As the semester began at the University of Chicago, incoming students received a letter from Dean of Students John “Jay” Elison stating the administration’s staunch opposition to safe spaces and trigger warnings. The letter, and its ensuing criticism, is another example of the polarizing debate surrounding these terms. As the new semester commences at McGill, members of the McGill community must revisit the primary motivations behind anti-oppression tenants: Empathy and respect.
Despite the designation of several physical spaces on university campuses, including McGill’s, as safe or safer spaces, these are much more than physical entities. Regardless of whether the terms exist, safe spaces are ultimately a mindset compatible with and crucial to a free, academic institution such as McGill.
In light of the University of Chicago letter, it is important to seek greater clarity with regards to safe spaces and trigger warnings at McGill. When academic institutions recoil from these terms, the concepts’ purposes become removed from the fundamental values that they are supposed to protect. Placing blanket bans on safe spaces and trigger warnings, as the University of Chicago did, demonstrates that critics have failed to engage with these concepts in a productive way.
A paradox behind the debate regarding safe spaces and freedom of expression is that safe spaces were originally introduced to allow people—regardless of genders, sexualities, classes, religions, races, and ethnicities—to express themselves freely. Extending this mindset into a university classroom should not prohibit free, intellectual discussion. Whether new to campus or returning, members of the McGill community must remind themselves that the purpose of safe spaces should not be to censor, but to promote respect and diversity—two values essential to education at a university.
Academic discussion at universities can be uncomfortable; however, too frequently, safety is wrongly equated with comfort. Safer spaces, as they are termed at McGill, are commonly seen as places in which everyone should feel free to be themselves without fear of oppression or discrimination; they do not exist to shield students from uncomfortable ideas or topics.
Because academic discussions often broach difficult topics, content or trigger warnings are understandable. A university cannot force its students to make one choice over the other, nor can it dictate what its members react to emotionally; however, it can help them to engage in difficult conversations by encouraging its faculty and administration conduct these as safely as possible. Ultimately, it is each student’s decision whether or not he or she wants to engage with sensitive material. It is necessary to discuss and analyze indigenous issues, sexual violence, racism, and genocide—to name some examples of potentially disturbing topics—in order to learn about and from society’s mistakes.
Those in positions of authority, including professors and student leaders, must be responsible for fostering these conversations in as safe and inclusive a way as possible.
In order to keep the uncomfortable from veering into the unsafe, all members of the McGill community have a responsibility in the balancing act between freedom of expression and the maintenance of safe spaces. The inherent power dynamics between figures of authority and students, particularly those who identify with minority groups, must be taken into account. Discussions must remain a dialogue rather than an attempted imposition of an individual’s political views. It is imperative that these conversations are not limited to specific perspectives, but strive to include a variety of experiences and viewpoints.
Accepting the diversity of people and opinions in an institution such as McGill can only help to further academic discussions about injustices—both past and present. Empathy and respect remain fundamental human values whether or not physical safe spaces exist. Such spaces exist because we need to be reminded of their importance—not only in our individual interactions, but in academia as well. When there is proper regard for what these spaces do or do not stand for, safe spaces and free, intellectual debate are not mutually exclusive.