A Different Kind of Safe Space

Ted Gup in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Photo_78205_landscape_850x566This is a sanctuary for free speech,” I will tell my students next week at their first class in nonfiction writing. With this manifesto I begin each semester and have for 30-plus years. What does it mean? It means that in here, you can say anything. “Anything?” a student will inevitably ask, signaling both mischief and anxiety.


If they want to say the F-word, they are free to do so. (Frankly, I prefer it to an endless barrage of “likes” and “you knows.”) They can say or write the N-word, and any other term of racial, gender, or ethnic disparagement. Now I have their attention. I may or may not be in violation of a college rule, but I am clearly outside the “safe zone.” And that’s fine, because outside of it is where I want to be, and where I want them to be.This is, after all, a class in writing, and words are not to be trifled with. They have consequences. You want to use a word — any word — fine by me, but be prepared to accept what happens next. No, I will not reprimand you, but neither will I rush in to save you. It is a lesson not only in the power of words, but in democracy, free speech, and responsibility.

Words are dangerous, but not as dangerous as efforts to suppress them, be it by government or dean — and certainly not as insidious as self-censorship. I know my views are not shared by some colleagues and students (although not a one has ever complained), particularly in this age of safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions, and speech codes. And no, I am not a reactionary conservative but an old-school liberal, a devotee of John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell, who, in a joyful display of defiance, titled one of his collections Unpopular Essays. But on one point Russell and I part company. He said that “all movements go too far.” He is mostly right, but not with regard to free speech. Here, there is no too far. The very idea of capping speech suffocates the imagination. Another of my favorite writers, E.B. White, wrote that “in a free country it is the duty of writers to pay no attention to duty.” I’ve always loved that quote, but I think it craves an asterisk. There is a duty: to be true to oneself.

More here.