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Moving Beyond Safe Spaces

Moving Beyond Safe Spaces

Using Uncomfortable Ideas to Create Community 

By Josh Beaudoin 

In the past, “safety” meant that a person was free from the threat of physical danger. Someone was safe if they didn’t have to worry about being assaulted on their way to class; they were safe if they were in a relationship where their partner treated them with love and respect rather than abuse.  

But over the years, “safety” has come to include psychological and emotional safety, which in many ways has been a good thing. In 1980, PTSD became the first non-physical injury to be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. [1] Even though it wasn’t physical, there were still very strict criteria that had to be met. [2] But since then, non-physical safety has crept into many areas that can only be quantified by subjective means.   

In 2015, Judith Shuleviz wrote an article in The New York Times about a group of students at Brown University who had created a safe space in preparation for an upcoming debate. The debate was to cover a controversial topic, and the need for a safe space stemmed from the notion that students could be harmed simply by hearing a very uncomfortable perspective that was counter to their own. [3]  

What happened at Brown University was by no means an isolated incident, and it signaled a significant shift in the meaning of the word “safety,” and a change in culture on university campuses. The term “safety” has now expanded far beyond the physical world and into the realm of ideas. “‘Safetyism’ refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value,” [4] and has become prevalent on many university campuses and institutions. 

The problem with safetyism is that it has the potential to suffocate ideas and result in people only being exposed to a certain sliver of perspectives. Those who hold views contrary to the campus culture are canceled through the means of protests, fear of expulsion or job termination, and petitions. This can be seen in attempted (and often successful) disinvitations of speakers to college campuses, and it happens at universities with both conservative and liberal cultures. [5] 

For example, when President Joe Biden was scheduled to speak at the commencement for the University of Notre Dame, a petition circulated urging the university administration to revoke the invitation on the basis of his views on abortion and LGBTQ+ issues. [6] 

While Walla Walla University has not experienced an event of this significance, we recently had a speaker whose message sparked some controversy. 

On April 27, Chaplain Kent Rufo from Pacific Union Collage spoke for the CommUnity service. His talk tried to detail the relationship between justice and forgiveness, and used the recent conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd as an example. [7] 

Students protest the heated debate at Brown University. Photo by Danielle Perelman from the Brown Daily Harrold.

Needless to say, Rufo elicited a powerful emotional response from many students. After the presentation, Chaplain Albert Handal and his office received a wide range of reactions from people. While some students said it was the best CommUnity so far in their college experience, many others expressed anger and hurt at the insensitivity of the message. [8] 

After seeing the range of responses, Handal invited Steve Allred, an author, lawyer, and pastor, to speak at CommUnity to provide a different perspective from Rufo on the issue of forgiveness and justice. This presentation also drew praise and criticism from many students, as both Allred and Rufo made people uncomfortable with their perspectives. 

See Also

Handal explained his desire for WWU to be a place where people can safely discuss ideas. Photo by Walla Walla University

Though uncomfortable, these two speakers provide an excellent example of how dialogue can happen civilly about a sensitive topic and how a university can help thwart safetyism.   

In a similar way to how CommUnity was handled, in the upcoming school year, we at The Collegian are going to challenge the way you think, regardless of where you stand on the socio-political spectrum. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write in their book “The Coddling of the American Mind” that “if you see yourself or your fellow students as candles, you’ll want to make your campus a wind-free zone.” [9] In their metaphor, wind refers to uncomfortable ideas, and they “extinguishes a candle but energizes a fire.” [10]  

Over this past year, our current editor-in-chief, Josh Peinado, did an excellent job of bringing a breeze to campus as we covered topics pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community and the use of drugs and alcohol. In the coming year, we’re going to build on what Peinado started by having conversations about an even wider array of issues. 

We are going to cover topics ranging from death and mortality to social justice. Chances are, some of what we publish will make you uncomfortable, and we’re counting on it. Here at The Collegian, we believe in your resilience and ability to grow and thrive in a turbulent environment. It’s that ability that makes you beautiful. 

“There is so much beauty waiting to be noticed” [11] in each of you, and our goal is to help you see that beauty in every person you encounter. People are intricate webs of relationships and ideologies. By presenting an array of uncomfortable ideas, we want to humanize people you might consider “other” so that the students of WWU can come together as one big community. 

References 

  1.  Friedman, M. (n.d.) PTSD history and overview. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2R6tscd.   
  1. Lukianoff, G. Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. Penguin Random House LLC.  
  1. Shuleviz, J. (2015, March 21). In college and hiding from scary ideas. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/2RNwqmt
  1. Lukianoff, G. Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. Penguin Random House LLC. 
  1. FIRE (n.d.). Disinvitation attempts. FIRE. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3fY6752.  
  1. FIRE. (n.d.). Views disinvitation attempt details. FIRE. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3pgkndL. 
  1.  Interview with Albert Handal, 5/28/2021.    
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Lukianoff, G. Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. Penguin Random House LLC. 
  1. Ibid. 
  1. Illneas. (2021, April 6). YouTube. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3uGP4Kc
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