Life isn’t a safe space. It cannot be. The world exists to make us neither comfortable nor happy, and no one else has a duty to ensure that we feel that way.
Liberals and the identitarian* “progressive” Left have been obsessed with the notion of “safe spaces” for about the last decade. I’m not going to bother with any academic notion of this; I’m interested in the practical notion, and this is very much one of closing avenues of discussion within the Left. When there are Leftist groups that advocate safe spaces, for the most part this goes to the ridiculous extreme of protecting some group from the mere possibility of being made uncomfortable by bringing up a difficult topic. That said, this is not to say that the idea of a “safe space” is completely stupid or needs to be thrown out the window.
As far as safe spaces go, here I’ll focus on the one that I think matters: public safe spaces and not private ones. If you have a private group, club, room, et cetera, I don’t mind, and I think anyone who spends time complaining about people that have such is quite stupid and wasting their time spewing hot air. There are some laughable stories about university campuses offering safe spaces with child-like environments for those “triggered” into a negative state by the mere sighting or hearing of a word or event that makes them uncomfortable, but while I think this kind of response to the problem is infantilizing, it’s also none of my business. No, by a public safe space I mean the presence and enforcement of private safe space policies in an environment where free inquiry and discussion is supposedly the aim, that is, primarily university classrooms and political parties which claim to want to deal and govern with truth and not ideology.
How the Left Should Be a Safe Space
I think there is something worthwhile in the notion of safe spaces, and that is that I agree that the Left should not be a space of needless animosity to the “oppressed.” I put oppressed in quotes because I think it has become such a wide-reaching term that it hardly makes sense to the normal person—the very idea of normality is considered oppressive by a few, just to show how far this can go. What I mean with the Left not being a place of needless animosity to the oppressed is that we should do what any good and not socially inept educated person should do: be courteous and charitable to anyone who brings up practical and theoretical issues—to just simply not be assholes in general. For example, a woman should not be disrespected with abusive language, nor have her points downplayed just because she is a woman, lesbian, trans, et cetera. We should not mock someone for how they look or for how they talk, no matter how unsophisticated. I would go so far as to say that even the more… ‘interesting’ individuals with lifestyles, manners, and ideas on the edge of social acceptability within the party deserve our respectful ear—within reason. Likewise, someone religious should not be needlessly insulted or mocked for holding religious beliefs along with or even underlying their politics. A Left organization is not a place for immature shit like rape jokes, calling people fags just because it’s some stupid tradition (hello, /Leftypol/), casually calling women bitches, calling trans people mentally ill, mocking the disabled, and so on. These aren’t points that are anything extreme or surprising. It’s the very basic level of being a visible group that projects sophistication and seriousness as opposed to stupid childishness. Insofar as we want to engage and bring people into political spaces, I would hope it’s not too complex and difficult a thought to just be civil towards each other in general even when those engaging us are uncivil first. You never know, someone may just have had the wrong idea about your group/party and that first actual impression may be all it takes to become receptive to your stances.
The Limit of a Safe Space
This is not to say that just because someone is part of an “oppressed” group their ideas are immune to counterargument. This is where the idea of a safe space goes beyond reason. It is no one’s duty to make someone comfortable with public discourse concerning things they take to be personal. The sphere of public political discourse is precisely the one sphere where a safe space is impossible. The whole point of public political discourse is precisely to provide ground for the meeting and mediation of differing and even radically contradicting views on an issue. Now, this is a bit of a sensitive issue, for here we are coming into contact with the infamous “free speech” which many today want to claim as protection for their irreverent language and publicly “private” activities. I’m not going to deal with this at lengths here, but this notion of free speech is not what I consider free speech to be for. The point of public political discourse is to at least attempt to come to an agreement based on a truth, not to merely speak without limit as if anything that comes out of one’s mouth is relevant, important, or meaningful to others such that they must suffer hearing it. One is free to properly argue and critique insofar as it is relevant, but even such speech is not free from restrictions of form—that is, there are acceptable and unacceptable forms of communication even to legitimate questions.
As such, in public discussion, one’s personally important issues may come under questioning to the extreme of outright questioning the issue as legitimate, and this is nothing short of what politics is. Yes, we have personally urgent problems, but in a temporal world with finite time, resources, and subjects with finite attention, we must prioritize some things. All things can be worked on to some capacity all the time, but there is only so much that can dominate social consciousness. It is by nature of differences that politics exists in the first place, and to think that difference—regardless of whether it is a rational one or not—should be avoided at all costs by the individual because it may make them feel bad is just denying the reality of difference and contradiction that arises in any free society.
