Times op-ed misunderstands safe spaces

Over spring break, Judith Shulevitz published an op-ed in the New York Times about the rise of and demand for safe spaces on college campuses. In the article, she claims that the demands of students across college campuses are to “self-infantilize” themselves. She goes as far as to write, “Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals—mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like,” and insinuating that this generation of students is not full of “hardier souls” such as during the 1960s and 1970s. Ultimately, her argument is this: Students’ refusal to accommodate anything that brings them “discomfort” impedes on their ability to dialogue critically all throughout college campuses. (“In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas”, 3.21.15)

When we talk about safe spaces, we usually mean a space for people to express how they feel and who they are without fear. Often the people in need of those spaces are marginalized groups. Shulevitz’s assumption that “once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe” is, for the most part, correct. Shulevitz’s remark is right because there are spaces that are unsafe for marginalized groups—for people of color, for LGBTQ folk, for rape survivors, etc. Academia may very well be the first place people have heard of “safe spaces.” That was the case for me.

Shulevitz’ article leaves me feeling conflicted. On one hand, I do believe that spaces that prioritize the safety of marginalized groups are necessary. On the other hand, her argument that safe spaces and trigger warnings in academia impede critical thinking skills takes us away from the purpose of safe spaces to what they have now become. While it is easy to analyze academic and social spaces as two distinct concepts, for many students that cannot be the case and draws simple labels over more complicated life experiences.

In the last few years, safe spaces have flourished at Vassar. The terminology has been found in and out of classroom settings and has been interwoven in our communal interactions. We don’t start a dialogue, or any conversation for that matter, without setting ground agreements on how the space will or will not be safe. Often, these dialogue spaces bring up topics such as race, gender and sexuality as a form to foster further growth within our Vassar community, with the assumption that not everyone is at the same level of thinking about social consciousness. However, the term “safe space” then becomes co-opted and used instead to accommodate someone’s discomfort and unwillingness to engage with the issues at hand.

Feeling uncomfortable is not the same as feeling unsafe. Although it is this distinction that Shulevitz tries to highlight in her case against safe spaces, what this does is diminish the traumatic experiences students feel within academia. To take it a step further–although students can carry their trauma into spaces of higher education, does that then mean that students cannot experience trauma within those same spaces?

Opponents of safe spaces argue that safe spaces and trigger warnings do not exist in “real life”. Shulevitz essentially does the same by commenting that students’ “trauma” is “quasi-medicalized.” What we don’t talk about is how these relatively small spaces replicate the same dynamics of oppression felt outside. Only recently have we begun talking about cases of racism and sexual assault in higher education. The media portrays many of these cases as isolated incidents and as not having occurred before. Is it really surprising that students can be traumatized at school? Or that some of our students may not have had a childhood sheltered from different varieties of violence?

When someone is triggered, this usually means that something in their environment is provoking a strong emotional response such as flashbacks or dissociation, to name a few. When someone is triggered, they are probably not feeling safe at the moment. Feeling uncomfortable is not the same as feeling unsafe. I do not believe that people who call for safe spaces are trying to disengage with “scary ideas.” It is dangerous for anyone to call for a safe space or to state that they are being triggered when they are merely feeling uncomfortable with an opposing idea.

At the same time, do we then continue to police people’s emotions and what their emotional turmoil looks like? Trauma does not look the same for everyone. Likewise, the ways in which people experience triggers differ. What affects one person may not necessarily affect another. However, people’s emotional responses should not be invalidated. Shulevitz quotes Mari J. Matsuda, who writes that because many students “are away from home for the first time and at a vulnerable stage of psychological development,” they would be “left to their own resources in coping with the damage wrought.” But what do we do when there are not enough resources that are accessible for students? For example, one of the reasons Metcalf, Vassar’s counseling center, is utilized is because counseling is offered at no cost and does not include the logistics or insurance issues common with off-campus counseling. This comes as a relief for students who can’t afford off-campus counseling or arrange the transportation needed to get there.

Shulevitz’s article raises many questions about the ways that we currently talk about safe spaces. However, we should consider the following: safe spaces are student-initiated and in part to address the ways in which resources on campus have expended all of their power to support students in various ways. In addition, we need to consider the various ways in which students of various backgrounds experience our college campuses, and that includes talking about identity.


—Susie Maritnez ’15 is an urban studies major.

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