Sunday, February 25, 2024

Early Notes on Challenges and Pitfalls of the "Safe Space" Concept

As part of exploration of the sometimes letdowns, failings, and outright harms of wellness and well-meaning efforts, one increasing popular concept and term is "This is a Safe Space". It's time to interrogate that concept.

As always, please understand that this isn't a binary analysis. The concept isn't all bad. It's done some good in some ways and caused some harms in others ways. No tool is perfect, but that cannot and should not excuse basic critical analysis, deep-seated flaws, and exploration of ways to improve tools and concepts and repair clear oversights and weak spots.

Onto some draft notes...

As a disabled trans person, I have some massive issues with "safe space" as a concept. Great in theory, but in practice has some flaws.

1) Paradox of Tolerance

First is how to deal with the Paradox of Tolerance. A place truly safe for trans expression is also, by definition, not safe for transphobia. So, what then is meant by "safe". Safe for one thing means not safe for another, so it's an awkward phrase. I want to do a whole article on the under-exploration of this concept in advice and wellness and support spaces at some point. Work in progress and I don't have all the answers. In the meantime, can read more about Paradox of Tolerance here and here.

2) Lack of Accountability

Second, there's no accountability for safety. The number of places that labeled themselves "safe" until to not be safe is mind-boggling. And often no way to hold a person or place to account except to attempt to leave after being harmed. Which I've also explored how that itself isn't even a full answer for various reasons. If a place labeled meant to be safe for a given person, especially in the context of marginalized person wanting support from a place or person with some amount of resources (time, material aid, attention, etc.) is not seen as safe by the person in the need, what happens? Most often, I see the marginalized person scolded as "being bad at receiving support" and told "you're wrong to feel unsafe here". It's a classic don't believe victims mentality and that's a problem. So, as with point one, there's an entire article worth of concepts to unpack on this specific issue.

3) Safe According To Who?

Third, who gets to define safe? This was touched on in the last point but deserves emphasis itself. There is so much saviorism and what I've also seen called "care-orrism". You know who else thinks they are "safe" - gay conversation clinics. Safe to embrace you with their view of love and protect you from the sin of queerness. They are, in a sense, very safe under their definition of safety. An instant reaction might be "well, obviously, those people are super wrong and are bigoted. Obviously". The reality is, it's not obvious to them. And they say the same thing about you. Which bring up the question - how do we work through wants counts as "correct" safety? Safe according to who?. Again, another point that's an entire article itself and that I don't yet have full answers for.

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This article brought to you by the currently unfunded Peer Voices Network.

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Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash