The University of Chicago and the Holiness of Safe Spaces

There has been much ado about a letter from the University of Chicago to freshman informing them that they are not to expect “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings.” Ostensibly, Dr. John Ellison, and the university he represents have taken this stance because they value “freedom of inquiry and expression.” I believe this to be a noble concept. I also don’t believe “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings” undermine “freedom of inquiry and expression”; I believe they support them. Bringing diverse communities together in mutually beneficial ways means establishing rules for communication and engagement in order for people to have the opportunity to show up fully. The alternative is the objectification of minority and underprivileged groups of people for the gaze and benefit of the powerful. Too often people care more about whether your body is in the room than the presence of your mind or the state of your soul.

I wonder if the people approving and/or affirming this letter have ever had to fight for the right to BE and SPEAK in a space formerly prohibited to you and the deep powerlessness of trying and failing to be seen and heard despite your best attempts knowing full well that your failure is the result of your lone voice assaulting centuries of protected privilege. I wonder if those touting this as noble have ever had their very humanity attacked and diminished by dominant voices and perspectives so accustomed to domination that any suggestion that they make room for others feels like “oppression” and “discrimination.” I wonder if those who feel like this move is long overdue have ever felt the searing and dehumanizing pain of having your personal trauma and cultural agony seen as an academic exercise accessible through a sterile microscope or read about in a text book.

In my opinion this conversation is about power and privilege. More specifically, this is about who or what lies at the center of our discourse. We Americans tend to place “freedom” at the center. Freedom is about the power to assert one’s agency into a public space. It’s the power to be. It is not lost on me that we in the middle of a Presidential election wherein a particular candidate has profited from mocking disabled people, spreading false statistics to support black criminality, conflating an entire religion with terrorism (despite the history of Christian terrorism in THIS country), and hurling misogynistic slurs to name a few. In the months leading up to his nomination, his assault on “political correctness” has only caused him to increase in the polls. He has the “freedom” to do this. When “freedom” is at the center of our discourse, we don’t value or see one another. We see only ourselves, our desires, our beliefs, and our needs. If we see others, particularly someone who is different, we see them as competition.

But what if compassion and commitment to one another was at the center of our discourse? What if we heard and felt the brokenness some people feel and valued them enough to give them advanced warning when discussions would center around their experience – experiences that would make some of our minds snap? What if we did create spaces where people could develop and grow without having to fight for survival with every waking breath. What if the powerful left their thrones and made room for the lowly? What if the rich made room for the poor?

Maybe every college and university isn’t supposed to be this king of space? What do I know. I am a priest in a parish. I don’t exist in the ivory tower of higher education. What I do know is the experience of people I meet on the street (and in the church) – women who are constantly assaulted by the relentlessness of sexism, black and brown people still suffocating under the boot of racism and white supremacy, LGBTQ people dying because of cis-heteronormative patriarchy, poor people crushed by classism, and immigrants dying under the pall of nativist patriotism. Sometimes my experience and perspective is diametrically opposed to theirs. I could challenge them. I could deny them safe spaces in the name of my “freedom of inquiry and expression.”

But why? Instead, I feel rather inclined to create safe spaces for them to feel human and seen, even for a brief moment, in a dog-eat-dog world that conditions human beings to fight one another for sport and survival. Compassion acknowledges that even if I don’t feel it personally, sexism, racism, classism, and toxic patriotism do exist for some people in such a way that they are prevented from thriving. Creating a compassionate world is not only a heart-to-heart endeavor, it also involves our institutions and our systems. We have a responsibility to frame the kind of society we endeavor to have, even as we continue to strive to make it a reality. Creating spaces that reflect the diversity of our world do not just happen. They are intentional. It means making room for others. It means sharing.

So if the University of Chicago wants to decry “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” as an assault on “freedom of inquiry and expression,” so be it. I believe differently. I believe that crossing difference and coming into conversation and relationship with compassion and understanding at the center is important.

I also believe it to be inherently holy.

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