The Pitt News

Asking for Space

Students+protesting+Milo+Yiannopoulos%27+presentation.+Abigail+Self+%7C+Staff+Photographer
Students protesting Milo Yiannopoulos' presentation. Abigail Self | Staff Photographer

Students protesting Milo Yiannopoulos' presentation. Abigail Self | Staff Photographer

Students protesting Milo Yiannopoulos' presentation. Abigail Self | Staff Photographer

By Krithika Pennathur / For The Pitt News

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“Two, four, six, eight — stop the violence, stop the rape.”

“Trump, Trump, Trump.”

The chants from opposing groups mingled with conservative British activist Milo Yiannopoulos’ presentation in the William Pitt Union assembly room on a Tuesday night last semester.

A crowd of more than 350 people joined Yiannopoulos that night for his lecture on free speech — some bringing support, others bringing protest signs and middle finger greetings. Yiannopoulos is known for his outspoken denial of topics including unequal pay statistics and the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement.

By the end of the night, Pitt police escorted about 17 people out of the room. A few students left sobbing.

Throughout the night, about 15 students held up signs saying, “My friend who is depressed needs a safe space,” and, “My friend who was raped needs a safe space.”

The Safe Space Network, an information and resource website, defines a safe space as “a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or unsafe.”

While safe spaces are sometimes thought of as an escape from controversial speeches like Yiannopoulos’, the term has spurred a debate all on its own, especially on large college campuses, where political and social standpoints are frequently flung about in public.

Supporters of safe spaces say they offer a place to get away from prejudices and represent a standard of respect. Others feel that safe spaces shelter young people from the real world and push for conformity to a leftist viewpoint.

Sara Yablonski, a rising junior and the rising Rainbow Alliance president, said respect is at the core of the idea.

“A safe space simply represents an environment where we can strive to respect each other’s identities and life experiences, and find respect in return,” Yablonski said.

After Yiannopoulos’ visit, other conservative speakers came who prompted similar discussions: a pastor who thinks gender reassignment surgery is a sin and presidential candidate Donald Trump.

But none of them brought         national attention like Yiannopoulos, whose colleagues at Breitbart News Network, a conservative news outlet, backed him up by commenting on Pitt’s fiasco.

Charlie Nash, a commentator at Breitbart, wrote that the reactions of Pitt students who called for a safe space from Yiannopoulos’ viewpoints were a sure sign that “academia is failing.” 

“These are students who are legal adults and on the cusp of entering the real world, yet they’re in tears over the fact that someone, who they need not even listen to, disagreed with them,” he continued.

According to Ben Kew, another Breitbart writer, safe spaces can be the exact opposite of what they’re intended to be, as some student groups attempt to “impose” safe space policies on others.

“This can lead to them actually trying to control other people’s right to speak and hold a platform,” Kew said in an email. “This is an infraction of freedom of speech and the first amendment, a key component of a civilised society and one of the foundations on which America was built.”

Is the concept of a safe space destroying the sanctity of college campuses, once thought of as breeding grounds for intellectual debate and passionate protest?

According to activist Moira Kenney’s book “Mapping Gay L.A.,” the idea of safe spaces began in the mid-1960s within gay and lesbian bars. At the time, a safe space was somewhere a person could be “out” and resist oppression — until police raided the bar.

The term itself was first used sometime during the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. It was not meant as necessarily a physical space, but a community where women could distance themselves from patriarchal thought.

“Safe space” was used to describe the consciousness-raising groups popular at the time, where women would discuss their lives and how they related to gender inequality.

At Pitt, protests about police brutality, Black Lives Matter and a $15 minimum wage swept through campus on an almost monthly basis last year. And when anti-abortion advocates set up in front of WPU, arguments erupted between the two sides.

It would seem that hearty debate and discussion is still thriving in academia — at least for now. According to Kew, safe spaces would put an end to that and completely destroy the voice of the underrepresented right, which exists in much greater volume in the “real world.”

“The negative consequences of safe spaces are that they do not prepare students for the outside world, which is not a ‘safe space,’” Kew said in an email. “As someone who suffers from anxiety, it is my firm belief that creating a ‘safe space’ where all reference to anything that is possibly ‘triggering’ … only leads to students with mental health issues becoming further enveloped in their own self-pity.”

Marcus Robinson, the current president of Rainbow Alliance, said acknowledging that you have the power to hurt someone through your words and actions is a part of life as natural as cruelty.

“That’s not coddling, that’s just basic human kindness to one another,” Robinson said. “By no means is a safe space a perfect space because no one’s perfect … At the end of the day, [it is] just making a space for people that’s as welcoming as possible.”

Flipping Kew’s argument, Robinson and the rest of Rainbow Alliance have tried to diversify their events based on the “real world.”

“We’re acknowledging that these other identities need to exist and that they need to be talked about,” he said.

On Pitt’s campus, clubs that support marginalized groups become safe spaces of their own, rising sophomore Jeff Unterberger said.

“I think any of the safe spaces would be clubs that are made to help support a minority group such as Black Action Society or Rainbow Alliance,” Unterberger said. “They’re important so people … can be expressive of their thoughts.”

Like the spaces that formed naturally in gay and lesbian bars in the ’60s, Yablonski said organizations like Rainbow Alliance offer a reprieve from discomfort.

“The first time I went to one of Rainbow’s events during freshman year, I knew instantly that I was in an environment where I did not have to hide or dance around myself,” Yablonski said, “Their sense of comfort didn’t rely on my conformity to any social norms but on mutual respect.”

Being an undergraduate, Yablonski said, is taking your first real step into the world. It’s a place where students often claim to lose and find themselves, and each other, in and out of safe spaces.

“I look at the undergraduate experience as just one avenue a person can take to grow themselves as an individual,” Yablonski said. “An important part of growing up is recognizing that you will meet other people who are vastly different from you, whose experiences and feelings are real and oftentimes painful.”

Alexa Bakalarski contributed reporting.

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Asking for Space