In Defense of Safe Spaces

Given the distinction I gave yesterday between tribes and rule-based morality, I want to talk about the libertarian boogey-man: safe spaces.

A safe space is a place where a certain group is granted protection from normal modes of criticism. The reason for this is because many minorities spend most of their time in a culture that is telling them they are wrong. Maybe queer kids have to deal with heteronormative messages all the time, or maybe a black person is sick of how any time they express anger it might be interpreted as a criminal threat, or maybe an immigrant just wants a place where everyone speaks their language. It is very stressful having to monitor your casual tendencies all the time, and a safe space promises “here, you can just be yourself.”

It can be very easy for non-minorities to forget how incredibly valuable this is. It’s like when you go from high school to college and you finally meet “your people.” The relief at a place where you can just be you is immense.

I think of these less as “space where we enforce rules about how we treat a minority group” but rather “a tribal zone for that minority group.” You can’t define what one specific thing it is that makes such zones great, but it’s everything about them. In fact, trying to overzealously defend any particular rule just turns a safe space into another ideological war zone.

Looked at it from this perspective, the majority culture in this country can see how important safe spaces are. For many people, every public place used to be a safe space for white Christian middle class traditions. If you went into the grocery store, you could wish the clerk “Merry Christmas!” And you didn’t do that to enforce your religion, but because you were really fricking happy about Christmas and you wanted to share that joy. Sharing joy with like-minded people about stuff is really really fun.

And then the feared political correctness police came, and (even if no one will ever jail you for saying “Merry Christmas”), when you talk to the clerk you think “Merry Christmas”, but you have to stop yourself for a second, check yourself, and say “Happy Holidays” instead. And having to think for that one second, that consideration for someone different than you, just interrupted the little joy-feedback loop that was going on in your head, and brought you out of it. It’s an exceedingly trivial thing, but now you’re not quite so happy about Christmas and neighbors as you were a minute ago.

This is stressful. Having to do it a lot in places you previously felt comfortable in, will make you less comfortable and happy in those places. The shift from Merry Christmas to Happy Holidays is if anything, understated in how it has affected our culture.

Now imagine this is what a minority goes through every single day. Outside their home or synagogue, no one wants to share their reflexive holiday cheer. A space where you can do that is fantastic. Nothing interrupts your little joy feedback loop. And after a while, you’d fight and die for this place.

Safe spaces for those groups are absolutely amazing, and anyone should defend them on pure utilitarian grounds of “they create a lot of happiness.”

***

Of course, safe spaces can be turned into a close-minded ideology like any other. The mainstream culture, having heard how important safe spaces are, can try to turn every group and place into a safe space for this minority culture. And once every campus/club/event is a “safe space” then members of the majority can ask that their traditions be respected there too – which generally causes the sort of debate where both sides lose. Because re-shaping the rules of the entire society shouldn’t be the point, and instead turns the spirit of tribal joy into just another ideological civil war.

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