We’ve heard a lot about safe spaces recently. But there are two kinds of safe space, and one of them has been neglected for too long.

Like many universities today, new students at Western Sydney University are invited to use a range of campus facilities, such as communal kitchens, prayer rooms, parents’ rooms as well as Women’s Rooms and Queer Rooms. But there’s something that sets the latter two apart from the other facilities.  

WSU describes the Women’s Room as “a dedicated space for woman-identifying and non-binary students, staff and visitors”, saying they are provided in an effort to “provide a safe space for women on campus”. The Queer Room is described as “a safe place where all people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or otherwise sex and/or gender diverse can relax in an accepting and inclusive environment.” The operative term in both descriptions is “safe”.  

We have heard a lot about such “safe spaces” over the past several years. Yet as the number and type of safe spaces has grown, so too has the concept of safety expanded, particularly within United States universities. Many students now expect the entire campus to effectively operate as a safe space, one where they can opt out of lectures that include subjects that could trigger past traumas, raise issues they believe are harmful or involve views they find morally objectionable. The notion of safety has also been invoked to cancel lectures on university campuses by reputable academics because some students on campus claim the talk would make them feel unsafe 

In response, safe spaces have been criticised for shutting down open discourse about difficult or conflicted topics, particularly because such discourse has been seen as an essential part of higher education. Lawyer Greg Lukianoff and psychologist Jonathan Haidt have also argued that safe spaces coddle students by shielding them from the inevitable controversies and offences that they will face beyond university, contributing to greater levels of depression and anxiety.  

However, all of the above refers to just a single kind of safe space: one where people are safe from possible threats to their wellbeing.  

In a complex and diverse world, where people of different ethnicities, religions, political persuasions and beliefs are bound to mingle, there are good reasons to have dedicated places to where individuals can retreat, spaces where they know they will be safe from prejudice, intolerance, racism, sexism, discrimination or trauma. 

But there is another kind of safe space that is equally important: one where people are safe to express themselves authentically and engage in good faith with others around difficult, controversial and even offensive topics.  

While safe from spaces might be necessary to shield the vulnerable from harm in the short term, safe to spaces are necessary to help society engage with, and reduce, those harms in the long term. And while much of the focus in recent years has been on creating safe from spaces, there are those who have been working hard to create more safe to spaces. 

Circle of Chairs

More than thirty years ago, philosopher and Executive Director of The Ethics Centre, Dr Simon Longstaff AO, set up a Circle of Chairs in Sydney’s Martin Place and invited passers-by to sit down and have a conversation. In doing so, he effectively created a powerful safe to space. It was so successful that this model of conversation remains at the heart of how The Ethics Centre operates to this day. 

But the success of this – similar to any other safe to space – is that his Circle of Chairs didn’t just operate according to the norms of everyday conversation, let alone the standards of online comment sections or social media feeds. In these environments, the norms of conversation make it difficult to genuinely engage with challenging or controversial ideas.  

In conversations with friends and family, we often feel great pressure to conform with the views of others, or avoid topics that are taboo or that might invite rebukes from others. In many social contexts, disagreement is seen as being impolite or the priority is to reinforce common beliefs rather than challenge them.  

In the online space, conversation is more free, but it lacks the cues that allow us to humanise those we’re speaking to, leading to greater outrage and acrimony. The threat of being attacked online causes many of us to self-censor and not share controversial views or ask challenging questions. 

For a safe to space to work, it needs a different set of norms that enable people to speak, and listen, in good faith.  

These norms require us to withhold our judgement on the person speaking while allowing us to judge and criticise the content of what they’re saying. They encourage us to receive criticism of our beliefs while not regarding them as an attack on ourselves. They prompt us to engage in good faith and refrain from employing the usual rhetorical tricks that we often use to “win” arguments. These norms also demand that we be meta-rational by acknowledging the limits of our own knowledge and rationality, and require us to be open to new perspectives. 

Complementary spaces

It takes work to create safe to spaces but the rewards can be tremendous. These spaces offer blessed relief for people who all-too-often hold their tongue and refrain from expressing their authentic beliefs for fear of offence or the social repercussions of saying the “wrong thing”. They also serve to reveal the true diversity of views that exist among our peers, diversity that is often suppressed by the norms of social discourse. But, perhaps most importantly, they help us to confront difficult and important issues together. 

Crucially, safe to spaces don’t conflict with safe from spaces; they complement them. If we only had safe from spaces, then many difficult topics would go unexamined, many sources of harm and conflict would go unchallenged, new ideas would be suppressed and intellectual, social and ethical progress would suffer.  

Conversely, if we only had safe to spaces, then we wouldn’t have the refuges that many people need from the perils of the modern world; we shouldn’t expect people to have to confront difficulty, controversy or trauma in every moment of their lives.  

It is only when safe from and safe to are combined that we can both protect the vulnerable from harm without sacrificing our ability to understand and tackle the causes of harm. 

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Do safe spaces hinder progressive discourse?