The safe space—“a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm,” according to the Oxford Dictionary—arose out of a perceived need for designated places in which marginalized groups could feel permitted to express themselves openly, and therefore is theoretically predicated on the ideals of free speech.
But as safe spaces have sprung up on college campuses around the world, they’ve turned on that mission entirely.
Rather than promote open expression, safe spaces instead specialize in stifling contrarian ideas. By conflating words with violence, they merely provide “protection” by shielding students from opposing ideologies that might cause them offense. In doing so, they’ve emotionally and ideologically bubble-wrapped a generation. By delineating echo chambers, safe spaces endanger minds.
The concept came to national attention in 2015 when The New York Times reported on a safe space at Brown University for students triggered by Wendy McElroy’s invitation to speak on campus. According to the report, the room was furnished with pillows, blankets, calming music, puppy videos, cookies, bubbles, coloring books, and even Play-Doh.
Since then, the phenomenon has continued to capture headlines for its growing absurdity.
Simultaneously, universities are implementing other mechanisms of safetyism in their efforts to protect students from intellectual discomfort. Trigger warnings now litter course catalogs while restrictive speech policies threaten violators with disciplinary consequences. In 2020, nearly a quarter of universities’ speech codes earned a “red light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), indicating “at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech.”
Simultaneously, the “no-platforming” of controversial speakers continues to insulate student minds from viewpoint diversity. Perhaps the most famous example comes from Middlebury College, where political scientist Charles Murray was shouted down and attacked in his car by rioters in 2017. That same year, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s speech at the University of California–Berkeley cost the university $600,000 in security. The precedent has preemptively prevented many potential guests from visiting campuses. Even comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld openly refuse to perform for hyper-sensitive students.
Academia’s insistent promotion of ideological safety is insulating an entire generation. These policies are shielding young people from intellectual discomfort. If students are justified in all of their preconceptions, why should they even attend college? Engagement with differing viewpoints is central to the academic experience. Debate is critical to the development of nuance and the reformation of presuppositions. In fact, a FIRE student survey found 64 percent of students admit to having changed an opinion after listening to a guest speaker. Even still, fewer and fewer heterodox speakers are being allowed on campuses.
In their efforts to protect students, colleges and universities are rendering them entirely unprepared for life. In a world where law school professors are giving trigger warnings while teaching rape law, how could we possibly produce prepared or competent lawyers? We’re raising a generation utterly unprepared for the reality outside of campus gates. The real world is full of bad ideas and offensiveness. The infantilization of students underestimates their capability to handle adversity and fundamentally undermines their intellectual integrity.
Unfortunately, the concept of safetyism doesn’t cease upon graduation. As coddled college kids enter the workforce, they’re bringing this mindset with them. Major corporations have established safe space policies for employees, and studies suggest their popular support among young people. A 2015 Pew Research survey found 40 percent of millennials are okay with the government censoring statements considered offensive.
The American guarantee of free speech has traditionally been near-absolute. This was best demonstrated in 1977 when David Goldberger, a Jewish lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, defended the free speech rights of Nazis to demonstrate in the majority-Jewish neighborhood of Skokie, Illinois. Yet, today, more and more Americans believe merely offensive speech should be shut down. We seem to be forgetting a quintessential American principle: I might not like what you’re saying, but I will defend your right to say it.
The sacred right to free speech is unprecedented in human history. Young Americans’ abandonment of this ideal demonstrates their lack of historical awareness. They insist upon opening a Pandora’s box of governmental censorship despite the countless historical examples of its consequences.
Those who have lived under oppressive regimes can attest to the dangers of stifling free thought. Ironically, the curtailment of free speech continues to be pushed by those who have never known life without it.
Rikki Schlott is a writer and student based in New York City. As a young free speech activist, her writing chronicles the rise of illiberalism from a Generation Z perspective. Schlott also works for The Megyn Kelly Show and has been published by The Daily Wire and The Conservative Review.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.