Understanding “Safe Spaces” as Expressions of Ideals

In observing the interactions and conversations about social justice and related topics, one thing that becomes increasingly apparent is the stark difference in perspective that can come from being a minority vs. a majority. In particular, the criticism of “overreaction” is a fascinating one to explore, because of how it can lead to the idea that “political correctness” is causing more problems than it solves. However, what I find is that the issue isn’t so much that people are oversensitive, or even that the other side is composed of monsters, but that there is a particular approach to life that is implicit in the actions of many who take can be thought of as “overreacting.” I call this “externalization of an internal ideal.”

Before I continue, I want to say this: although I’ve actually been thinking about this subject quite a bit, it’s Duncan “Thorin” Shields’s recent video above arguing how the media is all too eager to create outrage that has prompted me to really commit my thoughts to text. This is because, while I don’t agree with some of the key points of his video, he at least lays it all out such that it promotes debate and discussion. And even if I’m not of a similar belief to him in certain respects, I still highly value his work on eSports and continue to watch his videos regularly.

At one point in Thorin’s video, he mentions the Donald Trump “pussy grabbing” scandal, arguing that the outcry against it was exaggerated to an absurd extent. This is not because Thorin is defending sexual assault, but that the way in which Trump was speaking was in the context of a private conversation between men where the objectification of women is par for the course. The idea laid out in this minor point is that Trump’s words should have been a surprise to no one, so to respond with shock and horror is to willfully ignore reality.

I think Thorin is right in a certain sense, but I also don’t think that this is automatically a problem. Although some might navigate their lives by saying, “This is how the world is, so I’d better figure out how to best work within those restrictions,” others might instead think, “I want to live my life as if the world is at the point I wish it to be.”

Let’s put this in the context of minorities. When it comes to the dictionary definition of a “minority,” it would only make sense that they would feel like the world does not cater to them. If there was a world where the population was 99% majority and 1% minority, then mathematically it would be unlikely for this minority to gain much traction. And yet, that does not mean someone who is a member of a minority should only ever be able to feel like they are excluded from the majority, that they cannot act as if they are the default or standard. If there is a black person, or an Asian person, or a gay person, or a transgender person, and their mindset is to behave as if they are not an outsider, that they are not the “other,” then I think that is a perfectly fine way to live.

This is also why I think the idea of “safe spaces” is often misunderstood. Sometimes you’ll see them characterized as “hug boxes,” or places that prevent people from learning to overcome adversity. If the “real world” is where iron sharpens iron, then safe spaces are supposedly sites of stagnation for individuals and groups. But their ideal function is to be a place where one can feel “normal,” that they are not some deviation that must inevitably be compared to what is most common in society. Why shouldn’t women want a world where they’re not judged first by their looks, even if the first thing we tend to notice about people is how they look? Why shouldn’t a racial minority get to spend some time without being implicitly judged by their skin tone and the cultural stereotypes they carry?

There is a downside to all this. If you live by trying to externalize your ideals, you risk creating a false perception of the world, especially if you ignore the need for reality checks. However, if you take the world “as it is,” then you might end up reinforcing hierarchies if the desire to fight is absent. What I think is especially important in the former’s case, and why I think the notion can seem so foreign to certain people is that it carries a kind of utopian desire. Rather than simply imposing one’s will upon the world and forcing it to obey, it’s a mark of a hope for a better world. Instead of the world telling you how you are, you tell the world how you are. Even if people “shouldn’t” have been outraged at Donald Trump’s words, they want the world to be one where implied sexual assault is admonished. Only by understanding this perspective can discussion really begin.

I am not someone who believes “overreaction” does not exist, or that it is a wholly unfair criticism towards liberals. It is all too easy for even well-meaning people to have knee-jerk reactions, not understand the context of a situation, and then ride their anger without looking back. Nevertheless, I do think that this desire for an ideal world is not simply a pipe dream or a refusal to acknowledge reality. The better way to look at it is as a wish for the world to be a better place starting with one’s own mind and body.

5 thoughts on “Understanding “Safe Spaces” as Expressions of Ideals

  1. Social justice in academia actually makes some pretty similar criticisms of ‘safe spaces’ in that you can’t actually make a space safe from the normative pressures of society at large as long as there are people in that space because people are the panopticon and the vehicle by which normativity is enforced; as such, to call a space ‘safe’ is to presume that each and every person in it (including yourself) is free from error, which is not only absurd but failing to challenge the status quo at the most basic unit: the individual. On the other hand, the importance of community should not be understated, as a better world could very well be realized by the proliferation of communities that “be the change you want to see in the world.” However, those communities can only be the change if individuals in them are capable of recognizing their faults and correcting them together, which can’t be done if one is assuming the space is already ‘safe’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment. It’s given me quite a bit to think about.

      I think the “safe space,” because it is so similar to the idea of a utopia (including how it’s not entirely clear how we get to one), also suffers from the same flaws. Namely, the larger and more popular the space is, the more difficult it becomes to maintain that consistency.

      There’s also the very real possibility of a “safe space” being used for beliefs that are considered harmful or problematic. Is the guys’ locker room a “safe space” from feminists not letting “guys be guys?”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I would actually argue that the larger and more popular the space is, the more normative pressure it can exert, so it might be more consistent, but as individual power grows smaller in comparison, the way in which it is consistent might be harder to control and potentially more oppressive when directed against those with the least power. Even activist spaces have their own power structures that enable internal abuse.

        In some sense the guys’ locker room is a ‘safe space,’ but they’re not exactly creating a space that resists the normative pressures of society at large so much as the only normative pressures they experience, i.e. feminism. To claim that such a space is a ‘safe space’ (ideal or not) would be to claim that feminism dominates society, and while feminism certainly is highly visible, the most powerful norms are the ones that make themselves invisible as ‘common sense’ like ‘boys will be boys.’

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Here’s the best comment about safe spaces:

    > Attend a university
    > Voted Trump
    > Next day, visited the safe space, caressed puppies and ate free snacks
    > Feels good, man


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.