On Safe Spaces and High-Hoping Fools

There are very few things about which I am certain, but this is one of them: There are no totally safe spaces.

Despite that, and because of that, I've tried to make Shakesville as safe a space as is possible, for everyone who inhabits it. Woman, man, androgyne, black, white, brown, gay, straight, bi, asexual, trans, cis, intersex, fat, thin, tall, short, disabled, able-bodied, old, young, and in-between, the infinite intersectionalities of humankind—all have been welcome, to the best of my abilities. I have tried to listen when I've failed, and make adjustments.

I've had that promise—and my efforts, imperfect as they've been—erroneously invoked numerous times by the recently-banned or a departing commenter mid-flounce, people who don't, or won't, understand that a safe space doesn't guarantee freedom from criticism, or from mockery of one's (moribund) ideas or (disgraceful) behavior.

It means, and has only ever meant, that no one is valued less or more here because of hir intrinsic characteristics; no one is worth more or less because of the particulars of the body housing the consciousness whence emanates the thoughts and choices and behaviors and actions which are the stuff of legitimate debate and critique.

It means, and has only ever meant, that in a space where we congregate to challenge war, and torture, and sexual assault, and other manifestations of violence, and where an integral part of that discussion includes sharing our own stories of survival to break the silence in which acquiescence and approval are assumed, we do not engage in a self-defeating perpetuation of violence, and revisit violence upon its survivors, by directing its language and images at others.

It doesn't mean, and never has, a space free of disagreement. There are, in fact, few more laughable accusations than the oft-levied echo chamber / groupthink / differences-of-opinion-are-disallowed-at-Shakesville chestnut; I feel like I've been in a virtual barfight at the end of many days here, less blog than brawl.

It does mean, however, that we must agree on certain things, like the unacceptability of using slurs or employing identifiable silencing strategies (e.g. accusations of hysteria or hypersensitivity or humorlessness) in our discourse. That there are rules to which participants in this space are expected to adhere does not mean that disagreement is verboten.

It also doesn't mean that the quality of the discourse is lessened. Quite the contrary—creating guidelines to ensure that the voice and experiences of a disabled trans lesbian of color are as valued as the voice and experiences of a straight, cisgender, able-bodied, white male qualitatively and quantitatively expands the discourse via a diversity of perspectives. The richness of contributions, encouraged by dismantling the disincentives and barriers to participation in other spaces, is the radical potential of a safe space.

Realistically, because we are a people of opinions as strong as they are diverse, and of differing priorities, and of many, frequently conflicting, choices—believe in god/s, don't believe in god/s, eat meat, don't eat meat, vote blue, vote Green, have kids, don't have kids, support reclaimative language, object to reclaimative language, shave, don't shave, wear a bra, don't wear a bra—sometimes just existing in the same space is challenging. There have been people who take others' different choices as an implicit condemnation of their own, and people who assert their choices are the only acceptable ones to make. There have been people who never learn not to wear the shoe if doesn't fit, and people who never learn not to trade in blanket generalizations.

But, for the most part, even in very contentious times, the quality of conversation has been remarkably high, especially for an online community, and Shakesville has been a safe space, or a mostly safe space, for a whole lot of people.

I believe that's something worth defending. And I'm pleased I'm not the only one.

There have been criticisms of the post published by my colleagues exhorting members of the community to active participation in the maintenance of the safe space for which we strive. Some of the criticism, familiar in its implied allegation that activism is a pathetic, contemptible waste of time, is along the lines of: There's no such thing as a totally safe space, anyway.

As if we didn't know.

The safest place in the world for a privileged, white, straight, middle-class American teenage girl should be her own bedroom in her happily married parents' home, but it was the place where I was raped by a boyfriend who supposedly loved me. I knew then that there are no totally safe spaces. And I know it still.

I know it because I've fucked up and made this space not safe for people before, and I will undoubtedly do it again.

So call it something else, it has been suggested—to which I can only reply: No. Talking about this space as anything else, calling it by some name other than the concept to which we aspire, is like talking about freedom by another name. There is no whole, perfect freedom, either, but no one fights for freedomish. The objective serves as inspiration to get as close as we can.

Audacious ideas are a compelling muse.

And then there has been this criticism—the tired, lazy refuge of scoundrels, pessimists, and other sundry defenders of the status quo: It's the internet; what do you expect?

More. Always more.

Some will argue such expectations are foolish, but foolishness is beside the point. Innovation is commonly owed to magnificent fools with foolish dreams. Discouragement against expecting more is a coward's conceit—it is not foolish to have great expectations; it is brave.

Resignation is a sanctuary, but having high hopes is a risky business indeed. Trying to create the change one wants to see in the world means risking disappointment, heartache, frustration, failure. It means wanting something desperately—wanting it with abandon, wanting it fervently and urgently and recklessly, wanting it with clenched jaw and knitted brow, wanting it despite the fact that it is always easier, always safer, to expect nothing, because nothing is so frequently all that we get—and risking looking like a fool if the centerpiece of that ardent, public desire never materializes.

It is perilous—and, yes, maybe foolish—to harbor fantasies of more, but I want a safe space too much not to.

Expecting more is a brash act of courage, and it is also an extraordinary act of generosity. I am a better person than I once was because people gave me the gift of expecting more of me, of setting a higher standard and encouraging me to reach for it, of challenging me not to settle into the well-tread grooves of my socialization, of admonishing me to reject the vast and varied prejudices and myths with which I'd been indoctrinated, of urging me expect more of myself and persuading me to believe I could be the change I want to see.

Not perfection. Just more.

Perfection is an unattainable goal and an unreasonable expectation—of a space, of a person. More, on the other hand, is eminently reasonable. It's such a small thing really, more. And yet, by virtue of so few being willing to exact it, of themselves and of others, asking for such a little thing is regarded as an enormous expectation.

Well. I am willing to think big, like so many fools before me.

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

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