Safe Spaces?

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The University of Chicago recently penned a letter cementing their official stance on trigger warnings and safe spaces – a stance that was, in my opinion, profoundly negative, because it denounced a need for both.

Now, I see where these people are coming from, they see trigger warnings and safe spaces as a detrimental to the educational process and not helpful in preparation of the ‘real world’. I, however, fundamentally disagree with these two conclusions – a disagreement that is based on my own experience and the experience of others.

People who are in need of safe spaces are scarily well acquainted with the real world – they face increasingly negative pressures about their existence in this very world on a daily basis. The University of Chicago choosing not to acknowledge this is an affront to many.

Much of the backlash against trigger warnings and safe spaces is grounded in arguments for ‘free speech’, though this itself is a multifaceted and complicated topic that shall not be explored in this particular article. The University of Chicago’s letter, motivated by this same call for free speech, may have surprised many, but it did not surprise me.

In March of this year, the United States Department of Education launched an investigation into the University of Chicago for two violations of Title IX. In addition to this, the Department is also still investigating claims against the University from 2013. In fact, Olivia Ortiz, the lodger of the 2013 complaint, recently praised some policy changes that the University had introduced, but ultimately concluded that the University was not doing enough.

The University was also recently discovered to have been severely mistreating students utilising mental health services. One student, named Jasmine Wooten, visited the University Counselling Service with depression, and was immediately hospitalised in a psychiatric hospital for two weeks. When she returned to the University, administrators handed her a notice indicating she had to be out in 48 hours. Ultimately, the University of Chicago’s decision to officially reject trigger warnings and safe spaces says more about the university’s treatment of students, than any ideas about the ‘real world’, or a failure to engage in the educational experience.

At around the same time as the aforementioned events, a group of young women from the Australian National University were working in a study room when a male mature-age student entered. He began to berate women studying his degree for their desires to be professionals, given the best time of a woman’s life are her prime childbearing years. He concluded that female academics should be excluded from his field due to this biological predilection. When one woman retorted that she was not interested in having children, he responded by saying, “Wait until you are thirty-two and your biological clock starts ticking.” The individual in question had previously acted in an aggressive manner in study spaces often filled with women. The University, of course, did not condone this behaviour, but my point is that the presence of safe spaces would allow people to study and socialise in places that are not pervaded by this kind of language or behaviour.

Without the safe spaces available at the  ANU, I would have genuine issues with being on campus. My involvement in university life has remained active and safe because of groups such as the Disabilities Students Association, The Ethnocultural Committee, The Women’s Department and The Women of Colour Collective. I know that when I overhear people discussing mental health issues and condoning suicide in the Brian Kenyon Student Space, I can enter the Disabilities Spoon Space and be around like-minded people who do not wish me harm. I know that if men were threatening me, or others, in study spaces, I could seek refuge in the Rapunzel Room that is owned by the Women’s Department.

There have been many times I have felt deeply unsafe on campus, and I am thankful that ANU has these groups, and safe spaces, in place.

The idea that safe spaces do not exist in the ‘real world’ could not be further from the truth. Each of the ANU groups I have mentioned have active online presences, and it is through the power of the internet that many can find a safe space to discuss their thoughts, views and experiences without fear of judgement. I actively create safe spaces by having like minded friends and assisting them in times of crises. Having a physically safe space is not always achievable, but it is desirable, and a step in the right direction. This is why I cannot fathom the position of the University of Chicago.