The problem with safe spaces

What is a safe space?

Safe spaces originated for members of student-related organizations (a counselor, teacher, coach, or staff) to show that they would not tolerate violence, hate speech, or discrimination against people who identify with LGBTQ in some way.  My first experience with a safe space was several years ago when I saw a campus counselor about depression and anxiety.  She had a rainbow-colored triangle sticker on her desk and, when I asked what it meant, she explained that the symbol meant LGBTQ students could come to her about issues of any kind and she would be open and supportive rather than judgmental.

The phrase has morphed significantly, and quickly, speeding into your living room TV via “news” stations like CNN and Fox, becoming a polarizing term used both to bash Millennials for their inability to deal with even the slightest inconvenience and to shut down opposing viewpoints, often from extreme right-wing folks, especially in higher education. I won’t go into the media hype and juvenoia that feeds this notion – and I won’t use this time to discuss deplatforming.  Partially because these are super complicated issues that won’t get justice in this post.  And partially because I think that continually explaining to Boomers and Gen X-ers why we’re not as bad as everyone thinks we are is a waste of time and energy and that these insults are meant to distract us from our goal of inclusiveness and cultural change – basically that we’re all being trolled and the best way to piss a troll off is to ignore them.  But I digress…..

“But millennials, your lives are so cushy and comfortable, what could you possibly need rescuing from?”  Well curious reader, I’ll fill you in with a very recent personal story that let me see just how necessary safe spaces are.  I spent the past six years in the south studying and working in forestry.  During my time as a student I was physically groped by other students at conferences, I was told sincerely that my opinion didn’t matter because I was a woman (similar to being told to “let the men do the work”), I was constantly given comments about my appearance (both ‘good’ and ‘bad’), I was mocked, put down, you get the point.  These things became such a part of my daily life that I didn’t notice their impact until two weeks ago.  I was at work (not in the South anymore) and I walked into a woman’s office to throw something away in her trashcan.  A group of men sat at a table chatting and an older man said “hey look at that, a good lookin’ lady just showed up” and I instantly felt exhausted.

“But all the dude did was give you a compliment.  What’s the big deal?  You should just get over it.”  I suppose.  However, that was the moment that I realized that, at this job, my gender never comes into play.  That was the first time in almost 6 months of working here that I felt my femininity at work – and in the past 6 months I have felt a level of rejuvenation and productivity that I have never before experienced.  That was the first time I realized that I hadn’t been distracted, thinking about my appearance or whether I came across as bitchy rather than assertive.  Because, where I work, those comments aren’t tolerated and they’re simply not done.  That’s also when I realized how much that shit played into my overall mental health before I graduated and left.  I finally saw just how often those comments made me feel worthless – carrying that weight with me throughout my entire career would be unsustainable.  Who cares if someone likes my appearance?  I am a scientist.  I’m not here to model chest waders and muck boots – I’m here to get them dirty in a black spruce swamp.  I don’t want to think about my looks at work.  I don’t want to constantly think about the thin line between showing leadership and being “bossy”.  I don’t want to add words to sentences to soften them when they don’t need to be softened.  I just want to be who I am and let that be enough.  So when this man made this comment I instantly remembered every comment that has ever been made about me – and it made me exhausted.  It is mentally and emotionally exhausting to be a woman in a place that isn’t accepting of women – and I imagine this goes for all other minority and marginalized groups, especially when we start talking about intersectionality.

But, enough about me, let’s get back to safe spaces.  As you can see, until a couple weeks ago my work was a safe space.  The whole damn building and everyone in it.  Our bosses and our bosses’ bosses work extremely hard to make sure that everyone feels represented and secure at work.  Everyone is explicitly written into the protection of my employer.  In fact, the state of Minnesota is one of 20 states that specifically protect workers from discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. If you’ll notice on that same map, Arkansas, my previous place of employment where I experienced the previous tales of misogyny and harassment, actively prohibits the protection of these groups.  I’ll let you read that again – my former home state actively prohibits the protection of people from discrimination based on their gender or sexual orientation.

Map by the Movement Advancement Project showing states that do and do not protect employees based on gender and sexual orientation.  Link in above paragraph.

The problem then, with safe spaces, is that recently, they have spread into public areas and have begun impinging on the rights of others.  There are reports that people, namely journalists and photographers, have been mobbed for exercising their first amendment right to free speech.  These stories make me wonder why the phrase has been so abused lately for personal gain.  These people didn’t want a safe space – they just wanted to push someone else out.  After all, this type of behavior goes against the very thing that safe spacers want – for people to feel safe and free from attack based on a single characteristic (like a job).

