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.

~

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.

 

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