Unsafe “Safe Spaces”

I walked by an office the other day on which I saw a sign that said, “Safe Space.”  I immediately felt unsafe.

I hope everyone who comes into my office feels safe.  But shouldn’t the people who come into my office tell me whether they feel safe there rather than me telling them?

Either way, it’s a moot point, because I usually meet students in coffee shops, some of which are “safer” spaces than others.  I once had a student, a young Army veteran, who told me he had come to see me at a coffee shop where he knew I used to work in the evenings but hadn’t found me there.  “When did you get there?” I asked.  “About 9:20 p.m.,” he told me.  “I arrived within five or ten minutes. Why didn’t you wait a few minutes?”  “No, no,” he said, “the place was full of hipsters (it always is), and I could feel them looking at me and judging me, so I had to leave.”

I have no doubt that most of the people in that coffee shop imagine themselves very “open” and “welcoming.” But these things can be oddly relative.  What seems “safe” and “welcoming” to one group of hipsters who style themselves as very progressive can be alienating to a host of others who feel “judged” for being too “plain,” too “normal,” or not “hip” enough.

I suppose I had this same instinctual fear of being “looked at” and “judged” when I saw the “Safe Space” sign.  Was my gaze approving enough?  Was my body language right?  Someone noticing the slightly quizzical look on my face might have thought I was expressing disapproval, which was not my intention.

If the occupant of the office had popped her head out and asked, “You’re looking at my sign.  Is there a problem?” what would I have said?”  “No, no, no; not at all – just reading. . .you know, your. . .um, sign.” Would she have believed me? Or would she have remained suspicious?  Would she have reported me?

And what if she somehow guessed I am a Catholic?  What then? What assumptions might she have made about the horrible things I supposedly think about gay people?  Would I have been able to convince her that I don’t think all those horrible things?  I could never convince even my own Protestant parents that Catholics don’t believe all the things they thought they knew Catholics believed.

So perhaps what made me anxious about the “Safe Space” sign is the knowledge that one of the most popular past-times in American culture these days is a version of what an author in an earlier generation playfully called “upmanship”:  “one-upping” the other guy.  You say, “I met with the mayor of London last week.”  And your conversation partner says:  “The mayor of London?  What a delightful man!  I had him in for lunch last week” – thereby making your little meeting with the mayor look very unimpressive.  He one-upped you.


In the United States, increasing numbers of people seem intent on playing a slightly different, but similar game we might call “to-the-left-manship,” the goal of which is to get to the left of the other guy.  You say, “I sent my daughter to a very liberal, progressive, all-girls school.” And then your conversation partner asks, with barely concealed contempt:  “They still call themselves girls? I mean, so many of those “all-girls” schools don’t understand how damaging the word “girl” can be to the transgendered.”  Hence that very progressive school in which you proudly enrolled your daughter (and which you were looking forward to bragging about) is now looking less progressive, perhaps even discriminatory.

You begin to feel, as intended, very small indeed.

People may do as they wish, but it’s not clear to me that all these little language wars we fight in the refined realms of academia have really done anything to help the people we say we want to help.  After decades of obsessive speech patrolling, are inner-city kids getting a better education? Are homosexual persons feeling less anxious? Are minorities being treated with greater justice in the workplace, housing, and education?  Are women given greater respect?

Because if the answer is no, and if all we’re doing is playing language games to make ourselves feel better, as if we too are doing something to solve the problems, to show we care, not like those other people who are less “woke” than we are, well, then, I would prefer not to pretend.

Rarely does anyone feel “safe” when so many people are struggling just to avoid stepping on one of the ever-increasing number of landmines set by those engaged in the “take-no-prisoners” war of “Left-manship.”  Spaces that keep out those with “incorrect” views and attitudes are usually the opposite of safe.

So, for example, a pressure group recently petitioned the University of Oxford to remove John Finnis, a Catholic, from the faculty for having “extremely discriminatory views against many groups of disadvantaged people” (i.e., for disagreeing with their view on same-sex sexual activity and transgender surgery). They insisted that the University “clarify its policy on discriminatory professors” because, right now, students and staff actually have to wait for a “person-to-person instance of harassment or victimization before they can complain about the intolerant atmosphere and intimidation that these professors create . . . through their published work.”  They don’t have to treat you badly, just have the wrong views.

For now, Oxford has refused.  But what message does this petition send to other faculty members about their “safety” if they don’t agree to express the “approved” views of some campus group or other, whether it has to do with gay marriage, Muslim treatment of women, or Israeli-Palestinian politics?

That’s one question. But another is this:  Is the tactical maneuvering of the people engaged in this game of “Left-manship” really doing anything to help the minorities and disadvantaged people it is supposed to be helping?

Is it even safe to ask that?


*Image: The benefit of a plaster, or, A cure for a scold!!!, (J.L. Marks Publishers) c. 1820 [Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington, CT]. This image depicts a husband attempting to silence his wife. Click here to see an expanded version.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.