The Trouble With “Safe Spaces”

Most of the people who have stumbled their way to my blog have probably heard the term “safe space” before. The concept is relatively simple — a safe, inclusive space without discrimination that provides support to those who need it most. But while it sounds great in theory, it is endlessly problematic in practise.

I have never seen a safe space work as intended. My experience has been with safe spaces for LGBTQ people, and those who struggle with disability, mental illness, and/or trauma. In many cases, there has been overlap between these categories.

Safe spaces are riddled with logistical problems, starting with the fact that everyone’s idea of what constitutes a “safe space” will be different. The way the space is moderated or run is another issue, and one that frequently sounds the death knell for the effort, as hosts lean more towards a model that establishes them as authority figures rather than leaders, and creates an uneven power differential among a group of people who, often, have suffered poor treatment or even abuse at the hands of those in power. For a safe space to function properly, everyone must be treated as an equal, and conflicts need to be managed and resolved from a place of mutual respect — otherwise, one or more members walk away feeling like a scolded child, which leads to resentment and distrust.

The other major issue safe spaces face is trying to balance the individual needs of members with the safety of the group as a whole. This gets harder to do the larger a group grows — but no one wants to turn away someone seeking a safe space. As a result, they often buckle under their own weight as interpersonal conflicts simmer, and those who feel wronged have to be civil and make nice with people they want nothing to do with.

Individuals seeking safe spaces walk in with a number of needs, behavioural quirks, and issues unique to them. This can make them tricky to accommodate, and even downright frustrating at times. No one wants to violate the premise of a safe space by asking them to stop doing that thing that’s annoying everyone, but at the same time, truly disruptive or distressing behaviour has to be addressed. The fact that someone is working at a disadvantage does not give them the right to upset or harm others without second thought. Managing those kinds of situations is difficult, and is when respect and a lack of judgement become invaluable.

No talk of safe spaces would be complete without mentioning triggers. Triggers are topics, experiences, memories, and/or words/phrases that cause deep distress to the person encountering them. Distress severe enough that it impacts their ability to function. Those of us who have them have to deal with accusations of “oversensitivity” often, which is profoundly unfair. No one wants to live their worst memories over and over again, and wishing to avoid being forced to do so is understandable, not oversensitive.

The trouble with triggers comes in when you have a moderate to large group of people who have a various assortment of them. Trying to keep everyone safe becomes a priority, but is one I have never seen achieved. One of three things tends to happen:

  1. Someone is told that they cannot speak about their experiences/ seek support or must leave the safe space because they are triggering others. While avoiding hurting others is important, there is an undertone of shame to this approach that defeats the purpose of a safe space, because it requires censorship. It also sends the message that your emotions and experiences are so ugly that they should not be spoken of, which is not only problematic, but deeply painful, possibly even (re-)traumatizing
  2. Someone has to leave to protect themselves, because they are constantly being exposed to triggering material/talk
  3. Infighting over the validity of triggers and individuals’ right to speak about their experiences and seek support cause the group to fracture into smaller subgroups, or for the safe space to cease existing altogether

I don’t have any neat, tidy solutions to this problem, probably because any effective solution will need to be multifaceted. What I do know is that identifying the issues with safe spaces is the first step towards working out how to solve them. And, really, it’s important that we do. People need to be able to share what their lives are and have been, and seek needed support in a way that isn’t strictly clinical (counselling, therapy). A support network made up of friends and/or family is absolutely vital when dealing with any number of issues that might drive someone to seek a safe space, because the goal is not to stay in counselling/therapy forever. Ideally, there are people in our lives who can and will help us if we tell them how.

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I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

 

A New Year

So, it’s 2017. I didn’t start this year with any resolutions, because I think the concept is ridiculous — if I have something to accomplish, I’m not going to wait for a specific date on the calendar to start working toward it.

But, that being said, New Year’s Eve does tend to make me reflective. This year I had a lot to reflect on. I know this post is kind of late, in that regard, but today is important to me — because one year ago today, on January 15th 2016, I started writing my novel. A year ago I started down the path that led to launching a career in publishing before I’d even had my 25th birthday. My novel still isn’t published, but that’s okay. I still accomplished a lot.

And a lot of that a lot was writing. I haven’t finished totalling up the poetry yet, because it’s scattered in different notebooks and scrap bits of paper and .rtf files on my computer, but I have already compiled 15 poems — one of which was published — as ones that I will polish and keep as finished products. I still have pages to dig through, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that number reached 25.

I was even more prolific in my fiction writing. I produced 137, 896 words of fiction this year. 53k of that was my novel, and about 11-12k was short original fiction. 73.5k was in fanfiction.

That’s a lot of writing. When I added up my totals, I couldn’t believe it. How could I have produced so much, when on a day-to-day basis I was always disappointed in how little I’d managed to produce? When I wasn’t writing every day?

I think part of it is that every bit matters. It all counts. I think the other important factor is that this was the first calendar year I didn’t have any scholastic responsibilities to fulfil. I was able to devote my primary focus in 2016 to my writing.

As much as I want to be able to do the same this year, to meet and even exceed the output I managed last year, I don’t know if that will be possible. I suspect it won’t, for a number of reasons. The primary one being that I enter 2017 only to leave my family home. It’s a big change, but one I’m looking forward to. That does not mean, however, that it comes without it’s anxieties or time-consuming tasks. It’s a major life change, and those always make it harder to write.

I’m also embracing some other changes in 2017, small shifts that have already had a big impact on how I experience life. Little things, like deciding that I don’t have to “earn” the after-dinner cookie, or the really good loose leaf tea, that I can just have them because they make me feel good. Making the decision to take the odd night off dish duty to just relax, and catch up the next day. Putting effort into getting good sleep not only because it’s important to my health or medication schedule or grades, but because I deserve to wake up feeling rested and alert, and to not feel the deep-muscle aches that come with too little sleep for too long. I’ve stopped pushing myself to do more than I should — decided that, even though I could, technically, do [x] chore before bed, it would leave me aching and struggling to sleep, so it can wait until tomorrow.

I seem to be in the minority of people for whom 2016 was not a raging garbage fire. In all honesty, I broke even last year, with the good balancing out the bad. This the first time I can remember that being true. But in 2017, I’m aiming higher than “even”. I have a lot of hope for this year, and I’m going to do what I can to make it a good one.

I wish all of you the best of luck in 2017, too.

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I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.