Safe space

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An inverted pink triangle surrounded by a green circle, as used to symbolize alliance with gay rights and spaces free from homophobia[1]

The term safe space refers to places created for individuals who feel marginalized to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization, most commonly located on university campuses in the western world,[2] but also at workplaces, as in the case of Nokia.[3]

The terms safe space (or safe-space), safer space, and positive space may also indicate that a teacher, educational institution or student body does not tolerate violence, harassment, or hate speech, thereby creating a safe place for marginalized people.[4]



The Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) which claims to represent 200,000 Muslims in Victoria stated that the Muslim community suffered mental health and other problems due to the suspicions to which it is subjected.[5] The ICV proposed that Islamic community groups be given funds to create "safe spaces" where "inflammatory" issues could be discussed without being judged.[5] The government rejected the proposal and instigated a review of government funding towards the ICV.[5][6]


The Positive Space campaign was developed at the University of Toronto in 1996.[citation needed] Positive Space initiatives have been prevalent in post-secondary institutions across Canada[when?] including the University of Western Ontario,[7] McGill University,[citation needed] the University of Toronto,[8] Algonquin College,[citation needed] the University of British Columbia,[9] and Queen's University.[10]

United Kingdom[edit]

In early 2015, the increasing adoption of safe spaces in UK universities aroused controversy due to accusations that they were used to stifle free speech and differing political views.[11]

In September 2016, the then-Prime Minister, Theresa May, criticized universities for implementing "safe space" policies amid concerns that self-censorship was curtailing freedom of speech on campuses. The Prime Minister said it was "quite extraordinary" for universities to ban the discussion of certain topics that could cause offence. She warned that stifling free speech could have a negative impact on Britain's economic and social success.[12]

United States[edit]

In the United States, the concept originated in the women's movement, where it "implies a certain license to speak and act freely, form collective strength, and generate strategies for resistance...a means rather than an end and not only a physical space but also a space created by the coming together of women searching for community." The first safe spaces were gay bars and consciousness raising groups.[13]

In 1989 Gay & Lesbian Urban Explorers (GLUE) developed a safe spaces program. During their events including diversity-training sessions and antihomophobia workshops, they passed out magnets with an inverted pink triangle, "ACT UP's...symbol", surrounded by a green circle to "symbolize universal acceptance," and asked "allies to display the magnets to show support for gay rights and to designate their work spaces free from homophobia."[14]

Advocates for Youth states on their website that a safe-space is "A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or challenged on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person's self-respect, dignity and feelings and strongly encourage everyone to respect others."[15] However, some people consider safe space culture as a violation of the First Amendment and a mechanism for retreating from opinions which contrast with one's own.[16][17][18]

In general, these[clarification needed] may be individuals or institutions which support a safe space for LGBT students and employees. They may offer or mandate staff training on diversity, include being a safe space in the organization's mission statement, develop and post a value statement in the organization's office, online, or on printed documents, or, if part of a coalition, encourage the coalition to include being a safe space in its mission and values.[19]


The idea of safe spaces has been criticized on the grounds that it stifles freedom of speech.[20][21][22] It has also been criticized for blurring the line between security against physical harm, and giving offense.[23] In response, advocates for safe spaces assert that people in certain groups that object to hate speech are directly affected by it[24] and that safe spaces are important for maintaining mental health.[25]

Writing for The New York Times in 2015, journalist Judith Shulevitz distinguished between meetings where participants mutually consent to provide a safe space, and attempts to make entire dormitories or student newspapers safe spaces. According to Shulevitz, the latter is a logical consequence of the former: "Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer." She gave the example of a safe space at Brown University, when libertarian Wendy McElroy, who was known for criticizing the term "rape culture" was invited to give a speech: "The safe space ... was intended to give people who might find comments 'troubling' or 'triggering,' a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma."[26]

In 2015, journalist Conor Friedersdorf criticized the use of outdoor safe spaces to block press coverage of student protests. According to Friedersdorf, such uses reverse the intent of safe spaces: "This behavior is a kind of safe-baiting: using intimidation or initiating physical aggression to violate someone's rights, then acting like your target is making you unsafe."[27]

In 2015, then-President Barack Obama critiqued the concept of safe spaces as promoting intellectual disinterest:

Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, 'You can’t come because I'm too sensitive to hear what you have to say.' That’s not the way we learn either.[28]

In 2016, British actor and writer Stephen Fry criticized safe spaces and trigger warnings as infantilizing students and possibly eroding free speech.[29][21] Frank Furedi of the Los Angeles Times and Candace Russell of HuffPost have similarly stated that safe spaces contribute to echo chambers surrounded by like-minded people, insulating those inside said chambers from ideas that challenge or contradict their own.[30][31]