Discussion of whether your issue is an issue towards which others in society have any duty to do anything about, whether it is an issue as you think it is and not in some other way and for some other reason…none of this is off the table in public discourse. It is no one’s duty in life to tiptoe around anyone as if they were grandma’s precariously placed antique glass vase. This is not to say that everything that comes up in public discourse is morally or rationally acceptable. For example, the issue of whether black slaves were genuinely human or not is not a question that is in any way defensible, nor is it anymore an acceptable question whether non-heteronormative persons deserve legal protections against discrimination. That said, we cannot ignore that these were historical issues that came up—irrational and morally reprehensible as they are—and we cannot ignore that these issues were ultimately not solved by moralizing the problem and making the oppressors realize their error. As much as one wishes that public discourse was actually rational, let’s be real here, it currently is not, and it’s not about to change even with a revolution happening.
Yes, you will get very angry and frustrated. Yes, you won’t get immediate satisfaction. Yes, despite being right you will be told by many you’re wrong, deluded, and that your issues are not ‘real’. Be a rational adult and deal with it by working with what you’re given in actuality, not with stupidities like expecting those against you to just realize the error of their ways and stop oppressing you. Yes, the oppressor has moral responsibility, but clearly they don’t care, so what are you going to do about things with that consideration in mind? You can’t sit in a safe space and with “allies” who only pay sympathetic lip service but are unwilling to step into public discourse and face the music of tense open social contradiction.
This is not to say that if you are in an organization where certain things are already done and decided by those already part, such as a party line on standing for LGBTQ issues, that some random new person must be allowed to bring up constant questions on why such a stance should not be otherwise. In such a case, one should try to calmly educate them to one’s position, and if that fails, by all means, kindly yet firmly ask them to leave. That, however, is in the function of what I consider a return to the private space in the form of established social groups of particular interests. The problem of the true public space where contradictions meet is merely kept at bay by one step, and often, that is keeping things at bay for rather short times—we all should be well aware of party politics and the game of the professed and actual party lines with tendencies that come to clash.
One cannot expect moralizing rhetoric to have any effect on the oppressor. The real political sphere, and by extension the real public sphere as a whole, cannot ever be a safe space when oppression is a real condition of existence; in order to engage in real activity to change things, one must engage the sphere beyond one’s comfort and physical safety. Safe spaces, in this sphere, aren’t only impractical—they’re outright impossible. If someone is incapable of leaving comfort and safety to engage in struggle, they have no future gains they can make unless someone else steps in to advance for them. To this end, individuals who get “triggered” are not capable political agents. We should indeed have sympathy for these individuals, but should we be treating them like children? Surely a person in university of all institutions who is entering into adulthood should have the mental capacity to grapple with their problems in ways which can actually be taken into the real public world where no such coddling will exist. Just as one’s family support cannot be there to protect from what happens at the workplace or at a public park, a safe space and the people it provides cannot be there to save one from the reality that there is contradiction beyond it. One must become capable of facing these contradictions or one will be overrun by the opposing force when contact is finally made in the real public space.
Should we, on the Left, not be the voice of empowerment? Shouldn’t we be against this infantilization which the liberal progressives are pushing forward, an infantilization of the mind and psychological capacity which seems to drive individuals to a dependency on a group of yes-men and women who never contradict them? This new culture where despair and strife are considered anathema to be avoided, where we must do all we can to protect ourselves and others from ourselves as if the individual is a paper cutout which is destroyed by any passing wind, this culture is utterly the opposite of the Left’s old vision of freedom. Now, are there people who really are incapable of dealing with the harsh reality of contradiction? Of course! These people are victims of mostly quite traumatic life events and they don’t deserve any ill treatment, but even these people should receive the best of our consideration rather than our giving up and treating them as hopeless and hapless children. The Left should be empowering. We should enable individuals and groups which are legitimately oppressed minorities to stand and speak for themselves; that is, to help them gather the courage and strength in themselves to stand as themselves, face the opposition in reality, act on their own behalf, and not wait for others to step in for them. You know that old saying: Give a (wo)man a fish…
“Well, that’s easy for you to say, A.W., you privileged heteronormative male shitlord.” You’re right, it is; after all, I’m assuming such a person can be helped to become functionally independent insofar as that is possible. Of course, it’s hard to do that when one is poor, jobless due to discrimination, and in many places at risk of life and limb if the wrong person finds out one’s deviancy. But where, after all, do you think the roots of the movements of the oppressed come from? It sure isn’t from their families and friends, it’s from the oppressed themselves. It’s from those of them that decide they’ve had enough. Those that have decided that fear isn’t a way to live even with the prospect of violence facing them. Those that know who they are and don’t give a single fuck about what you, I, or anyone else feels or thinks about who they should be. They’re not triggered into panic attacks by words or pictures; they’re triggered into public action by the appearance of the violence and inhumanity of the oppressor.
The goal and practice of the Left towards the oppressed is to empower them to stand up and face the reality so that they can begin to change it. To bring out and generate the strength that can and does say, “I don’t care if you don’t like me, and I don’t expect you to. I just care to make sure you don’t systematically lock me out of the social world just because you feel like it.”
*Identity is a concept strongly connected to the movement of safe spaces, but I shall deal with that on another post.