In Defense of Safe Spaces

Tex Pasley '17
Guest Columnist


In the barrage of post-election commentary, I was unsurprised to see that some students objected to (or mocked) the law school’s provision of “safe spaces” in light of the election results. While I grasp the spirit of these responses, the underlying reasoning belies a misunderstanding both of what safe spaces are for, and the very damaging hyper-political effects Trump’s campaign and election on has had on our society in general, and students at this Law School in particular.

This column makes three claims. First, we need an appropriate definition of what a “safe space” is, and the function it serves. Second, with this understanding, I think we can see that the Law School already provides “safe spaces” for all students. Finally, by recognizing that Donald Trump’s election already stands as an historical event that transcends politics, I think we will find that the administration’s response was entirely appropriate, and will probably not produce thin-skinned lawyers in the process.

When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

—George Orwell, Politics and the English Language 

This to-and-fro over “safe spaces” has become tiresome. The debate really calcified around this very time last year when students at Yale and the University of Missouri successfully forced the resignation of campus officials for different incidents that a large population of students found offensive. From that point, we’ve retreated into two camps, working from two different lexicons. Terms like “trigger warning,” “micro-aggression,” “free speech,” and “safe space” have lost whatever original meaning they had, and are merely verbal grenades, lobbed into the opposing trench with the remote promise of scoring a direct hit.

My hope is that, if nowhere else, we can halt this trend here at UVa Law. So to begin, we need to understand that the term “safe space” is not unique to our political moment; it arose in the gay, lesbian, and feminist movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. As Moira Kenney writes in her book Mapping Gay L.A., safe spaces provided an important stepping stone for gays and lesbians seeking wider social acceptance:

Gays and lesbians live in cities they have mapped for their own purposes: neighborhoods discreetly appropriated in forgotten zones, street corners where kisses can be exchanged proudly, and community centers to provide safe space for coming-out or mobilizing activists. And then there are the places where none of these things can happen, where gay bashing and subtler forms of heterosexism are expected and feared. The experience of being part of, and subject to, the life of the city, combined with the search for specific spaces that permit and affirm one’s own way of being, are the key elements in such maps.

To be sure, the use of explicitly defined safe spaces is controversial within activist movements. Those critiques are not the point of this piece.

But we need to recognize, as a matter of first principle, we all make use of safe spaces. In the quote above, Kenney juxtaposes the “discreetly appropriated” neighborhoods against the city at-large. As humans, we fundamentally require “specific spaces that permit and affirm one’s own way of being,” and we use them all the time. Many of us went home or visited family for Thanksgiving, and I suspect most of us like to unwind from a long week by going to a bar or a friend’s house for drinks. While we don’t call our parents’ house or the local watering hole a “discreetly appropriated safe space,” we should recognize that what we are, in fact, deliberately entering a safe space. Beneath all of this is the simple recognition that, as human beings, we cannot fully participate in public life all the time.

Accepting this understanding, we should further recognize that Donald Trump’s election was not the Law School’s first attempt to create a safe space. Directly, the Office of Student Affairs and Student Bar Association have sponsored events covering issues such as mental health and privilege. One purpose of these events—I suspect—was to offer a safe space where students could communicate with each other in a permissive and affirmative manner on subjects they feel uncomfortable discussing with the wider student body. The upshot is that, afterward, students (myself included) feel more comfortable engaging with their peers. Such a state of affairs should lead to a more dynamic, welcoming, and “collegial” student body.

Indirectly, of course, the Law School Foundation bankrolls student organizations that provide comfortable spaces for all sorts of affinity groups, including but not limited to Democrats, Republicans, women, feminists, and Jewish, Christian, Catholic, and Mormon students (and many others). Universities, and law schools in particular, are designed to be places where ideas are exchanged freely and openly. The inevitable consequence is that everyone, at one point or another in the course of her education, struggles to reconcile her personal convictions with what she learns in class. We should recognize that whenever a student organization hosts a potluck, faculty dinner, or similar outing, it’s providing a safe space to its members. By providing this affirmative space, students can return to class more energized, refreshed, and willing to engage with the wider student body.

Once we attach the “safe space” label to these activities, an unfortunate and inevitable knee-jerk reaction occurs—we are now “coddling” its students. As Betsey Hedges puts it, “the Law School administration is not assisting us in developing the resilience we will need in the legal profession.”

I am not yet part of the legal profession, so I cannot speak to what sort of resilience is required. Yet Ms. Hedges fears that when the school provides us with safe spaces, it treats us like “juveniles”, which will in turn make us ineffectual, namby-pamby lawyers (or something). I find this response particularly troubling in this for two reasons.

For one, while we can all look forward to careers working long hours as we perform intellectually rigorous and morally demanding tasks, I would also expect our administration to recognize that lawyers are abnormally susceptible to depression, substance abuse, and divorce. Not unrelatedly, it is also a profession where people from disadvantaged or historically oppressed backgrounds feel unwelcome. I hope that—as a future training ground for lawyers—our Law School administration is attentive and responsive to these concerns. By unilaterally concluding that a safe space “defrocks us of our sense of responsibility,” all we do is retrench the very real and negative personal consequences we face for choosing this line of work without really giving any of us guidance in how to become (truly) socially responsible and resilient attorneys.

And second, in the context of the most recent election, this response displays a blissful unawareness of our political reality. The most recent Law Weekly contained plenty of able commentary on this point, and I’m not going to rehash it here; the world certainly does not need another Donald Trump think-piece. But we must acknowledge that Donald Trump is a disturbing president-elect.

No major party presidential candidate in my lifetime, and probably no candidate since Richard Nixon or Barry Goldwater, has appealed so directly to the racist and sexist id of our electorate. Either on Trump’s own, or through his surrogates, he has suggested policies or made remarks that goad others to act on their base impulses by—for example—suggesting we reinstate the Eisenhower administration’s “Operation Wetback” program, suggesting that all Muslims entering the United States sign up for a registry (citing the WWII use of Japanese internment camps as precedent), and doubling down when he was accused of sexual assault by multiple women during the campaign (suggesting they were not attractive enough for him to assault). 

Of course, that does not necessarily mean Donald Trump, the person, holds these views, or that he will implement these policies. But many people—including many students at this law school—are rightfully scared about the consequences and their own personal safety. The election of Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, or whoever else is not the same; it’s a difference between being upset about the normal political consequences of an election, and being actually fearful for your safety. 

When the name of our next President is appearing next to swastikas and the Ku Klux Klan is again a public presence, we have a responsibility to push back and reach out, both in general and within our law school community. By acknowledging the potential effects of this election, and providing students space within our community to process those effects, the Administration took the appropriate steps.