Safe space is a term with many meanings. But here on Penn’s campus, it’s often referred to as a forum for open dialogue and conversation free from intolerable discrimination or emotional harm. Topics of identity politics and social issues are common components of campus conversations labeled as safe spaces. Guidelines are created in order to encourage people to be more thoughtful before speaking. They are intended to hold people accountable for their words and actions.
Penn has students from all walks of life. Our differences in backgrounds, identities, and beliefs should be celebrated and utilized to bridge mutual understanding rather than weaponized as a source to be called out. You can offer someone your own perspective without forcibly trying to “correct” their beliefs with the assumption that your terminologies and beliefs are the most morally sound. Harmful language should never be tolerated. But consider the dangers of silencing people’s true opinions. We can hold a critical view of the world while also checking our own egos and biases to understand where others are coming from.
But not all campus conversations have been praised for their sensitivity. Some faculty at institutions such as the University of Chicago condemn “intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
In addition to the existence of space spaces within campus culture, some people go an extra step to voice their disapproval when someone has said or done something “problematic.” In the context of activism, calling someone or something "problematic" is a loaded statement. It is an implication of offense, perhaps even moral wrongdoing in the eyes of the critic. In some cases, it’s used as a catch-all umbrella term to accuse someone of contributing to a larger social "-ism," e.g. racism, sexism, etc., without specifying exactly what the issue at hand is.
As imperfect humans, Penn students cannot be perfect judges of morality or correctness. We are not free from our own biases, we do not have perfect information, and many of us have been both victims and perpetrators of injustices. We should stand up for our core values, but we can do it without shutting down potentially meaningful conversations or publicly humiliating someone.
Verbal callouts are similar to safe spaces in that they are intended to hold people accountable. The age of digital activism has allowed for public call-outs and widespread cancel culture. Although call-out culture has been fundamental in modern-day activism, it’s time to recognize the dangers that come with it.
Although Penn is an institution that encourages free speech and all schools of thought, the reality is that there are many students who repress their complete thoughts out of fear of not knowing the "academic terminology,” not wanting to seem "non-PC,” or not wanting to be called out.
When is it appropriate to stop controversial language and when is it necessary to allow difficult conversations to flow? When, if at all, should the line be drawn between meaningful criticism and unfair judgments? Is call-out culture more harmful than it is productive in creating a more equitable and just world?
These are some important questions Penn students can ask themselves before they become too blinded by their own biases. When self-righteous students drown out the voices of those trying to learn, they are invalidating others’ experiences and beliefs at the expense of their own moral compass.
The condemnation of Amy Wax is one of Penn’s primary examples of call-out culture. The infamous Penn Law School professor has repeatedly been under fire for her claim that “all cultures are not equal” in a 2017 Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed. Since her publication, Wax has been called an insult to Penn’s values and has been the subject of various critical statements made by Penn Law Dean Ted Ruger, Latinx Law Students Association, and 33 Penn Law faculty members. A petition with over 60,000 signatures calls for her resignation.
Wax responded to this call-out by telling readers not to follow this lead of condemning people for their views without providing a reasoned argument. Wax makes some important, valid points about the importance of being exposed to diverse arguments. Shielding ourselves from undesirable opinions could certainly lead to dead dogma. Indeed, “avoiding and shunning people” with different political viewpoints can be contradictory to the nature of democracy.
But the harmful effects of Amy Wax’s statements go beyond posing an argument open for productive, civil debate. Her words uphold a system of prejudice and white supremacist beliefs, and even if she herself does not endorse Nazism or other racist ideologies, her position of power allows for people in those groups to use her words as ammunition for those very causes.
There’s a difference between language that brings harm and someone trying to express their own beliefs in an attempt to broaden their perspectives. When language or behavior brings tangible harm to a marginalized individual or community, calling out that harmful language is necessary to break the cycle of oppression.
That is the difference between shutting down a potential conversation with someone who actually wants to learn and engage versus condemning someone who has expressed irrefutably hateful language.
Still, there are some takeaways that people from all ideologies could benefit from. Penn students should consider the dangers of policing someone’s words. Clubs can outline meetings or conversation spaces with clear rules if they can give definitions of terminology important to the discussion so that no one is left confused or too embarrassed to speak up and ask about the “appropriate” words to use.
If you have the capacity to, challenge yourself to engage with a different perspective. Pushback in an academic setting can occur in more productive ways than assuming that someone is unable to engage with you rationally and choosing to leave the conversation.
TON NGUYEN is a college junior from Atlanta, Ga. studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org