The student held the placard boldly over her head. “No Safe Spaces Here,” was printed in handwritten scrawl. The protective part of my Aries nature kicked into high gear.
Those of us who work in higher education operate from the position of in loco parentis, a Latin term meaning “in place of the parent.” Our students are adults (barely) and have a lot of freedom, but they are also in our care. One of the first responsibilities we have is to keep students safe, hence the endless emergency drills and sexual harassment trainings.
Seeing this sign, I thought first not of the person holding it but of the students walking by and reading it. I summoned all of my authoritative energy and approached the small band of protestors.
In the short exchange that ensued, I became aware that our primary difference rested in a basic communication challenge. We were, quite simply, defining terms differently. I define “safe space” as a place where people of diverse races, religions, sexual orientations, and ideologies can relax in a sense of security and personal safety. This group of students defines “safe space” as a pansy-ass kowtowing to political correctness. They interpret the phrase to mean a restriction of free speech, while I see it as fertile ground for free speech, albeit while maintaining a level of mutual respect. They see it as a liberal agenda to make everyone warm and fuzzy (which is a perfectly fine agenda, in my personal opinion), and I see it as the very philosophy that allows them freedom to express without fear.
Despite the difference of definitions, I had to wonder why anyone would ever want to send the message “No Safe Space Here.” Do we only allow dangerous spaces here? Is this a demand? A warning?
Interestingly enough, I had already been thinking about definitions this week. In fact, I was toying with the idea of posting a Facebook request to my conservative friends to define “conservative” as they understand it. I was beginning to think that perhaps the real problem is that we simply define our terms in different ways.
I think many conservatives define a “conservative” as a fiscally-careful, small-government, bootstrap-pulling individualist while many liberals would define a “conservative” as a racist, homophobic, misogynistic, gun-loving bully. Conversely, I think many conservatives define a “liberal” as an out-of-touch, tree-hugging, politically correct socialist while many liberals define a “liberal” as an intelligent, sensitive, big-tent/big-picture lover of democracy.
We are quite simply speaking two different languages. We’ve created code words and buzz words and spun words until we sometimes aren’t quite sure what our own side is saying, let alone the other. It is so rare to hear a politician speak in a simple, declarative manner that we become practically weak-kneed when they do. We ask for clarification on matters, the politicians dance around it, and then we whimper back into the woodwork with a mild, “well, ok, then.”
Before I left the exchange with the protestors, I turned to the few students who had gathered. “My office is SRB 317. It is a safe space if any of you ever need one.” I don’t know how to fix the linguistic challenges we face as a nation, but I do know how to do parentis, and I’m a flat-out genius at loco. While we figure it all out, my students will have a space space. And we can play with puppies there. And sing “Kumbaya.”