The term safe space was originally used in educational institutions to demonstrate that the student body, teachers, or school will not put up with anti-LGBT aggression, hate speech, or harassment – and that the place was, therefore, declared as “safe” for all LGBT students.
The term has since become more comprehensive. Today, the term is used to refer to space (usually in a school campus) marked as autonomous, where people who consider themselves “marginalized” can assemble and express their experiences with or feelings about marginalization without being judged, harassed, or challenged.
The concept of positive spaces or safe spaces has been criticized by proponents of freedom of speech. Critics of the concept assert that safe space deters students from being exposed to and from discussing sensitive material that should be explained and discussed in an instructive environment. The declaration of an increasing number of safe spaces across universities is perceived as a move to suppress free speech and to stifle the expression of differing political views. Advocates of free speech point out that safe space policies ban people from discussing certain topics that are likely to cause offence, and thus, curtail freedom of expression.
The Beginnings of Safe Space
The phrase “safe space” is believed to have been initially used in the 1970s. Safe space referred to a specific place in the school campus designated as posing no disapproval, conflict, or condemnation. It is free from any conversation, idea, or action deemed to be potentially intimidating or aggressive.
These spaces were created in university campuses as “safe” for transgender students, victims of sexual assault, people of color, and other marginalized groups. Individuals belonging to these groups were free to discuss issues and problems in forums without fear of other people condemning or attacking them.
In the United States, the concept of safe space drew inspiration from the women’s movement. It referred not only to physical space but to space fashioned by women coming together in search of community. It referred to space where women were free to express their thoughts and to act freely, gain collective strength, and conceptualize strategies to advance their cause.
Gay groups and consciousness-raising communities were among the first to embrace the concept of safe space. In the late 1900s, GLUE or the Gay & Lesbian Urban Explorers worked out a safe spaces program. They conducted anti-homophobic seminars, diversity training workshops, and other events where they distributed magnets bearing the symbol for universal acceptance – an upturned pink triangle encircled by a green circle. They encouraged people to use the magnets to express their support for gay rights and to declare their work spaces free from antipathy toward homosexuality.
Safe space insulated individuals belonging to marginalized groups from the views, especially hostile ones, of people who were not like them.
Safe Space Today
The concept of safe space remains popular to this day. There are many advocates for positive spaces where individuals can loosen up and be themselves without having to feel afraid, unwelcome, or uncomfortable because of gender identity, sexual orientation, biological sex, cultural background, race or ethnicity, mental or physical ability, or age. It is space where rules protect every individual’s feelings, dignity, and self-respect. Women use kik girls to keep their space safe while chatting on the app. It is space where everyone is encouraged to respect each other despite the differences.
The concept seems to be morphing quickly. There are now advocates who want segregated living quarters for students who belong to marginalized groups. The original concept provided the means for marginalized individuals to discuss issues in a safe and inclusive milieu. Today, the concept seems to border on the urge to isolate oneself and create physical segregation. There are groups that insist that their well-being is hinged on being able to live only with individuals of their own kind.
Violation of the Freedom of Speech
Many people think that safe space activism violates the First Amendment. They think that the concept of safe space is a mechanism employed by individuals to withdraw from other people whose opinions or views contrast with theirs.
The call for segregated safe spaces in school campuses is seen by some people as an explicit rejection of the concept of collaborative engagement. A strong and vibrant educational institution should encourage its students to remain open to the unfamiliar, explore and discuss differences, and express and account for ideas. The concept of safe space seems to restrain this ideal.
Some universities welcome incoming freshmen with unmistakable messages about safe spaces. They reiterate their commitment to intellectual freedom. They do not condone individuals who use the concept to keep away from perspectives and ideas that do not align with their own.
Positive and Negative Undertones
Safe space can provide emotional refuge. It provides people a sense of community, as well as the chance to feel secure, particularly in times of dysfunction and pain.
These spaces are important on campus. They promote the converging of like-minded individuals who agree to keep from criticizing, ridiculing, or acting aggressively. They represent discretion, respect, and comfort in certain pockets in the university.
On the other hand, the concept of safe spaces is perceived as a threat to freedom of speech. It restricts education. It inhibits open dialogue, intellectual debate, and rational arguments. It censors provocative speech.
If you want to have a constructive discussion about the pros and cons of safe spaces, you should be open to the diverse meanings the term has for different people. It is difficult, almost impossible, to have a productive conversation about the concept when people refer to different models when using the term safe space.