Editorial: Safe spaces are vital, and so is thoughtful rhetoric

The debate about safe spaces, microaggressions and so-called campus oversensitivity has been near constant over the past year.

This month, it returned to our backyard. First, there was the University of Chicago’s inflammatory “welcome” letter to its class of 2020, in which dean of students John Ellison warned that UChicago does not “support so-called ‘trigger warnings’… (or) condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.’”

Then there was University President Morton Schapiro’s commendable, if intemperate, defense of safe spaces in his convocation speech to Northwestern’s incoming students.

The Daily Northwestern Editorial Board agrees with the crux of Shapiro’s argument: safe spaces are important, and microaggressions are real. The UChicago letter perpetuated the fallacy that freedom of speech and student comfort are discordant, competing forces.

However, we would also like to critique Schapiro’s presentation, if not his message, and clarify terminology. The debate around “coddled” college students and freedom of speech is one in which words matter. Their use, definitions and connotations should be clarified, or else opposing viewpoints will remain irreconcilable.

Schapiro’s use of words such as “lunatics” and “idiots” to describe those who criticize the use of trigger warnings or deny the existence of microaggressions was ill-considered. The uninhibited delivery might score him points as cool president Morty, but the word choice is unlikely to move the conversation forward or to make believers out of doubters. Furthermore, the irony of using ableist language to combat insensitivity often directed at those with mental illness is hard to square.

Still, it seems as though Schapiro has a good handle on what terms like safe spaces and microaggressions mean to college students. Plenty of others do not.

Safe spaces are not places where students are unable to speak their minds. Nor are they places where students are shouted down by their peers for expressing differing opinions. Safe spaces are places where students are free to be themselves without the fear of being judged or forced to conform to the status quo. They are spaces like Hillel or Sheil, where students can expect no one will tell them their beliefs are not valid. They are spaces where students of color do not have to act as representatives of their entire race. They facilitate hard conversations because open debates and maximum learning do not happen when students have to worry peers will attack their identity.

Trigger warnings do not grant students the right to refuse to engage with challenging content. They do not allow students to exist in an academic bubble where nothing graphic or upsetting can touch them. They do not shut down conversations before they can happen. Trigger warnings merely, but importantly, give students the ability to prepare for potentially disturbing material.

Microaggressions are not tools wielded by students to end any debate they do not like, and they are not a new age liberal theory constructed by millennials. When students critique commonplace stereotypes they encounter regularly, it is an effort to live their lives with dignity and to forge a campus where they feel just as comfortable as their peers.

Media outlets on both the left and right have made a business out of presenting college students as thin-skinned free-speech haters. But, for the most part, college students don’t match that depiction.

Students care about freedom of speech. And most who perceive college students as overly sensitive care about people’s feelings too. These two groups are not as far off as the vitriolic rhetoric sometimes suggests. A separate set of definitions, and the media’s tendency to highlight the most extreme examples of student delicacy, have combined to stoke the fire.

Safe spaces and microaggressions are not fundamentally academic or intellectual issues, and they play out everywhere on college campuses — not just classrooms.

We urge our readers to challenge the conflation and misrepresentation of issues surrounding this contentious debate. And we applaud Schapiro’s strong support of mechanisms that make colleges more inclusive spaces, if not his indelicate language.

This piece represents the majority opinion of the Editorial Board of The Daily Northwestern. The Editorial Board has an “Editorial Corps” responsible for selecting and producing editorials with feedback from the rest of the board. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members or Editorial Board members of The Daily Northwestern.