This morning I read a fascinating article in the New York Times criticizing the idea of “safe space.” These days we hear a lot of talk about wanting to create space where people feel safe to be themselves. Even in the church, this idea of creating a place that is safe for people to be authentic with their sins, their fears, and their doubts; a place where they can bring them out of the darkness and into the light so those deep down secrets loose their power; a place where judgement is withhold so a person can experience grace. Yes, this is a good thing.
Safe space can also refer to a place or a conversation where one does not have to worry about being triggered by past abuse or feel threatened in the moment. When the mission of safe space is to provide a place where people who have been traumatized by abuse can process and heal, then, yes and amen. Absolutely. The power of this kind of space can be seen in so many recovery and support groups.
But, and this is where I am going to be unpopular, I wonder if our obsession with safe space reveals our inability to discern a real threat from a perceived threat? Are we becoming so fragile that having our ideas challenged is considered a threat? Does someone telling us our idea is bad, or our thoughts are wrong really make us unsafe? Do insensitive comments really make us unsafe? Does our desire to create safe space actually hinder us from having important, yet difficult, conversations? Can we have serious, intellectual conversations where ideas are tested, challenged, and even discarded, or is that no longer “safe?” As the article states,
But the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer.
The world isn’t safe. And creating safe space won’t make the world safe. It’s a false hope and, when leaked out into public places like colleges and classrooms and churches, it fails to prepare people to function well in an unsafe world. More than that, the desire to make safe space for one particular group of people actually makes that space unsafe for another group of people. This makes it nearly impossible to have authentic conversations about difficult subjects. Creativity is stifled, and real solutions and progress becomes impossible. As a society we sacrifice real dialogue toward real solutions in our effort to be sensitive and inoffensive.
In A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman refers to this an adaptation to immaturity. He writes,
One of the most extraordinary example of adaptation to immaturity in contemporary America society today is how the word abusive has replaced the words nasty and objectionable. The latter two words suggest that a person has done something distasteful, always a matter of judgement. But the use of the word abusive suggest, instead, that the person who heard or read the objectionable, nasty, or even offensive remark was somehow victimized by the dint of the word entering their mind. This confusion of being “hurt” with being damaged makes it seem as though the feelings of the listener or reader were not their own responsibility, or as though they had been helplessly violated by another person’s opinion. If our bodies responded that way to “insults,” we would not make it very far past birth.
Safe space can be a good thing. It may even be essential for healing. However, the point is not to make the world safe. That’s a futile exercise. The point is to remind people that they are stronger than they think. It is to help people become mature enough to enter into relationships with people who hold views different than their own. Even staying engaged when we are offended. Helping people grow so that they can critically engage ideas and can be criticized themselves is the real work. Realizing we are stronger than we think, and that we can handle more pain than we thought will help us to be able to listen to those who see the world differently than us. That’s real work. But it is also the harder work. It’s easier to blame others. Demand people and ideas be sanitized and made palatable so we feel safe is easier on us.
Focusing on creating safe space is to focus on the pathology. It’s to take Advil for the pain of a broken arm without trying to set the bone. The world will hurt us. In a broken world filled with broken people, insensitive words will be said to us. But if we only focus on the pathology the disease will always exist. The real work isn’t making safe space. The real work is becoming people who can be in relationship with those who not only have different ideas than us, but even challenge our most tightly held beliefs.
Agreeing to disagree. Being comfortable with being challenged. Freedom to express yourself. When that exists we have true safe space.