Thanksgiving Is Ruined
December 07, 2006
when a "safe space" becomes unsafe
paradox: what to do when a safe space starts to become unsafe in a way that makes it feel unsafe in which to discuss the changing level of safety in the space in order to maintain or recapture the space's safety as a safe space in which to discuss the safety of the space.
Maybe when a safe space starts to fall apart, the process can always be analyzed as a problem of rules failure. We all do know that a safe space depends on rules, don't we? Spoken or unspoken ones? One admirably clear and simple sample statement of such rules can be found here. The rules' careful balance of interconnected rights and obligations focuses less on results than on process (e.g., the "Oops/Ouch" and "Assume Good Intentions" sections). The rules acknowledge the danger that what individual members feel to be rules violations or imbalances in the system may sneak into the space even accidentally, and try to build in mechanisms to address these before the whole collective project gets pushed off the rails.
Though perhaps willingness to cooperate and adhere to the set of written "safe space" rules logically presupposes adherence to some unwritten rule set (e.g., to abide by the written rules). Perhaps adherence to that unwritten set of rules presupposes sign-on to an even anterior rule set, and so on, ad infinitum. In the end, it appears that agreement (safety) will not happen unless the parties already agree anyway. Going in (build up), it's a miraculous feeling paradox. Going out (breakdown), it's a hellish vicious cycle.
Unsurprisingly, some of the most insightful and perceptive observations that seem to be out there, on how virtual safe spaces can break down, appear on apophenia. This Barbelith discussion also includes some very thought provoking ideas, especially the distinction between "organic safe spaces" and "rule safe spaces."
Why do people seek out safe spaces? Two goals that you commonly see mentioned are "to explore identity" and "to seek solidarity." These goals have a tension between them, to an extent, between 1) an investigation of the depths of one's own personal, freaky weirdness, or how one is not like everybody else and 2) a de-emphasis on individuality in favor of celebration of commonality, in the service of jointly finding solutions to common problems.
My hero Quentin Crisp pessimistically felt that questions of identity could only be answered in solitude, as with his dictum, "Live alone." Crisp said that he needed enormous amounts of time alone, as was necessary not only to "recharge [his] battery," but also to work on his identity, "getting it together." As he put it, the quest for identity "involves a journey to the interior," and "a long look at what your friends call 'the trouble with you.'"
Though I suppose his method might on the surface seem to throw the whole "solidarity" thing out the window.