Why the safety fad is actually harmful
Rather than emphatically heralding an age of constant treading on egg shells, of keeping in mind everyone’s possible vulnerabilities and paying attention to an ever-present potential sensitivity from all sides, it is actually unsafe spaces that we dearly need. It has come to struck me that people of our generation more and more frequently voice a demand for more caution in convivial spaces – why is that? Why do we feel so much at frontiers with one another? Why do we feel things uttered, signalled, noted are going too far?
A Freudian might have an easy answer: We’re a spoilt generation, us millennial Westerners, knowing no war, raised with a dim concern for avoiding it at all costs, yet pampered with generosity, kindness, wealth. We’ve grown up in places where consensus serves as an end in itself (see my recent German article Konsenskulturkollaps), and yet too where the means to achieve that end are ever more concealed. Is consensus to be brought about by consensus? Why exchange opinions at all if we believe never to disagree anyway? The public sphere, as Habermas once had it, is suffering undernourishment and, slowly but surely, impoverishes. Deprived of spirit and verve, it is left uninhabited – for who’s left to the public if we all huddle against our Facebooks, Spotifys and Netflixes?
The public sphere is left to starve
And so it goes: This ought not to be a story of gradual societal decay, as a retroverted moralist may pose and proclaim it, but it is indeed a story of dissolution, disintegration, dismemberment in the literal sense. We connect, yet disconnect – we have more friends than ever, yet less than before. We claim membership to more circles than ever, yet somehow we disentangle, and somehow we complain about being lonely. The more we belong to, it seems, the less certain we become about ourselves.
Where does this leave us? It leaves us at one of the first millennial battle fields; a big debate about the role of so-called ’safe spaces‘. Perhaps an invasion of widespread securitisation thinking, which enjoys popularity in everyday life as much as in national and international politics, calls for safe spaces amount to a claim for self-sovereignty that is unprecedented. The untouchable rights of one’s self to being respected for who, what, where, and how one is are rightfully upheld and unmistakably justified. Only to what extent does this hold? To the extent that their constant reiteration and reification must not take place as a daily re-proclamation of the self, but be taken for granted as a ground on which to stand in each and every bit of communication between beings.
In other words: Surely we deserve respect, valuation, and being taken serious. But need we make this clear all the time? Need that stand in the way of letting anything else happen? Need that prevent dissent, controversy, disagreement, fight? No, I believe a presupposition ought not to transform into a position, just as much as a common ground ought not to become common ceiling. Safety nets may serve as fallback positions one can step back onto in case one felt undeservedly attacked, but they should not span all over the place.
Time to get uncomfortable
It has become nearly commonsensical to demand a safe space in which one should not be disrespected or discriminated against on the basis of social, economic, cultural, gender, or other position. The notion is applauded for being a progressive necessity for healthy conversation and respectful encounter. Yet it leaves out one thing: Attack. For ’safe‘ is not always good, I would argue, ‚consensual‘ is not always the one atmosphere we want to reach out to, and non-violent is not the same as non-controversial. Yet the hipsterism is taking over: We’re now as bland and banale as a semi-skimmed almond milk, fair trade double frozen cappuccino. Be vintage! Be second-hand! Be even punk, for God’s sake! But don’t be against. Don’t be ferocious. Don’t be a killjoy.
The search for pleasure has its costs, and a loss for a sense of confrontation appears to be one of them. Pleasant the safe space may be, it precludes passionate debate and bans every getting-personal, every insult on the grounds of mushy feel-good ethics. It is precisely what the mainstream lacks, and it is what we now teach ourselves – precisely at an age, on top of it all, at which we normally would have taken to the streets. We strangle our youth with a violent eruption of anti-violence, of a convulsive ban on all that which teaches opinion. It is time to get uncomfortable.
Yes, safe spaces taken to the extreme can be dangerous and do not allow for any disagreement or discomfort. But, I think “unsafe” spaces or actually the absence of safe spaces also do not allow for a lot of disagreement and discomfort. It is here that the status quo, the generally accepted opinion and the mainstream thrive and kill anything that gets their fervent defenders out of their comfort zone. I think the safe spaces debate is being discussed so much right now because safe spaces make precisely this group of people uncomfortable. Until now, their opinions were always endorsed. Now, they are even being shunned from some universities, to name an example. I’m not saying that this is good or justified, but neither is shunning minorities from having a voice and making a space safe for those with a mainstream opinion and unsafe for those without. I’m all for safe spaces, as long as it is defined somewhere along the lines of “a place where we respect each other, where everyone’s opinion is valued and taken seriously”. Therefore I don’t think we are actually disagreeing with one another: but I think saying that a safe space in itself is the problem is problematic.
the description of safe spaces is a bit abstract imo… for an elaboration how they work in practice e.g. https://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2016/08/26/university-of-chicago-dean-declares-war-on-student-autonomy/
I agree that I’m using a quite unspecified definition of safe spaces in this article, which creates problems in the way I argue. On the other hand, that points back at the very problem I’ve tried to highlight: the fact that ’safe space‘ has turned into an umbrella buzzword, the lack of specificity of which makes it so problematic. For as long as anything could be a safe space once declared so, it serves as a readily misused rhetoric tool of shutting up disagreement. What is needed is thus either some escape from this abstraction, or a counter-space (an ‚unsafe space‘) that encourages the confrontation, the sharp controversy to which one immediately relates. I make the case for the latter.
True, we’re not actually disagreeing: To create a place of mutual respect for one another’s opinions is certainly not something I am against. To exaggerate the establishment of such a place to the extent that it mutes anything that would stimulate fruitful confrontation (and I don’t mean verbal violence here) – that I do find wrong.