The real history of the ‘safe space’

There’s much debate in the media about a culture of demanding ‘safe spaces’ at university campuses in the US, a culture which has been accused of restricting free speech by defining contrary opinions as harmful.

The history of safe spaces is an interesting one and a recent article in Fusion cited the concept as originating in the feminist and gay liberation movements of the 1960s.

But the concept of the ‘safe space’ didn’t start with these movements, it started in a much more unlikely place – corporate America – largely thanks to the work of psychologist Kurt Lewin.

Like so many great psychologists of the early 20th Century, Lewin was a Jewish academic who left Europe after the rise of Nazism and moved to the United States.

Although originally a behaviourist, he became deeply involved in social psychology at the level of small group interactions and eventually became director of the Center for Group Dynamics at MIT.

Lewin’s work was massively influential and lots of our everyday phrases come from his ideas. The fact we talk about ‘social dynamics’ at all, is due to him, and the fact we give ‘feedback’ to our colleagues is because Lewin took the term from engineering and applied it to social situations.

In the late 1940s, Lewin was asked to help develop leadership training for corporate bosses and out of this work came the foundation of the National Training Laboratories and the invention of sensitivity training which was a form of group discussion where members could give honest feedback to each other to allow people to become aware of their unhelpful assumptions, implicit biases, and behaviours that were holding them back as effective leaders.

Lewin drew on ideas from group psychotherapy that had been around for years but formalised them into a specific and brief focused group activity.

One of the ideas behind sensitivity training, was that honesty and change would only occur if people could be frank and challenge others in an environment of psychological safety. In other words, without judgement.

Practically, this means that there is an explicit rule that everyone agrees to at the start of the group. A ‘safe space’ is created, confidential and free of judgement but precisely to allow people to mention concerns without fear of being condemned for them, on the understanding that they’re hoping to change.

It could be anything related to being an effective leader, but if we’re thinking about race, participants might discuss how, even though they try to be non-racist, they tend to feel fearful when they see a group of black youths, or that they often think white people are stuck up, and other group members, perhaps those affected by these fears, could give alternative angles.

The use of sensitivity groups began to gain currency in corporate America and the idea was taken up by psychologists such as the humanistic therapist Carl Rogers who, by the 1960s, developed the idea into encounter groups which were more aimed at self-actualisation and social change, in line with the spirit of the times, but based on the same ‘safe space’ environment. As you can imagine, they were popular in California.

It’s worth saying that although the ideal was non-judgement, the reality could be a fairly rocky emotional experience, as described by a famous 1971 study on ‘encounter group casualties’.

From here, the idea of safe space was taken up by feminist and gay liberation groups, but with a slightly different slant, in that sexist or homophobic behaviour was banned by mutual agreement but individuals could be pulled up if it occurred, with the understanding that people would make an honest attempt to recognise it and change.

And finally we get to the recent campus movements, where the safe space has become a public political act. Rather than individuals opting in, it is championed or imposed (depending on which side you take) as something that should define acceptable public behaviour.

In other words, creating a safe space is considered to be a social responsibility and you can opt out, but only by leaving.

8 thoughts on “The real history of the ‘safe space’”

  1. it never stop to astonish me that actually people exist who’ll believe that they won’t follow their primitive programming and thus try to exert the maximum of benefit from the least effort. As in ‘safe spaces’ which is just another means to get the majority to adapt to their selfish pov. You want a safe space? Stay at home in your bed and never leave it so the ugly world (aka reality) can’t intrude.

  2. It article seems a bit muddled to make sense of the various threads but it’s interesting to read some of the social background. Jonathan Haidt tries to lay “safe space” ideas at the feet of Herbert Marcuse in his recent flippant video about StrengthenU vs CoddleU

    1. s/it article/that article in fusion/

      What makes me suspicious about retrospectives that don’t rely on primary sources is how easy it is to project anachronism onto the past or find something that fits a story that is much more complicated. There’s also the issue of what is driving what – to what extent are the ideas instrumental. There has been a lot of ridicule aimed at the idea of “safe spaces” which its purveyors seem impervious to, maybe because to them it’s beside the point, a tool to arrive at the social goal.

  3. Thanks for the past perspective. As civil rights groups diversify more, there are fewer generalities we can assign. First off we need to stop confusing terms.

    Freedom of speech refers to US Constitutional law – if you can speak your mind without getting arrested, you have freedom of speech. In some countries, you or your family would get a knock on the door at 3 am. We should be grateful we don’t live in a place like that. We have a saying in the US – “I might not agree with what you say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it”.

    What people are actually complaining about is freedom of expression – that their views are not welcomed everywhere. A bit more whiny.

    Censorship is when books get labelled, edited or banned. Historically, fighting censorship has been considered patriotic.

    The confusion on campus comes when we confuse freedom of expression for students with freedom of expression for those in a position of power. A white male professor telling a student she is required to read a book littered with racism, or a speaker with divisive views should expect their freedom of expression to be blocked if a campus is already struggling with inequality.

    This is not the same thing as helicopter parenting resulting in lazy, overprivelleged brats. The Missouri journalist better toughen up if he wants to be a professional someday; far from a symptom of fragility, racial tension in the US is at a tinderbox level; wading into that minefield is something he’ll need to face more and more if he wants to cover these events.

    In US workplaces there’s a system that works very well; the idea that sexual harassment is “anything that makes you uncomfortable” is based on the fact that women still rarely report harassment, fearing it will ostracise them at work and that they won’t be believed. Now, male coworkers can’t say “I didn’t mean it that way, she just can’t take a joke”. The current rule (and law) tells workers that intent no longer matters; so people are inherently more likely to watch what they say. Jonathan Haidt mocked this concept, though as another journalist pointed out, this article offered only ancdotes as “evidence”.

    Similarly, a “hostile work environment” is a newly defined law that discourages bullying and organized targeting of minorities. Both these concepts would work very well on campus and I don’t know why they’re not implemented.

    It’s worth noting that as employees of the college, any paid authorities (professors, speakers) are supposed to adhere to these laws. Students should have more freedom of expression, as other students are not required to obey or concede to their views.

    But seeing racial slurs around campus, even if dispirate, does create a “hostile environment” something that we white folk might not see since we don’t have to hear a speech tinged with racism then walk home alone at night on a racist campus.

    While many kids are spoiled these days, that doesn’t mean institutional racism isn’t a real thing. “Feminists and gay rights groups”, and other civil rights groups, are calling on straight white folks (and men) to take the lead on these issues.

    If we expect the victims to solve the problems on their own, don’t expect the solution to be elegant.

  4. WRT Kurt Lewin: My recollection (from several decades ago) regarding him and T-Groups was that he added the qualification that the goal was “optimum communication, not maximum communication”. Even if it wasn’t him, I still rather liked the observation.

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