Safe Space and Civil Society

I’ve been thinking a lot about safe spaces.

Perhaps it’s because the school year is starting that the debate over safe space and intellectual rigor has become top of mind. But this issue is core to civil society in general: we’re seeing the debate play out on college campuses, but it gets deeply to questions of who gets to participate – and how – in civil society and what that participation (or absence) means for social outcomes.

And as a side note, let’s not forget that half of all young people in this nation do not receive any of the benefits of a college education or experience.

The debate over safe space strikes me as being about far more than safe spaces. No one who advocates for safe spaces wants students to be coddled, and no one who advocates against safe spaces wants students to be tormented. So in some ways, the debate – or talking past each other, if you will – seems misaligned to the actual issues at play.

A few years ago my former colleagues at Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement released a study on how American teens use their out-of-school time.

One of the top level findings of this report was a striking difference in how teens of different social classes used their time:

Research so far suggests a wide variation of after-school time use based on social disparities: three out of ten children in low-income households do not participate in any organized activities, while just one out of ten middle-class or wealthy children do not. Not surprisingly, affordability of extracurricular involvement varies greatly by income level. Furthermore, parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds may view priories in time use differently.

The study reinforced the 2003 work of sociologist Annette Lareau: there are not only financial reasons for different people’s experience, but cultural class reasons as well.

In general, wealthier kids benefit from organized out-of-school activities: they develop leadership skills, self-confidence, and college application material through formal athletic, artistic, and academic opportunities.

Children of lower socio-economic status benefit from unstructured, unsupervised time. They learn self-sufficiency, resilience, and independence by taking care of themselves and siblings after school.

The normative values of lower socio-economic families may prove problematic to social mobility – those kids may not have as much flare on their college applications – but the reality is that there is value in both approaches, and negatives in taking one approach too far.

This may seem tangential to the topic of safe spaces, but I actually think it’s related. I don’t know that the divergence of views breaks down along social classes, but there do seem to be normative differences in what people expect out of a civil society – at large or in a campus microcosm.

Some opponents of safe spaces revel in pushing their view to the extreme. It’s a sort of tough love approach: say the most offensive things possible in order to make kids develop a thick skin. My sense is that some of these folks aren’t simply trying to express their own view, but they’re actively trying to antagonize people in the hopes of helping people grow more accustomed to such things. (And/or to draw attention to themselves?)

Surely, they have a right to do so – but it also kind of makes them a….well, you can choose your own descriptor here.

On the other side, there’s no shortage of horror anecdotes about students claiming safe space protection for something absurd. Like the guy who sued for coffee being hot – there’s always some one out there making the system look bad.

I don’t think the majority of people are in either of these extremes, though people tend to lean towards one view or another.

Some people have experienced positive growth by being strongly challenged – and it has helped them go strong in return. Others have been silenced by society and are looking for supportive spaces through which they can regain their voice.

Depending on your own experience, you might have a different view on which of these norms is more important and which you’d rather see fostered in civil society. But as with out-of-school activities: there is value in both approaches.

The problem that I see is that there is systemic inconsistency in terms of who falls into each group. If half the population was randomly assigned to feel one way and the other half was randomly assigned to feel the opposite…that would be a very interesting study. But when race, class, gender, sexual identity, or other demographic factors line up so closely with how people feel about this issue – that’s something we need to pay attention to.

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