Intellectual Safe Spaces & Tribes on Campus

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Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

These words have achieved such notoriety over the past month that they don’t need much introduction. In case you’ve been living under a rock without Wi-Fi since August, this paragraph was part of a letter sent to incoming freshmen by the Dean of Students at Chicago University. It went viral – part of a broader debate at many campuses around trigger warnings and safe spaces, and the impact they have (if any) on freedom of speech.

For many, the dean’s letter came off as unwelcoming and authoritarian; antithetical to the idea that university is a place where diversity is encouraged. But I don’t think it’s so surprising when you consider what a university aims to be. Think about its etymology. It comes from the Latin universitas, which in turn derives from universus, “all turned into one.” When first applied to the University of Bologna in 1088, the term “university” referred to the student body as a single society, community or guild. Modern universities, while drawing on a diverse student population, still like to create something of a single society. A homogenised diversity.

To understand the dean’s dislike of intellectual safe spaces, we have to look at how universities design student spaces and imagine they’ll be used. Think about the cultural geography of college dorms, residences and common rooms. They’re designed to bring a diverse mix of people together – and, in addition to Christian chaplaincies and Muslim prayer rooms, most universities I know also have a “multifaith space”. I’ve never seen one of these work as planned, but perhaps, in the university’s imagination, this is a space where Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Christians will come together to talk shared theology, meditate together and make friends.

These spaces don’t seem to work as they’re intended because, like it or not, university is a tribal environment. We’re tribal by instinct. Far from being a single society, university life is formed around different communities, subcultures and social circles which resist homogenisation. We like to take part in the broader community, but we also retreat back to a small circle of friends. This might be two or three people we meet every day at our favourite café, or have lunch with under a particular tree in the park, or play pool in the evening with over a craft beer. To me, this is what an intellectual safe space is. Not everyone is allowed in, and nor should they be. This is a sanctuary, a retreat from the academy, a place to critique the classroom. And for many, these spaces are vital for getting through university in one piece.

When formalised, these spaces become clubs and societies. The most beautiful example of this is on market day, when clubs and societies venture out into natural sunlight to set up stalls and find new recruits. The best clubs are able to promote, preach and persuade, to convince the vaguely interested passer-by why it’s worth paying five dollars and surrendering their email address. The best argument to join a club, I think, is for the community and support. The best clubs become safe spaces for their members. What the dean was afraid of is when these become echo chambers.

I joined the Muslim Students Association (MSA) in my first week of university, and it became my home, and sanctuary, for the rest of my undergrad degree. We had a prayer space (musalla) on campus. I rarely prayed there though. It was more a space to form friendships. To have community. To talk and debate. To sleep when I had stayed up till 3am writing an essay the night before. It was also a place to get help with essays and assignments, and debate what we learned in class.

Reflecting on these experiences as an undergrad, I started wondering what this idea of intellectual safe spaces meant for new students on campus. Especially for those coming from a minority background, whose ideas about the world might be fundamentally at odds with the type of knowledge taught, and encouraged, at universities. I’m thinking of students from a religious background – the obvious example (to the point of being a cliché) is the Muslim or Christian student who doesn’t believe in evolution but ends up doing a degree in biology. This wasn’t me, but I knew a few, and the MSA sometimes became an intellectual safe space where faith which had been questioned in the tutorial room could be reaffirmed.

As a member of a minority or subculture on campus, it was good to have a community who appreciated and shared the way I saw the world. It was good to have my own space to hang out, to make a cup of green tea, and always know a friend would come in. It was almost a better place to study because it came to resemble home. I’d imagine that other spaces on campus – women’s rooms, Queer spaces, chaplaincies – serve a similar function of being safe spaces and sanctuaries.

That said, we all need to get out of our intellectual safe zones more. And perhaps, if welcome, venture into other people’s safe spaces. Don’t join a group, or go to a specific bar or café, just to hang out with your own people. Atheists should check out Bible study, at least once. Christians should knock on the Muslim prayer room door, or attend an Eid celebration. Muslims should try mindfulness meditation, and stay for a Buddhist discussion on reincarnation afterwards. They all need to go to at least one event hosted by the atheist society. Flat-Earthers need to go to barbeque hosted by the Black Hole Society. If you hate rap music, join the Kanye Appreciation Society. Listen. Engage. Debate. Be converted, if only for a moment.