Debate team hosts safe spaces debate

By Sarah Frazer || Staff Writer 

This past Tuesday, Franklin and Marshall’s debate team hosted a public debate, the topic of which was “Are Safe Spaces Good for F&M.” Arguing in favor of safe spaces was Lee Scaralia ’19, Emily Ritchey ’20, and Edwin Bogert ’17. Arguing in opposition to safe spaces was Alex Mericola ’19, Will Kay ’20, and Alicia Depler ’17. Scaralia spoke as a representative of SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Alliance), while Mericola represented the College Republicans. Everyone else, including Mericola, was on the debate team. Before the debate began, Jesse Dean, a junior debater who introduced the event, noted that the views that would be expressed were not necessarily ones actually held by the debaters expressing them.

Both sides agreed on a common definition of safe spaces to use. That definition is as follows: One, in safe spaces, people provide trigger warnings in public events or classrooms for sensitive, possibly traumatizing material. Two, in such spaces, hate speech is censured. Three, discriminatory barriers within academic settings are eliminated and anonymous reporting systems to eliminate teacher bias are established. Four, these are individualized spaces for marginalized groups. Based on these terms, both sides, pro and against, argued that safe spaces were either good or bad for the F&M community. Each debater spoke once, and both sides alternated which one spoke when.

The pro went first; they had four main points. Firstly, the students argued that safe spaces enable students to focus better and are, thus, more open to learning. If students do not feel safe, they will not be willing to express their opinions, meaning that providing a safe space would, in effect, allow for more speech. Bogert went a step further, arguing that safe spaces lead to a greater diversity and amount of speech. There’s no tradeoff between safety and freedom, he said, and, in fact, limiting some speech will ultimately lead to a greater amount of speech.

Their second point was that hate speech limits communication. As Scaralia argued, hate speech “does not allow students to engage with each other in meaningful ways.” People who are the subjects of hate speech feel personally attacked, which will make them respond defensively, Ritchey pointed out. In contrast, students in safe spaces can discuss a topic objectively and civilly, solving this problem. If students are able to speak to each other rationally, and are not the recipients of hate speech, then no echo chamber will be created. Safe spaces are intended to be open for everyone to be heard and, most importantly, not silenced by hate.

The third point expressed by the pro side is that safe spaces do not pose a threat to anyone’s speech, provided that he is not being discriminatory. In other words, this side argued, speakers or professors have nothing to worry about if they are acting, essentially, how they should act anyway. “Professors are here to teach students” and to serve them, Ritchey elaborated. She continued that students may feel unsafe by what a professor says, but if the classroom were a safe space, then they would not have to worry. Bogert, argued that even in non-safe spaces, people adjust what they say to make it productive and more conciliatory.

Finally, the students presenting the pro side contended that safe spaces do not cause individuals to be coddled. According to Scaralia, “the students who face discrimination could not possibly forget that hatred exists in the real world.” Rather, safe spaces are meant to level the playing field and to provide each student with an equal opportunity. Moreover, as Bogert contended, “not every discussion has to be about changing minds.” Safe spaces are for students in marginalized groups to discuss their problems or coping mechanisms, among other topics specific to that group.

To these points, the against side argued that safe spaces will limit more than just hate speech, since they will become echo chambers, Kay said. According to him, “when you create an echo chamber, you will have a warped view of what the other side believes.” Depler contended that the purpose of education is to engage with ideas, even those with which we disagree. Specifically for F&M, she said, there is “less of a need for safe space on an already pretty liberal campus.”

The against-safe spaces side presented three primary points, the first of which is that safe spaces limit free speech. According to Mericola, “ideas in a college setting should be expressed freely in order to promote things like creativity.” Speaking at F&M in particular, Mericola contended that the “real purpose of going to college… is to learn things” and “have our world view changed.” Safe spaces prevent some ideas from being heard. In actuality, Kay argued, plenty of students will not feel safe in safe spaces, since safe spaces have an inherently liberal bias. People with a more conservative political ideology, a decent portion of this campus, will feel alienated in a safe space. Furthermore, “censorship is inherently bad,” Mericola said, since one cannot fight back against it. As an example, the College Republicans have repeatedly tried to get a conservative speaker to speak at Common Hour. However, they have not been able to, it would seem, because that speaker may say something that some would consider offensive.

Their second point is that safe spaces create echo chambers, a term that has been used frequently since the election and refers to a place where opposing viewpoints are not heard or engaged with. Mericola argued that these “create a distorted view of the opposition,” which triggers a terrible cycle in which people on one side never actually learn what the other side believes. Depler pointed out that “you can’t understand what you’ve never encountered.” They do not even see the same news stories. Additionally, no one is saying hate speech is good, but it is important to encounter. As a few students mentioned, contact theory says that to change something, one must come into contact with it. Also, since college is meant to prepare us for the real world, should it not be modeled on the real world.

The third reason given that safe spaces are bad is that they will be misused. Professors are always going to worry about what they can say, meaning that they will not be able to teach effectively. According to the students on the against side, this fear is because one comment can force a professor to be fired, such as what happened with the Yale dean, who made a comment about cultural appropriation. Moreover, safe spaces will not foster dialogue between people with opposing views since people who disagree with those, who have created the safe space, are not going to choose to go.

In response, the pro side pointed to the fact that free speech is already limited by the Constitution, if that speech presents a clear and present danger. Ritchey argued that free speech is not all encompassing. Private institutions do not need to guarantee free speech under the Constitution, Bogert argued. The students said that racism and hatred are much different than conservatism, an ideology which would not be limited. According to Ritchey, speakers might be denied for good reason, because they might not contribute to productive discussion.

Sophomore Sarah Frazer is a staff writer. Her email is sfrazer@fandm.edu.

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