Universities Aren't Safe Spaces and Other Problems with Modern Discourse

[CN: transphobia, TERFs]

It’s true: I’m going to Oxford University in the Fall. I still can’t quite believe it myself, but I’m excited to return to the town and the university that changed my life nearly a decade ago.

But I’ll admit – when I first filled out my application, I was deeply apprehensive about whether or not a UK-based program was right for me. In the feminist sphere, there’s frequently a deep divide between American and British feminists in terms of politics. American feminists, in my experience, tend to be far more aware and committed to issues of racial justice and transphobia (though this is not wholly the case). The UK feminist sphere, in my impression, has been a fiefdom of what many call “TERFs: Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists.”

These kinds of feminists view trans women – one of the most marginalized populations in the world – as illegitimate women unwelcome into “safe,” women-only spaces like feminist conferences and discussions. Trans women are considered a threat to the ongoing feminist discourse, especially as they are transphobically viewed as “men in women’s clothing.”

This biologically essentialist vision of gender seems to be given a lot of space in my impression of UK feminism, and I worried that as a trans-inclusive feminist and a feminist of faith, I would find myself on the outside of any discussion – an antagonist in a cohort of fellow academic feminists.

But then I found a student who is currently in the program and emailed her about my concerns. She – a fellow bisexual – told me that some of the radicalism depends on the year and the students involved, but that transphobia and TERFdom isn’t really a problem within that program, in her experience.

I felt reassured. I felt safer. It wasn’t because I wanted to silence TERFs – though I do think much of their work creates opportunities for hate speech toward trans people. It was because I wanted to be sure I was going into an environment where the likelihood that my criticism and pushback will be heard with open ears and open minds. And that makes me happy.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, writer Judith Shulevitz wrote about the conflict between speech and safety on university campuses. She argues that the desire to create safe spaces at the university level has resulted in students who are afraid to hear disagreement with their already established worldviews. They "hide from scary ideas," as the headline says. At one point she quotes a student as saying, "I don't see how you can have a therapeutic space that's also an intellectual space."

In the course of the discussion, she made several good points and several bad ones. And as someone with experience in university settings, a survivor of assault, and someone vehemently opposed to censorship, I bring a lot of experience and a lot of analysis to the table. I think it’s worth discussing the tension between “safety” and “free speech,” and what happens when those two collide in a space where critical thinking – and therefore challenging ideas – occurs.

Shulevitz actually makes a very good point in critiquing the ability of universities to provide a wholly safe space. Unfortunately she does so by blaming this inability on the naivete and “infantalization” of students, rather than on the inherent inability of institutions to provide safe havens for the oppressed. Academia, by its very history and nature, is not an open and welcoming space for many people. It is the domain, traditionally and currently, of white, cishet men.

This has nothing to do with the work of engaging with different ideas and critical thinking required for academia – a distinction Shulevitz fails to make. There is frequently overlap between rhetoric that oppresses and traumatizes survivors and the marginalized and speech that is merely challenging to our pre-existing notions of the world. We challenge the oppressive nature of some speech by requesting that people in existing positions of power not be allowed to debate the fate of the marginalized – as in the case of Christ Church College at Oxford, where students requested that a debate about abortion taking place between two cisgender men be canceled.

What’s missing is a sense of collective healing. The dominant culture is uncomfortable with the idea that survivors, the marginalized, and victims of oppression share the same space with “the normals.” You’re abnormal if you can’t discuss hard topics like rape and racism with “objectivity.” The objection to the lack of safety within these discussions is not, as Shulevitz proposes, a desire for coddling and “hiding," but a desire to have a place at the table without worrying whether or not the food is poisoned.

It is a bold declaration of the marginalized to center themselves in the discussion, to make our “objective” oppressors aware of the environment their discussions create.

I’m a big fan of the idea that objectivity doesn’t actually exist. Unfortunately, universities still promote a view of the world in which emotion and personal investment in the topic at hand are to be regulated and reformed into acceptable expressions of intellectual understanding. My own work – if I may be so humble – defies this truism.

I believe in the ability of college students to make decisions for themselves about what they are able to handle. Indeed, being able to say, “I don’t think I can handle this right now” is not a sign of infantilizing but maturity. It takes a great deal of understanding of yourself and your limits to be able to know when you can or cannot engage in certain topics and discussions. And it takes a great deal of maturity to realize that there are other people experiencing similar traumas and similar triggers in the world and that they deserve to have an intellectual space that allows them to engage in ways that are safe for them.