A Safe Space for Whom?


If we are trying to be inclusive, let’s include everyone.

In the last few years, Harvard and other colleges across the country have made a greater effort to be inclusive and provide safe spaces for the diverse body of students who attend these schools. I am in complete agreement with the notion that it should be – at least at Harvard – the responsibility of the undergraduate houses to provide a space in which students do not feel directly threatened (physically or emotionally) for their differences. But the problem is the current practice of “safe spaces” and general “inclusive” college culture has been more focused on suppressing free speech, satire and overall differences in opinion. A safe space should be one in which people are entitled to express their opinions rather than one in which people are deemed racist or bigoted simply if they say something someone does not want to hear. Of course, if a student threatens another or shouts racist things (as it has undoubtedly occurred many times in the past) there should be repercussions, but the culture of fully suppressing free speech – in the case of no explicit threat – is not a healthy one.

The suppression of speech and diverse opinions is what often creates problems rather than what stops them. For example, the week when Harvard first-year students were sorted into their undergraduate houses, Currier released a satirical Housing Day video in which a student made a mockery of Donald Trump while he was choosing which of the twelve main undergraduate houses to donate to. The video was clearly satire and was approved by the adult students and supervisors in the house before being released. However, because certain students found the video “problematic” for the mere fact that it even mentions Donald Trump and connects him to Currier House, the video was taken down. It is important to stress that the video made fun of some of Trump’s unacceptable and racist comments, yet it was still deemed too problematic because the mere notion of Trump made people feel unsafe. Many people I have spoken with (none of whom support Trump) were against the video being taken down but felt rightfully concerned that if they defended the video they would be seen as racist and bigoted. All of a sudden, the same administrators who approved the video now felt it was not inclusive of the diversity that Currier House represents.

Another example of free speech and the growing limits being imposed on it was when Yale Resident Dean Erika Christakis resigned from lecturing after an email controversy broke up. The email did not support or go against cultural appropriation in the form of Halloween costumes but rather advocated that students should talk among themselves instead of having adults and supervisors micromanage which costumes are acceptable or not. She and her husband, Professor Nick Christakis, have been well known in their fight for free speech, writing “The protection of free speech is meaningless if what we really mean is “free speech we find appropriate,” in a 2012 article for Time. The reason I bring up the article is to emphasize that the professors are not bigots but just proponents of freedom of speech and the prevention of unnecessary censorship. However, in 2015 when they sent an email with essentially the same message as their Time article but in a different context, the outcome led to demands of resignation for the resident deans for their inability to provide a “safe space.” The demands did lead to both Erika and Nick Christakis’ resignation from resident deans despite both of them having been exceptionally dedicated to the students. They recently switched over to Yale after many years of successfully serving as Faculty Deans (House Masters) of Harvard’s Pforzehimer House.

Unfortunately “safe space” culture looks a letter better in theory rather than practice. Instead of meeting overly sensitive and in many times irrational demands, we need to focus on creating a culture that genuinely is inclusive (of people AND ideas). If you are not being directly abused or threatened and an idea offends you, debate it with facts rather than demand that the person “offending” you remain silent.