Other known speakers who have criticized the concept of safe spaces include Christina Hoff Sommers[32] and Steven Crowder.[33]

The Atlantic reported in 2016 that safe spaces were considered by some to be re-segregation.[34]

In 2016, the University of Chicago sent a letter welcoming new undergraduates, affirming its commitment to diversity, civility, and respect and informing them the college does not support trigger warnings, does not cancel controversial speakers, and does not "condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from thoughts and ideas at odds with their own".[35][36]

Despite the criticisms, there are some academics who have defended safe spaces practises. Chris Waugh, a PhD student at the University of Manchester, draws on the work of Jurgen Habermas and Nancy Fraser to argue that safe spaces are not censorious or impinging on free speech, but are "subaltern counterpublics" - that is, alternative discursive arenas where vulnerable groups can reconfigure and reframe their experiences of the dominant, public sphere, with the ultimate aim of returning to the public sphere better armed to combat their own oppression. Safe spaces are, therefore, "represent an often clumsy—but still vital—attempt to create counterpublics for marginalised groups. These counterpublics serve two purposes; firstly, they provide spaces for groups to recuperate, reconvene, and create new strategies and vocabularies for resistance. Secondly, the presence of these counterpublics makes visible collective and individual traumas which disrupt neoliberal narratives of self-resilience."[37]

In the aftermath of the George Floyd protests, Jonathan Chait identified several incidents of people losing their jobs or being forced to apologize, in his view unreasonably, for speech criticized as putting people in minority groups "in danger". This included the firing of David Shor for sharing research by Omar Wasow on the effects of violent vs. non-violent protest in the 1960s, comments by Lee Fang pointing out that Martin Luther King Jr. argued against violent protests and that some black people see reduction of black-on-black crime as a civil rights issue, and reaction to the publication of a New York Times opinion piece by Tom Cotton that resulted in the resignation of editorial page editor James Bennet. The common theme Chait cites is that any objection to any aspect of protests for black rights is seen as racist, and because racism endangers black people, so do the comments. In different ways, each criticized violent protests without having a negative view on peaceful protests or the causes for civil rights and against police brutality. While not necessarily agreeing with the arguments made by these commentators, Chait argues there is a double standard of "safety" which results in over-silencing of speech directly related to identity politics versus other political issues. He cites the potential life-and-death impact of opinion pieces on health care policy or environmental pollution, policies that could disproportionately affect black people but which are allowed as part of public debate in a free society. Chait describes this as illibralism on the part of the polical left, which criticizing the political right as an even larger danger to liberalism, and criticizing reluctance to accept self-criticism as a blind spot for all political factions.[38]

In popular culture[edit]

"Safe Space", a 2015 episode of the animated comedy series South Park, parodied the concept of safe-spaces.[39]

