I’m tempted to pick apart the “safe space” flier by Columbia University College Republicans. A few anecdotes will swiftly dismantle its blanket statements, such as ones that say minorities should not “have genuine fears when on campus,” a fear that demonstrates the need for safe spaces. But statements like those are also the flier’s weak points. The strong points—those that ask larger questions of the type of community we want at Columbia—can’t be so easily dismissed.
We are balancing on a social seesaw. On one end is diversity and multiculturalism; on the other is community and harmony. How do we strike the right balance? Can we have a community without a compromise of identity? This is the question at stake in any type of heterogeneous community. The CUCR flier states that “an inclusive society cannot be created by constantly emphasizing difference,” coming down on the harmonious community end of the seesaw. The University, on the contrary, seems to be, at least ostensibly, tilting toward the diversity end.
The problem, the flier seems to say, is that our community no longer rests on the diversity of individuals but rather on that of factions. Instead of one community where all its members explore their identities, we have several communities or safe spaces within which we feel free. Our University, the argument goes, encourages diversity by ironically homogenizing groups of students, drawing circles around them and assigning a group label.
Even if safe spaces are necessary due to existing biases on campus, CUCR rightly points out that pockets of safe spaces that bestride but never touch each other ought not to be the end goal of our community. The task of cultivating the ability to have difficult dialogue with the Other outside of safe spaces ought to be the next critical step if we are truly committed to building a safe community for all of Columbia.
I’ve summed up and expanded the strongest and most compelling claim of the flier. But while conceptually appealing, it’s empirically unsubstantiated in respect to safe space discussions. Sure, there are a few cases of “safe space” discussions that do not move beyond a solidarity that simultaneously mocks and fears the Outsider and that promote a type of groupthink. Safe spaces aren’t perfect spaces, and the best way to change that is probably to increase the represented diversity (read: more straight, white males) in these discussions.
But positive spaces are those that deepen understanding of the social formations of individual identity while allowing room for a more distanced, complicated relationship with the categories of race, class, gender, etc. They hold the door open for people of all beliefs and identities but ask that you leave generalizations and disrespect at the threshold. There is a surprising amount of diversity within these safe spaces, but more critically, it is a diversity that is engaged and celebrated, demonstrating that there can be a community with differences.
The key to a wider community is to enlarge these safe spaces rather than eliminate them. If you have a problem with the type of dialogue that goes on in safe spaces, then shouldn’t you attend one and change it from within? I could give a few examples of honest and self-critical dialogue that I’ve experienced in ROOTed discussions; it’s not all just rage-against-the-straight-white-man. I could talk about how the most persuasive criticisms of diversity initiatives by the University are held by those who are, for lack of a better outlet, involved in them. But it’s probably better if you go and attend one.
The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science. She is president of the Veritas Forum.