Safe Space

The 1968 Yale rugby squad, with George W. Bush at center top. Kauai physician Monty Downs is the beefy guy kneeling second from right. Photo courtesy Monty Downs.
(a guest post by friend of the blog, Kerim Friedman)

An immature, overly-coddled Yale student lashed out after feeling that his “safe space” had been violated.

I’m talking, of course, about George W. Bush. Isn’t the War on Terror nothing but an attempt to maintain the safe spaces of the cosmopolitan elite? At a time when black college students are being called “fascist” and “immature” for trying to carve out a safe space for themselves on campus it seems worth while to ask this question. Both tasks are equally impossible, but one actually brought us closer to fascism by restricting our civil liberties and ensuring that we waged perpetual war for perpetual peace, while the other only brought about fascism in the minds of critics on the left and right whose minds imagined the slippery slope that would be created by taking student’s concerns seriously.

As Malcolm Harris has shown, the use of the term “safe space” has a long history in American identity politics, referring to spaces within which those hostile to feminism or other movements were kept out of the discussion. But I think the recent usage of the term has morphed beyond that. Exactly how it has morphed seems to be the subject of some controversy. On the one had there are those like Mark Oppenheimer who see it as a demand, by “college students, of all races,” to have a “nurturing, homey… safe, loving spaces.” But others like Jelani Cobb spoke to student who denied this, saying that “they were the culmination of long-simmering concerns” including overt hate speech on campuses and online forums used by students.

Roxane Gay’s definition seems closest to what the word now means:

Safe spaces allow people to feel welcome without being unsafe because of the identities they inhabit. A safe space is a haven from the harsh realities people face in their everyday lives.

And while critical of the idea she highlights the disparity in how we experience safety:

Those who take safety for granted disparage safety because it is, like so many other rights, one that has always been inalienable to them. They wrongly assume we all enjoy such luxury and are blindly seeking something even more extravagant. They assume that we should simply accept hate without wanting something better. They cannot see that what we seek is sanctuary. We want to breathe.

I once conducted an entrance interview with a lesbian student who had been an undergraduate at my university in Taiwan and wanted to return for graduate school partially because she felt that the campus gave her a safe space. She had worked outside for a few years and felt that she needed a place of refuge where she could be herself and have time to learn and explore without always carrying her identity as a burden. I was very happy to learn that she thought of our program in this way, and didn’t worry for a second that she wouldn’t be able to handle the “real world” after a few more years of schooling. Think of it as something of a sabbatical from the burden of not feeling safe.

When defined in this way, most public spaces America are “safe spaces” for white people. One of the great contributions of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me is precisely the way in which he meticulously explains why black people, even the elite can never experience a sense of safety in these spaces. As he writes to his son (but really to us, those who do feel safe):

And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.

But, “we” don’t really feel safe in these spaces do we? 9-11 and the recent Paris attacks are a reminder that we are not. And this makes us angry. (And while the definition of “us” is necessarily different in France than it is in America, books, films, and reportage about the experience of Muslim immigrants show remarkable similarities to the experience of black Americans.) Hollande vowed to “lead a war which will be pitiless” in order to restore that sense of safety, or at least convince the French people that he would do so. As Andrew J. Bacevich points out, “It’s not as if the outside world hasn’t already given pitiless war a try.” Indeed, it is arguable that the current situation is blow-back from previous wars to try to accomplish this impossible task.

Safe spaces don’t exist. Not for minorities (Harris points out, “dominant power relations still find their way into the room.”) And not for the majority either. The war on terror, security theater, drone attacks, etc. are all an endless effort to secure the impossible dream of safety. In fact, time and time again those tactics we have used to try to ensure that our safety is total have led to blow-back which once again threatens our safety. If black students at Yale are being infantile in their desire to have a safe space on campus, then can’t we say that the disruption of civil liberties and the violence unleashed on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen in the War on Terror are part of an infantile desire to preserve the impossible dream of safety for the Davos crowd? But there are important differences in the danger posed to our safety by the dream of achieving perfect safety when enacted in the name of the imperial state or on the behalf of an oppressed minority within the confines of a college campus. I know which one keeps me awake at night.