Need to respond to your step-uncle’s concerning position on climate change? Facebook is the place. Don’t like a protest that one of your fellow classmates staged? Post a status on Facebook, and watch the comment thread devolve. Become angered by what you read in these comment sections? Write an opinion piece!
Whether we personally engage in it or not, online interactions are now one of the primary ways in which we encounter and counter views different from our own. This article doesn’t intend to analyze the drawbacks and merits of engaging in social media activism. The specific ways in which people should use social media as a tool is the topic of a different piece, and one that I am still exploring myself. But regardless of our individual feelings, it is clear that much of our dialogue now takes place online. That, in and of itself, is important to think about.
Much online discourse has lately revolved around the concept of “safe spaces.” College campuses, and society as a whole, are confronting the vast amounts of racism, sexism, misogyny, transophobia and other forms of oppression that still exist within everyday life and institutional structures. The term “safe spaces” has a long history, and has been discussed so extensively that it is sometimes easy to lose my own bearing in the conversation. As I’ve come to understand it, the idea behind “safe spaces” aims to create discussions that recognize and respect the different unknowable experiences of others and acknowledge that certain experiences have historically served and continue to serve as the grounds for violence. Those who call for “safe spaces” recognize that they are necessary to allow communities to grapple with oppression in a way that is attentive to those who have been subject to it.
The idea of “safe spaces” is as in the spotlight as ever. Many adult white male scholars, a demographic that seems particularly concerned with their right to speech, have demeaned the concept in frequent articles. While many have criticized the concept, an equal number have risen to defend it. Facebook comments often seem to circle back to safe spaces, discussions in which the desire for safe spaces is characterized as a “disease” seizing petulant college students. ‘How could a student who experienced sexual assault not as easily be able to share that experience as share their well-formed thoughts on trays vs. no trays?’ ‘Face up to your fears or get out, I say!’ ‘Back to the women’s college with you!’ While that was not verbatim, comments such as these are indicative of the general discussion. The image of the self-victimizing survivor is not only incredibly lacking in empathy but also just not true. Women who find it difficult to go to class or remain on the same campus as their assailant ask for safe spaces not because they lack strength or have given up. Rather, they desire to continue their lives, to talk about these things directly and not accept their challenges as inevitable, while still attending to their own personal needs and safety.
When I read these type of comments about “safe spaces” I almost always become disappointed and lost amidst the personal attacks and indecipherable blocks of text. But although my own feelings on the topic of “safe spaces” are still not entirely clear, my anger while reading these conversations alerts me to the fact that something is missing in many of these discussions and op-eds — a certain type of empathy. It is really hard to debate the idea of “safe spaces” online, when, at its core, it’s an idea about how we should engage face-to-face with others. The idea of a safe space affirms the truth that people have numerous life experiences that we can never know, especially with things like racism and sexism that do not affect everybody equally. We can’t know, because you can’t really glean a whole lot about someone’s inner life just by looking at them.
When we engage in disembodied conversations, we run the risk of forgetting there is a person at the receiving end of all words — a singular person, one with a history. When one demands, in a Facebook comment, that some imagined sexual assault victim just face her oppressor, or leave her university, they are ignoring the reality of how trauma can stay with a person long into their life. It is not something that you can necessarily reach “closure” with, like the death of a childhood pet that you shed a few tears for and then get back to playing outside. Things happen in life that have the capacity to be forever within you. This does not necessarily mean that those experiences are always debilitating, but rather that they just literally remain as a part of you — one of the many parts that at any moment could be called upon. To respect the reality of the sheer unknowable depths of others means we don’t make careless comments, especially about experiences that one may not have any experience with themselves.
The idea of safe spaces seeks both to recognize the fact that everyone has a history we cannot know, as well as to articulate that this recognition is necessary for the type of dialogue so often sought after in the liberal arts. Words are not merely swords but tools we use, tools to somehow bring forth parts of ourselves and our deeply-held beliefs. To enter into a conversation that really goes there, that takes us to places of understanding that we didn’t occupy before, requires not that we combat one another, but that we intently listen and offer back the responses that listening draws up. Back-and-forth dialogue of this kind requires the trust that one’s own experience will not be shunted to the side, defaced or devalued, but rather recognized as a vital part of the conversation.
While many opponents of “safe spaces” insist on the danger that supposed censorship of speech poses to “intellectual discourse,” I have yet to see evidence of this exalted intellectual conversation occurring anywhere but the type of safe spaces that are so often scorned. Intense dialogue can and certainly does occur within classrooms that are first and foremost safe spaces. And we really need those spaces — spaces that move beyond the same old, to reveal something new about ourselves, the other and the world — now more than ever.