The Tragedy of the Commons

Then the other day I happened across a Facebook post by Science which linked to ‘The Tragedy of the Commons‘ written in 1968 by Garrett Hardin.  In fact, I’ve seen this article being shared a lot lately. This was mandatory reading in undergrad but I hadn’t read it since and didn’t have the ability at 21 to fully understand what I was reading.  The TL;DR of it is that the world, and everything in it, is finite.  If we want to maximize enjoyment for the populous, then we have to regulate the commons  (i.e. something that everyone has equal access to) which, in the case of the article, is human reproduction.  Maximum enjoyment might come in different forms; you may love hiking while your brother loves theater, your sister enjoys gaming, and your mom loves to garden.  All of these things require different resources, different amounts of space etc.  You cannot maximize each and every outlet without controlling these resources, and therefore, controlling the number of people in the world.

The real tragedy of the commons, therefore, occurs when everyone has equal access to everything.  For example, if all the moms in the world had equal access to Princess Diana memorabilia, they would maximize those items for themselves – winner take all.  If someone ruins the whole lot or takes everything, the damage is felt by many moms.  Therefore, each mom’s individual negative experience is lessened than if she ruined only her piece of memorabilia.  This scenario encourages exploitation in every sense and so, we have things like personal property, taxes etc. to discourage bad behavior and encourage good.

“What does the tragedy of the commons have to do with safe spaces?”  Good question.  From the outside looking in we have already regulated private and public spaces by establishing laws and regulations that allow certain activities and behaviors in some areas and not others.  We have safe spaces – they’re called your house, car, yard, workshop.  These are places where you can (within reason) be yourself and not be punished or looked down upon.  However, if you belong to a marginalized group, chances are you don’t feel represented by these laws – especially not in the past few years.  You have citizens and lawmakers telling you that your very existence is unconstitutional and should be banned or, at the very least, vehemently attacked.  Your house is no longer a safe space.  Your life is under attack at all times.  Whether you believe that to be true or not doesn’t matter.  You do not get to decide what others feel.  And when cities, states, and nations put forth laws that ban entire genders, sexual orientations, religions, and races from acting in a way they feel is appropriate – the safe money is that people are right.  They are being attacked.  In 2015 over 200 pieces of anti-LGBT legislation were initiated.  As of September 2016, there were over 100 ACTIVE pieces of anti-LGBT legislation.   This does not include the anti-women legislation being promoted across the country.  So what happens when you apply sweeping measure to invalidate entire communities of people after years of steady progress to do the opposite?

Protesters in NC marching against the “Bathroom Bill” HB2.

They create a new commons. One that is unregulated. One that circumvents established law. You get a generation that is almost majority-minority (meaning that almost 50% of Millennials belong to a recognized minority group) who feel like they have zero safety and zero ability to be who they are and what they are (*ahem* let’s not forget about the constant message that we’re a worthless generation).  You have the following generation (Generation Y) that actually IS majority-minority who have yet to truly feel what these laws mean for them – but trust me, they will.  Therefore, your laws don’t apply to safe spaces.  They don’t apply to women needing basic medical care.  They don’t apply to my friends who waited years to marry their partner.  They don’t apply to my friends in transition who feel like they can’t identify the way they need to.  So we have the freedom of the commons all over again.  Because this is the wild west and this is unregulated.  This is what happens when you exclude entire groups from the protection of the law.  You get massive communities of people using a phrase to create a commons – and if we jump back a few paragraphs we remember that certain people will exploit the commons for their own personal gain, whatever that may be, if left unregulated.  So you end up with people genuinely wanting a place to feel free from oppression, and you have an extreme minority who bend and twist phrases to suit their needs.  Of course that extreme minority is blasted across “news” outlets everywhere, adding fuel to the “Millennials are stupid” fire.

“So we should regulate safe spaces?”  I don’t think so.  ‘Safe space’ and ‘freedom of speech’ are not mutually exclusive terms.  In fact, they were co-existing just fine for years.  Their blurred lines and mutual degradation came with the advent of oppressive laws and regulations that seek to demonize entire communities.  The only way to have both is to protect all people under the law.  The only way to protect freedom of speech from the invasiveness of this new-fangled safe space is to fully and unconditionally protect women, LGBTQ, all religions, all races, all disabilities – everything and everyone.  Until that happens, the exploitation of safe spaces will march forward.

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