What are Safe Spaces Good for?

So-called “safe spaces” get criticized as zones where everything “uncomfortable” is banned, dissenting ideas are quashed, and people are shielded from conflict to the point of being infantilized. But is that really what’s happening?

The origin of the “safe space” concept is uncertain. Dissent Magazine offers a few possibilities:

The term “safe space” has multiple origin stories—Moira Kenney’s Mapping Gay L.A. links safe spaces to gay and lesbian bars, where, as Malcolm Harris described in Fusion, “a safe space meant somewhere you could be out and in good company—at least until the cops showed up” in the midst of repressive anti-sodomy laws and social discrimination. The “safe spaces” of sixties and seventies feminism offered a similar hope for good company: the hope for comrades with whom women could be equal partners in political organizing, a community in which individual women’s experiences were validated not simply as either emotional or political, but as emotional and therefore political.

They could be described, then, as venues where individuals who shared similarly oppressive experiences could talk about them openly and without fear of critique. They were environments of mutual respect and understanding. This is the central component of a safe space. Going further:

Evan Zavidow, a facilitator for AllSex, a current Barnard/Columbia program that meets biweekly to discuss sexuality, identity, and gender, defines “safe spaces” as places that try to be inclusive, value personal safety and self care without judgment, and assume the good intent of peers. AllSex members, like the women who sought to make Greenham Common inclusive to women by asking men to leave, are attentive to how exclusion operates in ostensibly integrated environments. Alongside its mixed-gender and mixed-race sections, AllSex designates sections for specific identities based on the preferences of participants of color, women, and/or non-gender conforming people. Unlike the Greenham Common peace camp, AllSex is also attentive to language as exclusionary. The group recently changed its name from “FemSex” so as not to alienate people who did not identify as females and/or women. While AllSex is not aligned with a particular political ideology, “there is something inherently political in carving out a community of relatively diverse individuals and discussing taboo topics,” says Zavidow. Similar to historic safe spaces, AllSex’s biweekly sections are not necessarily engaged in public politics, but have, in Zavidow’s experience, “political potential.”

Another key point is raised here: “assum[ing] the good intent of peers.” This is essential to the operation of a safe space, and why they can be so difficult to create and maintain. Everyone brings their own experiences, beliefs, and prejudices, and it’s not uncommon for a person hearing about an unfamiliar experience to distrust and challenge it. But suppressing this impulse is how the individual listening and speaking in a safe space contributes to its safety. Safe spaces do not destroy dissent, but force that dissent to be constructive and to serve the broader goals of the group and the individuals within it. Indeed, this is exactly what the safe spaces built by leftist activists in the 1960s were doing:

The black and feminist left that built safe spaces in activism is an unfortunate blind spot in the memories of leftists like Todd Gitlin, who bemoans safe spaces as evidence of “fearful” college protesters. Last November in the New York Times, Gitlin described safe spaces as evidence that “too many students doubt that their community is, or can be, strong enough to stand up for itself,” comparing their seemingly useless emotions to the actions of sixties activists—“radical change is not for the narrow-minded or weak-hearted.” Meanwhile each sixties-era marginalized group to which he now prescribes glory—LGBTQ activists, civil rights activists, feminists—used safe spaces as a basis for their activism. Each action that Gitlin rightfully pays homage to, from bus boycotts to organizing press, could not have happened without that blissful discovery of a community in which one, at least temporarily, feels listened to and valued equally. In painting safe spaces as illustrative of the weakness of a new generation, Gitlin ignores a fundamental component of the history in which he took part. He forgets the day before a protest: the therapeutic revelation of a common experience, the thrill of bearing your soul to a room full of comrades who validate your experiences as gendered, racial, political, and important.

An early manifestation of such safe spaces were the consciousness-raising groups of sixties feminists, which provided intimate environments for sharing personal experiences with the ultimate goal of political action. Like the safe spaces of Mizzou activists, consciousness-raising groups prioritized personal experience in making political decisions, and were often formed on the basis of shared identity and/or oppression. Barbara Epstein has described consciousness-raising groups as a means of questioning “abstract principles (so often used by men to legitimize their power)” and recognizing “personal experience and perceptions as a legitimate basis for political analysis.”

In other words, a personal experience is a starting point to discussing the possibilities of political change. If those experiences are instead met with derision and invalidation, the discourse is unraveled. A group of people who share similar histories of oppression and persecution cannot find common cause together if they are constantly arguing the legitimacy of each other’s experiences. Instead, it is better to take each personal story as de facto legitimate and valid, and to build consensus from what has been shared. As the Dissent article notes, this privileges direct experience–life as lived–over academic theory. White men likely view this as threatening precisely because it undermines historical measures of control and oppression, not to mention expectations of masculinity:

Activist spaces, and especially academic activist spaces, have long been dominated by the masculine preference for theory over experience. But as River Bunkley, an Emory student involved in the NAACP, Black Student Alliance, and Advocates for Racial Justice, among his many intersectional activist engagements, points out: “being able to hurt, cry, laugh, and thrive in spaces that don’t seek to exploit or negate these emotions is incredibly important to the progression of my community.” Emotional honesty has political significance when a community has been repeatedly silenced and dispossessed. “When people of color decide to indulge in their feelings,” Bunkley told me, “there is a level of healing, unifying, and empowerment—I think—that comes with it.”

Among leftists, those who have reacted most strongly against safe spaces have been white men, perhaps because grounding politics in the ability to hurt, cry, and laugh together threatens traditional notions of masculinity. Men are taught to repress emotions, associating emotional vulnerability with femininity and therefore weakness, so it is expected that some should react so violently to the idea that political discussions might take place on explicitly emotional grounds. Once emotions are given intellectual weight, how do men retain their control of political decisions? The safe space debate often appears to be a crisis of masculinity, as many criticisms are, in short, a message to students to “grow a pair.”

I find myself personally engaged in the broader topic of safe spaces and their role because I enjoy participating in online discussions and dialogue. I have learned over time the extent to which many people’s experiences are stifled, discouraged, and silenced. There is a wide variety of human experience that is hidden from view because its exponents have been systematically silenced. In short, safe spaces are where people who have traditionally been prevented from speaking finally have the opportunity to do so. It is essential that those who genuinely care about free exchanges of ideas nurture and respect such spaces.

It is often suggested that the most radical defense of free speech is that which is hateful and repugnant. I would instead offer that it is even more radical to offer a platform to the voiceless, to open up and listen to those who have suffered the most under the bootheels of oppression, to listen to and embrace emotions beyond anger, hatred, and cold analysis, and to listen intently to stories that make you, as a relatively privileged individual, feel intensely uncomfortable.

Those who complain the most about safe spaces are the same people who don’t need them. They are viewed as dangerous and threatening precisely because they aren’t for the people who critique them. It’s not courageous to punch down at venues that don’t exist to serve you, nor does it in any way help to defend free expression–rather, quite the opposite.

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James
James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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What are Safe Spaces Good for?

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