May Links Roundup: Safer Spaces

A challenge of social justice work is that people can have shared values but incompatible boundary conditions for the space in which they collaborate. For instance, the need of oppressed people to release anger can clash with the equally valid need of their traumatized comrades to be free from face-to-face aggression. Many groups for healing from rape and incest are women-only spaces because male-on-female assault is probably the most common, as well as the most culturally reinforced, form of sexual violence. However, this set-up leaves male, transgender, and genderqueer survivors without a clear place to fit in. Female-only space, however trans-inclusive, also doesn’t automatically signal safety for women who were abused by other women. (The new anthology Queering Sexual Violence has several excellent articles on these themes; stay tuned for a full review on this blog.)

In a better world, we’d have enough funding and leadership to serve everyone. But scarcity of resources can push us into a fruitless search for a universal, definitive model of safety that convinces everyone to put our own priorities at the top. This month’s recommended links explore the complexities of this issue.

The Unit of Caring, a utilitarian philosophy blog, argues in “Safe spaces and competing access needs” that we should respect all “weird needs for safe spaces” while recognizing that they can’t all be satisfied by the same group parameters. The problem is that because of the wide-open nature of the Internet, people come across conversations that aren’t healthy for them, but those conversational spaces still have value, and we should be able to avoid them without demonizing the people who participate in them.

I’m gay. And sometimes I wonder, ‘would the world be a better place if gay people didn’t exist?’ Telling me ‘wtf is wrong with you’ is really not helpful for enabling me to work through that question. And if I ask it in my campus LGBT center, or on tumblr, it is likely that my need to have that conversation is going to have a big painful collision with someone else’s need not to hear questions like that entertained seriously.

I need people who will think about my question and give me honest answers, to the best of their ability. I won’t be able to get over this question until someone reaches out to me with a genuine spirit of respect and curiosity so we can talk about the answer.

On the other hand, the needs of other people to not be around serious conversations about whether they deserve to exist is really valid and really important. There should be safe spaces where my question is prohibited. There should be lots and lots of spaces where my question is prohibited, actually. Everyone in the world should have access to spaces where my question is prohibited.

But if my question is prohibited everywhere – if it is a universal norm that no decent human being will have a conversation with me about this – then it will keep lurking in the back of my head, unanswered. Or, even worse, I’ll turn for answers to the people who are willing to ignore this universal norm, the people who don’t care about being regarded as decent human beings, and I’ll internalize the things they are saying because no one else is in that space countering them.

This March 2016 post from The Orbit, an atheist social justice website, calls out a problem that plagued me in college, where I was turned off to most left-wing ideas by the bullying tactics of the instructors who advocated them. Harvard being a brutally competitive and anxious place, it’s no wonder that teachers and students alike used our sincerely held ideals as an outlet to vent our stress on other people. I’ve learned so much more about racism from Twitter than I ever could in school, because I can overhear nonwhite writers’ unfiltered expressions of sadness, fear, and even hatred of white people and white privilege, without the fight-or-flight reaction and brain-freeze that I experience in interpersonal confrontations.

This article, “Boundary Setting versus Tone Policing”, explains that we can validate an oppressed person’s anger without giving them a free pass for verbal abuse. (If you’re not familiar with the term, tone policing is “when more-powerful people dismiss the real concerns and call-outs of less-powerful people because of the tone they use.”) “Emotional boundaries are a social justice issue,” the writer “Miri” says, because people with abuse histories or anxiety disorders won’t be able to participate in spaces where yelling at each other is the norm. And beyond that:

But I’m going to take it one step further to say this: you don’t need to be triggered by something, or experience strong negative reactions to it, in order to have the right to set boundaries around it.

I say this for three reasons. One is that if we set thresholds for “acceptable” boundaries, then we’ll be effectively forcing people to out themselves as abuse survivors or mental illness sufferers or whatever in order to be able to set their boundaries. That’s not okay with me.

The second is that many people–especially marginalized people–are often not immediately aware of the harm that something (or someone) is doing to them. That’s because we’re taught to ignore our own feelings and treat them as invalid until “proven” by the “evidence.” Sometimes all we really get–if anything–is a vague sense of unease that we’re tempted to immediately dismiss as “not a big deal.” No, don’t dismiss it. Listen to that unease. Act on it. Set the boundary. You can always unset it later if you decide it really isn’t a big deal. It’s much easier to walk back a boundary than it is to set one after years of putting up with something that’s hurting you.

The third reason is that I believe in giving people agency over their own space, physical and mental. I think people should be able to decide what is and is not okay for them. I think that if we start treating all boundaries as valid, we might start to make a serious dent in rape culture, because right now, one of the ways in which rape culture operates is by requiring people to justify their boundaries before those boundaries will be respected–and if the justification doesn’t satisfy someone, they feel free to violate the boundary.

This last dynamic was a favorite tactic of my abusive mother, whose behavior bursts were particularly florid when I was in college–no wonder I had no tolerance for activism as a blood sport. Miri’s article concludes with some check-in guidelines to discern whether you are setting a personal boundary or tone policing. For example, can you consider the validity of their points while also asking for a different mode of address? Would you really have heard the criticism if phrased differently, or are you dodging the issue? The whole piece is worth a read. Hat tip to Love, Joy, Feminism for the link.

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