I have an essay swirling around in my mind about ‘safe spaces’ and I need to get it out of my system, but I can’t seem to talk about it in a simple, succinct way.
Let me try. So… some people think that safe spaces have a coddling effect. And maybe that’s true. And the examples are pretty lurid and fun to mock.
But the inverse is also a huge problem. ‘Nasty spaces’, or ‘free-for-all’ spaces. (I think there should be a better phrase). Toxic spaces. Basically open, anarchistic areas, “free market” areas, where anything goes.
The wishful ideal is that the freedom is intrinsically good, and the public will use it to engage in civil, mature debate, build things and make progress in an enlightened, open way.
The reality of it is a lot uglier and messier. Without some sort of ‘house rules’, the place ends up catering to the lowest common denominator. The gangsters and drunks storm the joint and mess shit up. Moderates get silenced by whoever is willing to be most destructive, most violent, most ugly. Online, for example, you can shut people up by doxxing them in a bad-faith way. This is fun for the bullies and assholes (because it gives them a sense of power), but thoroughly damaging to the community. Each time a good person leaves, the community becomes a marginally less good place for everyone. And the next best person leaves. And so on.
(This sort of happened to me on /r/singapore a few months ago, which hit me really hard and forced me to reconfigure my attitude towards open public spaces on the Internet – a very painful reconfiguration for someone who grew up dreamy-eyed on the Internet. But probably much less painful than for say, any woman who’s received all sorts of messed up shit from creepy dudes online.)
The bullies of the Internet have a scripted defense for anybody who tries to talk about this. If you’re being picked on for your race or gender, then you’re playing one of those cards, you’re overly sensitive, you’re making it all about yourself, you’re an attention whore. If you’re trying to stand up for somebody else, you’re a White Knight, trying to virtue-signal and get points for being such a good, nice person. You can’t really win either fight. And those fights are really just a distraction – you’re probably better off just ignoring it and focusing on trying to get to emphasize how toxic the environment is. (Or getting out of there, for your own sanity.)
But what the bullies don’t seem to realize – or care about – is that driving away the good people makes the entire place shittier. And this is one of the greatest tragedies. You get deprived of different perspectives, you get deprived of interesting stories, and it’s very hard to be cognizant of what you have lost each time a person-shaped Universe leaves and never comes back.
I’m most familiar with this phenomenon online, but it’s really a human thing. It happens with groups of friends, cliques, groups, etc. I think it’s the problem with sexism in the workplace. And the whole “ugh, why does everybody need safe spaces” response is rather mistaken. The problem is that many if not all environments are toxic to degrees that existing members do not recognize. And there are costs to that toxicity. It’s kind of like being a smoker who says “I’m coughing like mad but apart from that it’s not a big deal”. You just learn to adjust. And if you CAN adjust, then you’re one of the survivors. You can pat yourself on the back for being ‘tough’, but I think it’s much more interesting to focus on what you’re missing.
Anyway, here’s the paradox I’m trying to outline – most people’s dislike of Safe Spaces has to do with a dislike of being restrained. But all the best conversation, the most interesting information (money, debt, family issues, children, doubts, etc) doesn’t come up UNLESS you can create an environment conducive to it.
In a way, refusing to respect that is more restrictive than anything else. You can go anywhere you like, and say whatever you like, but nobody will ever open up to you. In a way, it’s kind of a dystopian, Black-Mirror-esque jail – the entire world around you learns to ostracize you in plain sight.
So – what is to be done? What do you do when you realize this?
I think the first thing to be done is to decide to protect the vulnerable. And the moment I typed that out I thought, “shit, that sounds like coddling”. But there’s totally a difference. Let’s try to outline that.
Think about parenting, as an analogy. You don’t want to be an overprotective parent who controls what your child sees, what she does, who she can hang out with, etc. You might even want to gently challenge her to try things that she’s unfamiliar with and uncomfortable with, because you believe she’ll enjoy it. (This is obviously a push-pull thing that you’ll have to negotiate over time, and you will make some mistakes. I am not a parent. But you get the idea.)
AT THE SAME TIME – you want your child to feel confident and comfortable reaching out to you. You want her to feel safe coming to you and telling you her uncertainties and her doubts. This will make you a better parent. This will make your child a stronger, happier, healthier child.
Of course, you’re not the parent of the whole world. Most of the time, you’re a peer. But the same fundamentals apply. You don’t want to coddle your friends with bullshit – you want to be honest with them. About what’s going on, what you see, etc. And yet you don’t want to mock and insult them. You want them to feel comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. (I’m thinking now of the Loyalty Missions in Mass Effect 2. Some of the most badass people in the galaxy, and going through difficult times and talking about their feelings with one another made them stronger, not weaker.)
There’s a difference between coddling and nurturing. We can nurture people to be strong. And we should, so that they may use their strength to protect and nurture others in turn. Not insulate. Not coddle. Nurture. Empower. Embolden. It can be done.