Reassessing the Notion of ‘Safe Space’

We understand the recent discussion about political correctness in TSL to be largely grounded in the value of the term as an end or a goal. The questions asked seem to be about what political correctness means, what it does, what interests it serves, whether we should “move beyond it” and, if so, how. 

Instead, we think it would be valuable to refocus the conversation around a different formulation of these questions. Specifically, we are interested in asking: how do we as a community understand what it means to be “correctly” political?

By “being political,” we don’t mean (only) what pertains to the realm of politics, i.e., administrative governance or policy. We’re referring instead to the practices of relating to each other as members of a community: how we want to engage with one another about sharing spaces, resources, experiences and ideas. The question is then about the means by which we practice politics—the ways we go about deciding how to live together – and the values that inform those practices.

Likewise, by asking that we talk more about what it means to be “correctly” political, we are not in any way trying to allude to notions of propriety and politeness—of a “proper” way of being political, one that reconstitutes already valued understandings of how we should relate to one another and dialogue about common issues. This reading of political correctness—one that implies adherence or deference to relational practices that maintain a comfortable status quo (for some)—is where much of the conversation around political correctness gets muddled, because it is precisely the opposite goal of those who are being accused of “excessive political correctness.”

For example, we take the stance that using trigger warnings and avoiding jokes about rape are ways of framing one’s speech that should be practiced so that survivors of sexual assault are able to participate in (political) dialogue. These practices have been accused of being part of a culture of excessive political correctness at Pomona. To that end, they buy into what David Foster Wallace cites in “Tense Present” as “[Politically Correct English]’s central fallacy,” as cited elsewhere in this conversation.

When survivors of sexual assault and some
other forms of violent trauma are triggered, they can be plunged into a
physiological response to this trauma that results from perceiving a memory as present circumstance. When we choose a mode of expression that precludes
survivor participation in conversations in these ways, we are complicit in producing attitudes of disregard and devaluation towards their
mere presence at the table, much less what they have to share. We should cultivate a campus environment that is safe for
survivors, and making the effort to understand these logics and apply them to
changing how we speak is a vital part of how we conceive of being correctly
political.

This is an under-discussed dimension of the notion of “safe space” that is
often misunderstood. In our understanding of “correct political practice,” the
security of a “safe space” is designed to ensure that people who are
systematically marginalized feel invited, welcome and able to participate in
the conversation. It does not entitle privilege to be reasserted and unchallenged by other people at that table, or to shelter us from others’ free and empowered expression of arguments that make us uncomfortable. 

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