Distinguishing Between Safe and Academic Spaces

Amherst Uprising brought the school community to a tremendous cathartic release. Students called for accountability from their administration, support from their faculty and understanding from their peers. While the movement may not capture our attention now as intensely as it did in November, it still prompts us to revisit our notions of safe spaces. Some believe that safe spaces only serve as intellectual hiding holes devoid of critical engagement, while others see safe spaces as valuable and necessary additions to the Amherst College community. I reject the former notion and accept the latter. However, I am weary of calls in favor of a “zero-tolerance policy for hate speech,” which can be found under the Academic Policy portion of the Amherst Uprising goals. This request, and those similar, are rightfully made but lead to unintended consequences if not carefully implemented. Amherst Uprising tasked the school community with negotiating between safe and academic spaces. While Amherst College should establish and maintain safe spaces, it should never wholly become one.

My understanding of the interplay between safe and academic spaces is best illustrated by a boxing analogy. In the ring, fighters spend time in two spaces, their individual corners of the ring and the shared fighting space. I see the center of the ring as being analogous to the academic space. While I am not suggesting that Amherst students leave academic spaces bloodied, the parallel only serves to underscore the possibility of excruciating dissent in academic spaces. In practice, the academic space may be a class discussion on racism, sexism or any “ism” of your choosing, where one shares controversial and sometimes upsetting viewpoints. The academic space may even take the form of a polemic book attacking the merits of feminist or LGBTQ demands for equality. In any case, whatever form the academic space takes, it does not guarantee safety.

The corner of the ring, similar to safe spaces, ensures security. At the end of each round our hypothetical boxer goes to her corner, with her coach, for her wellbeing. Her coach may challenge her, her coach may even tell her she’s not thinking clearly, but her coach will never redress her with the intent to defeat her. The corner is a place of solace, free from the attacks of her foe. In the safe space, marginalized groups can engage in open discourse without the fear of mainstream marginalization. One of my residents put it best when she said that a safe space allows for emotional vulnerability. In a safe space, one does not have to fear judgment. One can reveal oneself in ways that one may have feared to do so in an academic space.

Subsequently, in order for any space to be considered “safe,” all participants in that space must universally concede certain propositions. In other words, initial consensus of one or more ideas creates a safe space. Before I continue, I must say that I do not believe that people in safe spaces hold uniform beliefs. Individuals frequently challenge each other within the space. However, they do all begin discourse from more or less the same place. Imagine the absurdity of hearing homophobic rhetoric in a LGBTQ safe space. If this occurred, we would see it as an encroachment on the safe space and a betrayal of the space’s intended purpose. We may even conclude that the space is no longer safe.

The requirement of initial consensus dramatically differentiates a safe space from an academic space. Consensus of ideas may exist in academic spaces, but no one requires this consensus. For instance, academics typically reject racism and the bad it represents, but the academic space does not forbid racism. In an academic space, one can make racist assertions, but their argument will likely fall on deaf ears. Unlike safe spaces, this rejection of racist claims results not from a requirement of rejection, but from evidence concluding otherwise. Consequently, people can air their prejudiced beliefs in academic spaces but not in safe spaces.

The possible existence of prejudiced beliefs on the Amherst College campus motivates students to take an absolute stance against hateful rhetoric. But one errs by conflating the action of restricting detestable ad hominem with that of creating a universal safe space. Amherst should never wholly become a safe space because it should never require initial consensus from its students. Any institution focused on providing the best education possible can never compel its students to accede to a universal starting place for academic inquiry. Imagine an institution that obligates its students to start their engagement with the Palestine/Israel debate with the presupposition that one party acts correctly while the other does so wrongly. Alternatively, suppose that Amherst requires students to commit to conservative or liberal ideals to establish a safe space for either political doctrine. Both considerations displease and maybe even appall us.

Our school draws on many different kinds of diversity to enhance and add precious import to the Amherst experience. Aside from the skin deep diversity quickly seen, we find more subtle forms of diversity in lived experiences. Different viewpoints, opinions and beliefs result from this subtle diversity. Without the sometimes symphonious, and other times cacophonous fundamental differences in student views, Amherst would be insipid. If we push Amherst to become a universal safe space, we may rob ourselves of the nuanced diversity that makes our school beautiful.