In recent weeks, I’ve encountered the concept of a safe space many times. It’s a fairly new idea to me, and one I’m unsure of. I’ve heard staunch criticisms and heartfelt defences of it, so we thought we’d take this opportunity to examine both sides a little more closely. To clarify, a safe is space is defined on Wikipedia (a poor resource, but just you try to find it in the OED) as “A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, intellectually challenged, unwelcome or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to agree with others.”
So, what is a safe space? Safe spaces are places in which oppressive views and bigotry are not tolerated. They are controlled environments, to an extent, to ensure that everyone can discuss topics and issues while supporting each other. They often occur on issues such as sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression, commonly in feminist and queer spaces/circles. Safe spaces usually have a set of rules to ensure that everyone is aware of what is allowed and what is unacceptable, such as using trigger warnings, not expressing views of hate, engaging in a zero tolerance policy, and not speaking over people on topics that affect the individual.
Why is this so important? Safe spaces provide a network of support and understanding, particularly on those who have been denied this respect in society. People -particularly those living in liberal, Westernised spaces- are taught that we should question everything, that debate is of paramount importance, and that freedom of expression is an inalienable right. But in this context, this line of thinking is problematic. Safe spaces are extremely useful and are of the utmost importance to the feminist movement.
I’ll tell you why; I am trans, queer, and have various mental health issues, as well as other disabilities. I have only a handful of places on and off the Internet where I know I can be my true self without being disrespected, silenced, or spoken down to. I need these spaces to remain safe for the sake of my emotional and psychological health.
People often assume that debate is of paramount importance to progress. And indeed, debate can encourage people to be thoughtful and to open their minds.
However, focusing on oppressed groups is also important. Creating spaces where those people can heal and connect with one another is necessary. Sometimes, online spaces are exclusively for people of a certain oppressed group. Some spaces are for women only. Some spaces are exclusively for queer people. Some are for people of colour.
Most of the time, these spaces are for people within oppressed groups to connect and share their experiences and perspectives. They are for healing, networking, and developing a community. These spaces are extremely important because the world caters to privileged people at the expense of the oppressed. It is, therefore, revolutionary to have a space that focuses entirely on an oppressed group. Making a space safe for oppressed groups of people means that they’re more likely to feel comfortable enough to contribute to the discussion.
Think about it: If a space isn’t safe from transphobia, it’s unlikely that trans people will share their perspective. If a space isn’t safe from racism, it is unlikely that anyone who isn’t white will contribute to the discussion. In unsafe spaces, privileged voices are more likely to dominate the discussion.
Safe spaces mean that certain voices – marginalised, often underrepresented voices – get a chance to speak without fear of hostility, and together, we can learn as a unit how to empower and improve the society that we live in, through a safe and secure way.
A safe space is a place where no one needs to be made to feel threatened or unsafe. They sound like a good thing, but it’s something I have mixed feelings about. In its purest form it’s amazing, but it seldom remains that way. It stems from the desire to accommodate everyone, but can grow into a form of authoritarianism.
Like minded individuals come together to wallow in self-pity, confirm their beliefs and prejudices, and rant about how the world has done them wrong. They decide on which opinion is “correct” and close in on dissenting opinions to the extent that, in some places, one cannot express an opinion that differs from the consensus.
I’m not saying that the world hasn’t wronged them, but guess what? The world isn’t fair. It’s cold, cruel and, ultimately, pointless. It owes you nothing. Hiding yourself away in these hug-bubbles and wrapping yourself in cotton wool only serves to encourage sentimentalism, makes your skin paper-thin, and leaves you unable to deal with the world.
A safe space can, over time, become a place where the word “unsafe” has changed to mean “uncomfortable”. Any truly meaningful conversation or debate – and by meaningful, I don’t mean small talk about what we saw at the bus stop or what we had for dinner last night – should make us question what we know and make us feel a little uncomfortable. If you’re made uncomfortable by someone who disagrees with you, or if it gets to the point that, for example, a conversation about something as mundane as death is not allowed, we need to re-evaluate our morals. I understand that it is not the easiest subject to talk about, but death is a natural part of life. People’s loved ones pass away, and with each heartbeat we slip another moment closer to our own deaths. It’s unavoidable, and talking about things that make us uncomfortable is how we come to overcome or accept them.
We should tackle hard subjects head-on and deal with them, not bury our heads in the sand and force everyone else to put sand in their eyes as well, or be ignored. The intellect cannot grow if it receives no opposition or if expression is not free. Instead, it grows weak and complacent, all the while certain in its self-righteousness. There is no true freedom of expression and no place for learning in such an atmosphere. Thought can never truly be free when it is trapped behind walls to keep them safe. They may hide the ugliness outside, but it’s still a prison.
I recently attended the ‘Speak Out’ event hosted by the Feminist Society. I was rather impressed with the speakers, how moving it was, and how it had been expanded to include issues that affect everyone and not solely women. But I was disappointed, too. On the doors to Powis Hall was a post explaining that the event was a safe space and that anyone who disagreed with a long list of values was not welcome. Forgive me, but this seems counter to the goals of the event. Everyone in that room was allowed in because they already shared the same opinions as the hosts. Those who still need to be convinced by hearing the stories shared inside were unable to do so. By shutting people out, the event lost all credibility and purpose in my eyes.
Always try to be considerate of others’ feelings, but no one is inherently entitled to it. Mandatory respect is meaningless. It must be freely given or not at all. If you have an eating disorder, seek help with it. Don’t ban me from saying I’m going to buy some lunch. You don’t like sex? Fine. Don’t do it. But don’t be offended if other people who do like it start talking about it. If a situation makes you uncomfortable, leave it, but you can’t expect others to mould their lives around yours. Your problems are not theirs.
We welcome your thoughts on this burning issue.