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The Misnomer of “Safe”: Forging Thoughtful Spaces


The author of provocative New York Times opinion article “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas” talked about two kinds of (literal and metaphorical) spaces for campus conversation that she saw as distinct and mutually exclusive: safe spaces and dangerous spaces. While I acknowledge the importance of creating spaces that are traditionally referred to as “safe spaces,” I also think that the connotations of terms such as “safe” and “dangerous” may muddy the issue of what thoughtful and important conversations and conversational spaces should look like.

Think about the word, “safe” for a moment. On the one hand, it has positive associations: think of phrases like, “safe and warm,” “safety net,” or imagine an umpire yelling “Safe!” when a relieved baseball player finally reaches the base. Things that are safe make us feel at home, make us feel comfortable, make us feel at ease. Along similar lines, the Oxford English Dictionary online has definitional entries for“safe” such as, “free from hurt or damage,” “affording protection or security,” and even, “delivered from sin or condemna- tion.” On the other hand, “safe” can mean, “excessively cautious; unadventurous, unimaginative; bland, boring,” according to the O.E.D., and the term also carries connotations of timidity, lack of inspiration, and a fearful adherence to convention. For example, imagine a nonplussed concert-goer turning to a friend and saying, “Well, I guess the recital was okay, but the violinist played it really safe.” Nobody wants to have the phrase, “played it really safe” near their name in an artistic or scholarly review. Ever.

Now, consider the word, “dangerous.” On the one hand, it has negative associations: “Don’t eat the rat poison—it’s dangerous!” Doing things that are dangerous could kill you, or at least, tarnish your reputation as a person who uses good judgment before she acts. As the Oxford English Dictionary says, something that is dangerous could be, “fraught with danger or risk; causing or occasioning danger; perilous, hazardous, risky, unsafe.” However, there are positive connotations to the word, “dangerous,” that make being called, “dangerous,” somehow alluring. As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, a person who is dangerous could be bold and prepared: “ready to run into or meet danger; venturesome.” Now, imagine the stereotype of the dangerous woman from the film noir era…who wouldn’t want to be such a glamorous femme fatale? Besides, dangerous can mean new, exciting, forward-thinking—imagine a fashion designer or architect who gets a public review saying, “Jane Doe’s dangerous new designs may very well usher in a new era in her field.” Personally, that’s a review I would cut out and paste on my refrigerator (or tattoo on my arm), but a review that said that I “played it safe” would be one I’d prefer to forget.

In “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” author Judith Shulevitz relies on the worst connotations of “safe” and the best connotations of “dangerous” to paint an unfairly unflattering and infantilizing picture of advocates for safe spaces. She seems to think that a sense of comfort within a conversation and exposure to new and challenging ideas are antithetical to each other, a claim that I disagree with. In Shulevitz’s defense, though, it is easy to paint a picture like hers— a picture where we must choose between good, dangerous, intellectual conversation and bad, safe, childish conversation—when the only terms that people think are available for categorizing conversations are “safe” and “dangerous.” Indeed, both the terms, “safe” and “dangerous” have such self-contradictory connotations that I think it might be time to introduce a new term into the discourse about conversation, a term that draws on the both the best connotations of “safe” and the best connotations of “dangerous.”

The term I have in mind is, “thoughtful.” Thoughtful spaces would be thoughtful in that they would be full of thoughts, especially thoughts that are new and challenging, just like Shulevitz’s dangerous spaces are. Thoughtful spaces would also be thoughtful in that they would be places where people strive to be considerate to each other and mindful of the diversity of each other’s experiences, just like Shulevitz’s safe spaces are. To create better campus spaces for conversation, we need to move beyond the either/or dichotomy of safe and dangerous spaces and ask how we can adopt a both/and mentality, one that allows us to explore what is new or even shocking while remaining in a mental and physical space where we feel welcome. What these spaces will look and feel like will vary depending on the situation, of course, but I do believe they are possible, and more than that, crucially necessary at Carleton and in the broader world.

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