You’re Already in a Safe Space

By Zouhair Mazouz, MPP 2017

safe-space-picturePicture source:

Full disclosure: That night, I meant to stir the pot.

In the 2015 academic year, I had made a point out of boycotting meetings organized by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arab Caucus. As an Arab myself, I was outraged to learn that the Caucus explicitly described its events as “intended for Arab graduate students at Harvard only.” My boycott wasn’t accomplishing much. Something had to be done. By the beginning of my second year at Harvard, I had a plan: make the Arab Caucus’s first meeting as diverse as possible. The Caucus’s bylaws outlined that its membership was open to the whole Kennedy School community. This was in accordance of the university’s rules, which prohibited discrimination in student bodies. I convinced students from all backgrounds to register: Algeria, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan, India, France, the United States, Denmark, Trinidad & Tobago and (even) Israel. To add a cherry on top, I announced my candidacy for President of the Arab Caucus.

On September 20th 2016, the table was set. So I sat and watched.

It was not long before my Arab colleagues started signaling to non-Arabs in the room that they were not welcome. For some reason, they elected to speak Arabic around a table where multiple nationalities were represented. I objected: “Guys, there are non-Arabic speakers in the room.” New attendees noticed discomfort on some faces. All of a sudden, the agenda of the meeting shifted from introducing the Caucus to deciding who could vote in its elections. A Jordanian student addressed non-Arabs: “You are welcome here… But we also need our safe space.” An American objected: “Do you feel unsafe around me?!” By then, it was already a lost cause. The Caucus’s new guests started excusing themselves from the meeting.

This issue resurfaces every year in American universities, fueled by disturbing incidents on campuses. In the past two years alone, the term “safe space” was used to justify all sorts of irrational behavior. There was that campaign at Brandeis University against activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her views on Islamism, ultimately leading to the cancellation of her commencement speech. Then there was the bullying from Yale University students of their professors for merely suggesting that Halloween costumes, no matter how offensive, should not be banned. Just two instances of what The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf coined the “weaponization of safe space.” Some university administrators started pushing back. In a letter welcoming 2016’s Fresh(wo)men, University of Chicago’s Dean of Students didn’t mince words, “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.” I’m not ashamed to admit that the tone of the letter deeply resonated with me.

I don’t believe the activists who pioneered the concept of “safe space” in the 1960s for women and sexual minorities would have approved of the Arab Caucus’s dynamics at HKS. Nor can I understand why “safe spaces” for specific identity groups have become a norm in educational institutions. Ironically, my experience with the Arab Caucus’s “safe space” made me feel quite unsafe as an Arab voice of dissent, let alone those students who were foreign to my culture but genuinely interested in learning about it.

I grew up in Morocco, where dissenting views are systematically oppressed. For me, that was anything but a “safe space”: neither the laws nor social conventions were on my side. When I stepped foot in Harvard, it felt like heaven. I was free to pursue knowledge. I could express my opinion without fear of persecution. Most importantly, I matured into a citizen of the world, not bound by any one identity. This was the one place I could meet students from all over the globe and learn from their stories. I tapped into that reservoir of diversity without restraint. It made me feel smaller, but also richer. I was particularly exhilarated when connecting to people I was raised all my life to hate. Here at Harvard, it was possible all of a sudden.

The idea that students from a specific country, religion or ideological background are entitled to isolation is horrifying to say the least. It is a slippery slope, for it may very well lead to the ghettoization of identities in a place where that is utterly unnecessary. This especially holds true for those of us coming from regions marred by conflict, war, and ethnic strife. A space that shelters Indians from Pakistanis, Arabs from Israelis, Moroccans from Algerians, or conservatives from liberals under the guise of “safety” is not safe at all. It is a perpetuation of state of affairs that we have all come here to change, supposedly.

An admission to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government is a great privilege. With that privilege comes the monumental responsibility of allowing oneself to be challenged beyond the comfort that any group affiliation can provide. At stake here is not just freedom of enquiry and information, but our very ability as university students to reform a troubled world. If an environment that unties you of identity constraints is not a safe space, then I don’t know what is.