norm at our university and society generally to maintain civility and mutual respect for others.

All students unconditionally accept this burden when they agree to uphold the second tenet of the Duke Community Standard, which requires them to conduct themselves honorably in all endeavors. To act honorably is to conduct oneself in a way that brings esteem and, by extension, to treat others with that same respect. The Community Standard’s prescription is matured by an understanding that “others” are more than members of some prototypical human being class—there is no such thing—and that we are surrounded by individuals carrying collections of experiences that are unambiguously unique.

It is in this understanding that we find an appropriate definition of safe spaces: places demarcated by shared expectations where students can be free from or forewarned of traumatic materials and brusque or deleterious insensitivities. For example, in a class, nobody ought to be able to demand a student publicly engage with a topic that will—not might, but will—cause them undue psychological distress. Teaching and testing the material in a way that enables learning in light of student experiences should never be too tall an order for a professor or willing peers who share in the burden of creating a healthy academic community.

With these motivations in mind, if it is chilling to you that you must be respectful to others in a classroom or audience, you ought to reevaluate your approach to class discussions and how you interact with everybody from your peers up to your professors.

Safe spaces are not about censoring discussions or allowing students to skip classes at will. They are about how students at universities—places of learning, scholarship and community—ought to approach their fellows on campus, what group ground rules we can reasonably expect of one another in pursuit of those aspirations and lastly of how no single person can understand the experiences of everybody around them. They come from senses of sympathy and charity that any professor will tell you are the most basic foundation for their work and collaborations.


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