"Safe Space" is also the name of a proposed hero(ine) from Marvel comics, who assists the New Warriors in their most recent incarnation alongside their sibling, "Snowflake", both non-binary. Snowflake possesses ice-based abilities similar to those of Iceman of the X-Men, while Safe Space possesses the ability to generate reactive, defensive force fields that can only protect others.[40] While criticized by some as seemingly mocking, the idea is apparently still going forward.[41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nicole Christine Raeburn (2004). Changing Corporate America from Inside Out: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Rights. University of Minnesota Press. p. 209. ISBN 978-0-8166-3998-4.
  2. ^ Amenabar, Teddy (19 May 2016). "The New Vocabulary of Protest". The Washington Post. Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  3. ^ The Safe Space Program Alcatel lucent, n.d., accessed 11 Nov 2017
  4. ^ Waldman, Katy (2016-09-05). "What science can tell us about trigger warnings". Slate. Retrieved 2016-09-10.
  5. ^ a b c "Muslim 'safe space' plan sparks row in Australia". BBC News. 2017-06-08. Retrieved 2017-06-11.
  6. ^ "Vic Islamic Council funding under review". News Com Au. Retrieved 2017-06-11.
  7. ^ Safe Campus. "Safe Campus". University of Western Ontario. Retrieved 4 August 2017.
  8. ^ Office of Student Life. "Positive Space Campaign". University of Toronto. Archived from the original on 31 August 2012. Retrieved 18 June 2011.
  9. ^ Positive Space. "The Positive Space Campaign". University of British Columbia. Retrieved 18 June 2011.
  10. ^ Queen's Positive Space Program. "The Queen's Positive Space Program". Queen's University. Retrieved 18 June 2011.
  11. ^ Dunt, Ian (6 February 2015). "Safe space or free speech? The crisis around debate at UK universities". The Guardian.
  12. ^ Hughes, Laura (14 September 2016). "Theresa May hits out at universities 'safe spaces' for stifling free speech". The Telegraph. Retrieved 14 September 2016.
  13. ^ Kenney, Moira Rachel (2001). Mapping Gay L.A.: The Intersection of Place and Politics. p. 24. ISBN 1-56639-884-3.
  14. ^ Raeburn, Nicole C. (2004). Changing Corporate America from Inside Out: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Rights. p. 209. ISBN 0-8166-3999-X.
  15. ^ "Glossary". Advocates for Youth. Retrieved 24 March 2012.
  16. ^ volanteonline (19 September 2016). "Safe spaces disrupt the First Amendment".
  17. ^ "Safe Spaces Can Be Dangerous". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2021-04-05.
  18. ^ "The Problems With Safe Spaces". The Odyssey Online. 2015-12-21. Retrieved 2021-04-05.
  19. ^ "Tips and Strategies for Creating a Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth". Advocates for Youth. Retrieved 24 March 2012.
  20. ^ Ash, Timothy Garten (16 September 2016). "Safe spaces are not the only threat to free speech". The Guardian.
  21. ^ a b Fry, Stephen (12 April 2016). "Stephen Fry: Campus Safe Spaces Are Stupid and Infantile".
  22. ^ Slater, Tom (15 January 2016). "The tyranny of safe spaces". Spiked. Retrieved 26 January 2017.
  23. ^ Trigger Warning: Safe Spaces Are Dangerous (debate)
  24. ^ "Free Speech Controversy Erupts At Middlebury College".
  25. ^ J. Legg, Timothy. "Why 'Safe Spaces' Are Important for Mental Health — Especially on College Campuses". Healthline. Retrieved 2021-03-28.
  26. ^ Shulevitz, Judith (March 21, 2015). "In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas". Op-ed. The New York Times. Retrieved December 23, 2015.
  27. ^ Friedersdorf, Conor (November 10, 2015). "Campus Activists Weaponize 'Safe Space'". Politics. The Atlantic. Retrieved December 23, 2015.
  28. ^ Nelson, Libby (September 14, 2015). "Obama on liberal college students who want to be "coddled": "That's not the way we learn"". Politics. Vox. Retrieved April 6, 2020.
  29. ^ George, Bowden (11 April 2016). "Stephen Fry Speaks About Erosion Of 'Free Speech' On Student Campuses In Controversial Rubin Report Interview". HuffPost. Retrieved 25 August 2016.
  30. ^ Furedi, Frank (2017-01-05). "Campuses are breaking apart into 'safe spaces'". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2017-04-27.
  31. ^ Russell, Candice (2015-04-13). "Safe Spaces and Echo Chambers, How Progressive Movements Stagnate Themselves". HuffPost. Retrieved 2017-04-27.
  32. ^ Arnold, Tyler (October 14, 2016). "Safe spaces a 'recipe for fanaticism,' Hoff Sommers claims". Campus Reform.
  33. ^ Howerton, Jason (April 26, 2016). "Comedian Steven Crowder Dishes Out Brutal, Nearly 5-Minute ‘Reality Check’ to ‘Social Justice Warriors’ When They Interrupt Event". TheBlaze.
  34. ^ DeRuy, Emily. "The Fine Line Between Safe Space and Segregation" The Atlantic, August 17, 2016.
  35. ^ "University Of Chicago Tells Freshmen It Does Not Support 'Trigger Warnings'".
  36. ^ Students were directed to for more information.
  37. ^ Waugh, Chris (2019). "In Defence of Safe Spaces: Subaltern Counterpublics and Vulnerable Politics in the Neoliberal University". In Breeze, Maddie; Taylor, Yvette; Costa, Cristina (eds.). Time and Space in the Neoliberal University. Time and Space in the Neoliberal University: Futures and fractures in higher education. Springer International Publishing. pp. 143–168. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-15246-8_7. ISBN 978-3-030-15246-8.
  38. ^ Jonathan Chait (11 June 2020). "The Still-Vital Case for Liberalism in a Radical Age". New York Magazine.
  39. ^ Caffrey, Dan (October 22, 2015). "The cake metaphor comes back on another solid episode of South Park". The A.V. Club.
  40. ^ "Introducing the New 'New Warriors'". Marvel Entertainment.
  41. ^ "Marvel branded "tone-deaf" for non-binary superhero called 'Snowflake'". March 21, 2020.

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