Safe Spaces

Rock in the shallowsSafety is one of those rather slippery fractal concepts that seems to retain fuzzy edges no matter how closely one examines it. I’ve been considering it lately, partly because I’ve read a lot of discussion of trigger warnings, their uses and misuses, and what it means to create a safe space. I’ve seen arguments in multiple communities both for and against trigger warnings in the context of safety, and, personally, I find myself somewhat conflicted.

On the side of support, an argument I quite agree with is that people who have been and are being traumatized need, in a very real mental health sense, safe places to recover. When the harm being done is tied to systemic injustices the absolute need to respect these individuals becomes greater because it will not happen by default. In this context trigger warnings allow people to take charge of their own recovery and to choose what they will encounter, and when, and why.

Another argument I find compelling is that trigger warnings can be overused in a way that infantalizes those suffering from trauma and disrespects everyone concerned. If trigger warnings are applied to classroom material (mythology, for example) they can conflict with the need to create an open space for learning and discussion. In a worst-case scenario, someone might advocate for material to be censored or removed from a class to avoid triggering anyone.

Of course, trigger warnings are not intended as censorship, and labeling content is something we do widely without much controversy. No one any longer argues that giving films or video games or entertainment a rating of some kind is a bad things—those who want that information have it, and those who don’t care can ignore it. Nor does anyone complain about, for example, warnings of explicit language or topics on radio or television. These are things that accommodate some people’s needs while inconveniencing almost no one—a perfect bargain for a free society.

This leaves me with an apparent contradiction: trigger warnings are applied to maintain the safety of traumatized and marginalized groups, which is good, but can also be applied as a form of censorship, which is bad. The key to resolving this, for me, comes back to that concept of safety. A safe space is one where people can encounter challenging material as much or as little as they are able, not a space where challenging material is expunged.

Not that I think having a safe space without certain material is a bad thing—survivor communities may limit discussion of rape and abuse, and this is perfectly reasonable and necessary. That isn’t censorship; that is one community making a choice that works for that community and protects everyone in it. Censorship is when a choice to restrict material is made for everyone by default.

So, then, the solution must lie with choice. If a trigger warning is used to allow traumatized people the choice to engage or withdraw, this is worthwhile and important. If, though, “being triggered” is used improperly to emotionally hijack a discussion and eliminate topics people do not like, then it is neither helpful nor useful. Unfortunately, I think the idea of “being triggered,” for some people, has become a fashionable way to shut down discussion of uncomfortable material. That this can coexist with a very real population of traumatized individuals in need of real support and respect is all the more frustrating to me; the very idea of it seems disrespectful.

I return at the end to the goal of safe spaces. Trigger warnings can and do create those spaces when they are used to give people the choice to engage or withdraw, but safe spaces are not, and must not be conflated with, comfortable spaces. Safe spaces are places where you are free to be as uncomfortable as you choose, without judgment, without fear of ridicule, and without trauma. Safe spaces are places where, if we so choose, we engage our discomfort and grow.

Well-Intentioned People and Activist Communities

group_via_AstridWestvangDespite being someone who cares deeply about community and social justice, I often find myself taking a position on the fringes of social justice communities. I do want to change things around me, but I sometimes find some of the people I encounter in those communities… exhausting.

I’ve never quite put the reasons for that into words, but recently I was discussing “good people” with my closest friend, who is a bit closer to some of these communities than I am. In our discussion, we identified some of the prototypical people involved, and it led me to realize that the reason social justice communities sometimes exhaust me is that, despite sharing some of my values, they usually contain, mixed in with the people I admire, some flawed roles that I find very difficult to work with—and to avoid becoming.

Our imperfect list of well-intentioned people includes:

#1 – The Young Idealist. These are people who get fired up by lots of things, but still hold out hope for quicker fixes and simpler problems. They haven’t yet reached a sobering awareness of the interconnectedness of systemic problems, the grinding slowness of societal change, or the difficulty of actually changing people’s minds. Young Idealists may not actually be young, just young in their activism or young in their approach to a given problem. Their energy is great, but their strategy is often lacking.

#2 – The Lifestyle Rebel. These people fly off the handle at the slightest hint of injustice, but mostly their tactics are ineffective, their reasoning is emotional, and passing judgment is their go-to response to things and people. They may latch on to One Right Way to be or think, and then harshly criticize anyone who disagrees. When they are focused on a cause, nothing you can do in support will be Enough, and they will suck away all your energy if you let them—but they’ll shortly be moving on to something else.

#3 – The Stoic. These are people who believe abstractly in improving society, but it doesn’t sway their behavior one way or another outside of a group. They will agree with you on most any issue of injustice, but their interest takes a back seat to the other concerns of their lives.

#4 – The Hypocrite. These terribly frustrating people only care because they think other people care, and they are only around for the feel-good points of being involved. They are mainly invested in their own self-image, so they mostly manage lip service while being quick to call out others for not trying hard enough.

#5 – The Martyr. These people care very much, work very hard, and really want to make change, but they also view change as a Sacred Calling. The change they seek is more important than their own well being, although they do have the foresight to tell others not to make the same mistake. Martyrs nevertheless throw themselves wholeheartedly into their efforts, self-care be damned. Very few can maintain their energy, though, and they may become:

#5b – The Grudging Idealist. These are people who still care because caring is a part of their identity, and still want to make change, but have been worn down. They still follow their ideals, but have begun to resent them and feel trapped by their own values. They are beginning to think people, on the whole, are not worth saving.

#6 – The Leader. These people care deeply, but they know their limits. Within their limits they are passionate about what they want to change. For them, making change is a Civic Duty, not a Sacred Calling. Because their passion is real and focused, they bring other people along with them. They will support people outside their realm, but take for granted that that is not their primary work.

#7 – The Moral Compass. These are people who do lead on occasion, especially with friends and colleagues and by example, but mostly they invest their morality in their work and lives and relationships. They choose careers that they personally value and that they believe have objective value. They put their time and energy into doing those well and making change wherever possible. They notice and care about the things they aren’t doing, and it may bother them sometimes, but it doesn’t make them spin; they measure their personal value by what they do, not but what they don’t have time or energy for.

There are possibly more, but these seem the broad strokes to me. My ideal community would contain no Lifestyle Rebels or Hypocrites, but I think there is a role for all the others. Young Idealists and Martyrs provide the energy for change, Stoics provide steady support, and even the Grudging Idealist provides a realist check on the ambitions of a group too weighted towards naiveté. I think, though, that the balance lies with the last two. Leaders overtly steer a group, and Moral Compasses do the internal legwork of keeping course.

I think I have omitted something from the discussion, though, which is how to get people to change roles. An effective community of activists aims to change minds outside their group, but I am more and more convinced that they must equally change minds within. Some number of the more negative roles may be inevitable, in which case redirecting those individuals becomes essential to the effectiveness of the whole.

Unfortunately, when it comes to this last, I have no solution. So there this discussion must rest, until the insight of others reawakens it.