Anyone who’s taken an introductory psychology class knows about confirmation bias—the tendency that humans have to focus on evidence that confirms their existing views instead of evidence that disproves them. In her recent article, New York Times columnist Judith Shulevitz argues that college students fall into this trap and try to block out ideas that run counter to their own. Shulevitz is right that when students pick and choose which viewpoints they are exposed to, it limits their intellectual growth. However, in the discussion about censorship on college campuses, it is important to make the distinction between instances of censorship and the use of so-called “safe spaces.”
When someone decides to distance herself from a particular viewpoint, it is not a battle against free speech. Sometimes a viewpoint is commonplace and understood, and sometimes it is genuinely hurtful. Voices in the media and on college campuses that negate rape culture are not only present—they can be damaging. Sexual assault is a highly personal and emotional issue. A college student who has experienced sexual assault and does not want to hear someone repeat an argument that in any way belittles her experience is not the right target for an indictment of censorship. It is strange to include such an emotionally charged issue within the larger discussion of free speech.
This is the same issue that comes up when teachers put up signs on their door that say, “No Bullying: This is a safe space.” Shulevitz says that signs like these imply that all other places are unsafe, and therefore should be made safer. That is exactly the point. In schools that put up these signs, bullying is sometimes a real and present problem in kids’ lives. These signs are small measures that ultimately might not put a stop to bullying inside classrooms or schools. But no one would argue that bullies are victims of censorship. The hateful speech that bullies dole out has changed over the years but has always existed. The value of safe spaces is exhibited when teachers show victims of bullying that they care about this issue by putting a “Safe Space” sign on their door, or when that sign makes a bully reconsider hurtful words. The psychological abuse that bullies dole out in middle schools is not dissimilar to that inflicted by people who blame victims of sexual assault for their experiences, and the use of safe spaces in this realm is just as valuable.
Safe spaces are the result of people being bombarded with a view or behavior they feel is hurtful. They are not there because students do not want to know what is outside; rather, these spaces exist because victims of phenomena like bullying and sexual assault know all too well what lurks beyond the walls.