Safe Spaces Can’t Be Diverse

Kevin Currie-Knight

I’m a fan of the LGBT center on the campus where I teach. It offers a space where gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students can be among students, faculty, and staff without fear of harassment, bullying, or negative judgment. There, they do not have to worry about passing (pretending to be straight) or covering (having to signal to others that they are still “normal” despite who they are).

But do you know what spaces like this are not? Diverse.

Or rather, they are not diverse in the types of attitudes permitted to exist there. One cannot, say, believe that homosexuality is a sin and feel welcome at an LGBT center. One cannot believe that transgender people are mentally ill and find LGBT centers to be congenial.

This lack of diversity is not wrong; it is by design and has a good purpose. A safe space is one where people with certain identities that don’t fit in elsewhere can find safety through homogeneity and solidarity.

We don’t need to dismiss either ideal to recognize that a space’s safety and its diversity will be inversely related. The more you have of one, the less you must have of the other.

But you can have spaces and contexts that allow for either ideal, or varying degrees of compromise between them — unless activists succeed in their current quest to convert entire universities into safe spaces.

The Yale case is well known by now. Erika Christakis, a lecturer in early child development, voiced concern in an email to Yale students and residence-life folks urging them to rethink the university’s heavy-handed approach to advising students on which Halloween costumes to avoid. Her note ignited controversy and protest on campus — with some even calling for Christakis’s resignation — because the possibility of students wearing offensive Halloween costumes makes the campus a potentially unsafe space.

In another recent example, the University of Missouri has been experiencing protests regarding alleged racist speech and treatment of minority students. During one of these protests, a journalist trying to cover the event was evidently shouted down and intimidated because his (journalistic) presence at the protest allegedly threatened the protesters’ safe space. (Think about how odd it is to describe the site of a vigorous protest as a safe space).

One journalist described a video of the events as follows:

In the video of Tim Tai trying to carry out his ESPN assignment, I see the most vivid example yet of activists twisting the concept of “safe space” in a most confounding way. They have one lone student surrounded. They’re forcibly preventing him from exercising a civil right. At various points, they intimidate him. Ultimately, they physically push him. But all the while, they are operating on the premise, or carrying on the pretense, that he is making them unsafe.

If people who regularly find their campuses (or other places) to be inhospitable, it may do them good to have social spaces where they are assured some level of relief, probably with people they are comfortable with. But think about what that means for diversity.

Increasing diversity is another aspiration at universities and other organizations, but safe spaces demand that the people in the space have a certain degree of homogeneity. For Yale to be a safe space, the university must disallow a diversity of Halloween costumes.

Why did the Missouri protesters suggest that Tai’s presence threatened to turn their protest into an unsafe space? Because there was a possibility that the narrative this journalist would construct might be one the homogeneous protesters would approve of. Tai threatened the homogeneity and solidarity of the protest.

Let’s go back to the example of LGBT centers. That these students have somewhere they can go where they do not feel pressures to hide or “tone down” their identities is important, and any society that promotes freedom of association will have many such centers, whether official or not. But the only way for an entire university to become a safe space for LGBT students is to sacrifice diversity by, for example, demanding that religious students not believe (at least openly) that homosexuality is sinful. The converse is also true: LGBT centers could no longer function as safe spaces for LGBT students if they became sites of more diversity, where those religious students could regularly voice their beliefs.

Diversity cannot thrive in a world that is one big safe space.

Why? Because diversity means difference. Difference means that people will invariably see things in different ways, and we will sometimes anger each other. It’s not a bug, but a feature. To eliminate the possibility that some of us could deeply offend others of us would be to require everyone to live only in ways acceptable to all.

Diversity means a world where black-power advocates can live openly and in ways that anger white people — and where white-power advocates can live openly and thus anger black people. A world of diversity is one where people with different tastes, comfort levels, and senses of humor can wear Halloween costumes that may offend others.

The best resolution is to allow people on college campuses and elsewhere to create safe spaces. If we believe others’ Halloween costumes may deeply offend us, or that people may say derogatory and racist things to us, we can go to one of those spaces. But leave the university as a diverse space — don’t force it to become a safe space.

Diversity and emotional safety are values at odds with each other. They can coexist in tension, but the expansion of one can only come at the expense of the other.

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