Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched my school become a national talking point. The student protests at Mizzou and subsequent lists of demands echoed in colleges across the country confirmed exactly what each person has been saying all along, no matter who they are.
For my friends on the Right, it was another opportunity to scoff at the participation-trophy generation. To be fair, we millennials have given them plenty of material. Our major accomplishments so far are putting Barack Obama in the White House and popularizing the selfie. Not a great track record.
Leftists were giddy at the idea of a campus activism renaissance where drum circles and hand-drawn signs are the primary tools of education. After all, full-time community organizing is a liberal’s highest calling.
For conservatives, the primary object of ridicule has been the famous “safe space.” Discovering that students have constructed a permanent protective bubble of self-affirmation horrified them, and rightfully so. For years now, students all over the country have tucked their heads under the covers and begged their schools to ban bogeymen like Mark Twain, “American Sniper,” and even the American flag.
This dread of ideological opposition undermines the whole purpose of higher education. We should be pleading to be exposed to opposing perspectives. I know my own conservative views have been reinforced by a deeper understanding of liberalism that can only come from actually listening to the opposition.
Safe Spaces Should Mean Free Speech
However, I do think safe spaces have an important place in higher education. Before my conservative compatriots think I’ve lost my mind, let me explain: the original definition of a safe space was vastly different and actually had a lot of wisdom. Liberals have distorted the true meaning of a safe space into the echo chamber of “atta boys” we see today.
I laughed out loud the first time someone told me the conversation I would be participating in was in a safe space. It seemed foolish that a resident assistant sitting on the floor with his legs crossed over his cargo shorts had the power to shield me from any offensive material. However, as it was first explained to me, the concept has some merit.
By the original definition, a safe space is a discussion where all participants assume goodwill and positive intent. Students are implored to consider the validity of criticism and opposing viewpoints, not dismiss them as personal attacks.
That is exactly the philosophy that has been missing from campus activism. They’ve distorted safe spaces to be the polar opposite of the original intent. Instead of assuming goodwill, they assume verbal violence and try to silence the person talking with them.
Student activists could learn a lot by considering the true purpose of safe spaces. They’re not somewhere to hide from opposition; they are exactly where it should thrive. Poor branding has distorted safe spaces. If anything, they should have been called intellectual octagons, where ideas, not people, can battle it out.
Let’s Restore Good Faith in Each Other
Famously on my campus, safe spaces were used to justify physically blocking the media from participating in the conversation. More often, I’ve seen safe spaces used to inform a group that no dialogue will take place. A safe space sign might as well read: “Get ready to swallow whole whatever position we’ve deemed moral. Your input is not wanted or needed.”
Sure, colleges can be a safe space for liberal fantasies, but they should also be safe for conservative realism. We are far from that point, but we can get there if we embrace the true definition of a safe space.
A lot of the country’s problems could be resolved by assuming goodwill and listening to the opposition without running scared. I have to believe that our college campuses are the most important place for that to occur. Conservatives should latch on to safe spaces as they were originally envisioned and continue to fight the safety blanket vision that liberals have for our schools.
There’s a reason liberal academics are running scared, and it’s because our ideas win. If we can get into a conversation, we can score some millennial converts. We’ll still give liberals a participation trophy.