Higher Education's 'Safe Space' is Now a Ridiculous 'Brave Space'

Higher Education's 'Safe Space' is Now a Ridiculous 'Brave Space'
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In this March 15, 2014 file photo, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks at the California Republican Party 2014 Spring Convention in Burlingame, Calif. From Rice to the head of the International Monetary Fund and the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, the list of 2014 commencement speakers backing out following student and faculty protests grew throughout the season.

RCE Commentary

The American university is increasingly an isolated place for isolated minds. Speech is too often restricted to free speech zones, guest speakers are disinvited at alarming rates. And as we enter commencement season, it’s important for us to look critically at how we truly approach challenging views in an intellectual space.

The traditional higher education “safe space” promises an area where difficult topics can be discussed without fear of being ostracized. But the academic left is starting to walk back its commitment to safe spaces for a new concern that people may not be kind, or one’s sensibilities may be offended, even when a space is designated as “safe.” Safe spaces’ replacement, the newly minted “brave space,” is a ridiculous addition to hypersensitive campuses with a questionable commitment to free speech.

Unfortunately, universities today are extremely hostile to not just offensive opinions, but disagreeable ones, too. Numerous commencement speakers last year withdrew from their commitments as a result of campus outcry, to the extent that universities are playing it really safe this year.

Safe spaces spawned out of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and the watershed Stonewall riots for the gay movement. Safe spaces were meant to serve as “a momentary respite from oppression,” an area where women or gays could gather and speak their mind about the issues of the day, be in solidarity with each other, and “generate strategies for resistance.”

Nowadays safe spaces are used by universities for a number of reasons. There are LGBTQ safe spaces, “undocumented student” safe spaces, and safe spaces for almost any cause in general. Safe spaces can be a physical space, such as an office, or a community of members who adhere to the safe space ideology regardless of a designated zone that goes with it. Unfortunately, instead of seeking refuge, college students are taking advantage of the comfort afforded to them by their universities.

In one of the few reports written about the migration away from safe spaces toward brave spaces, Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens, formerly of New York University where they worked in the Department of Residential Education, write that safe spaces began to be questioned because of the guarantees they made to people who trusted the system.

On paper, safe spaces sound like a great idea. Why not create an area devoid of preconceptions where people are encouraged to speak their mind? The airing of opinions, especially controversial ones, is a great intellectual exercise for everyone involved. But when students actually took offense (gasp!) to some of the things said in safe spaces, a new entity had to be created. Safe spaces, it seems, have served their purpose a little too well, and the people participating in them have begun to feel that a safe space owes them comfort as well as a guarantee against ostracization for speaking their mind. Now academia is slowly backtracking on safe spaces. Enter: the brave space.

“We question,” Arao and Clemens write, “the degree to which safety is an appropriate or reasonable expectation for any honest dialogue about social justice.... We argue that authentic learning about social justice often requires the very qualities of risk, difficulty, and controversy that are defined as incompatible with safety.”

Indeed, safe spaces have not and will not truly disappear. They are merely in the process of morphing into the closely related brave space. All brave spaces are safe spaces, but not all safe spaces are brave spaces. In academia, that distinction is necessary.

What is a brave space, exactly? Arao and Clemens don’t actually define braves spaces, instead suggesting a few ground rules to base brave spaces on:  “‘agree to disagree,’ ‘don’t take things personally,’ challenge by choice,’ ‘respect’, and ‘no attacks.’”

The Gender Equity Center at the University of California-Berkeley published some guidelines for the new brave space on Berkeley's campus: “While all are expected to make their best effort to be respectful, there is an understanding that someone may say something that result[s] in unintentional offense and hurt feelings for those around.”

In practice, brave spaces are really just spaces. Being “respectful,” asking for clarification if it is needed, and “striving to learn about experiences other than your own” are stressed in brave spaces. Brave spaces merely suggest manners when manners should be used by default.

Ultimately, this is what makes brave spaces a ludicrous concept to the point of absurdity. Students should expect manners from the start and creating zones to reinstate and reinforce them is a disappointing concession in a progressively sterile intellectual environment. One would be forgiven for thinking that America's most elite and rigorous universities would be hotbeds for healthy debate and disagreement.

Despite the fact that brave spaces are merely conversations with manners, academia seems intent on incorporating them as a “brave” alternative to safe spaces, which, after all, could never have been as safe as their creators intended. Brave spaces don't show much promise in changing the system, except to serve as a reminder that conversations might not always go smoothly.

The brave space should be stopped before it begins to become widespread. If my assumptions are correct, brave spaces will ultimately introduce a set of forced (and fake) manners that fall within the 'ground rules' laid out by a facilitator. If my assumptions are wrong, brave spaces will be nothing more than safe spaces by another name. In either case, it would be better to stop the shift before it starts and avoid these outcomes all together. Are we brave enough to do that?

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