Sunday, December 4, 2016

Safe Spaces: Sometimes We Need to be Protected

This post is part of my Kindness Project. Instead of criticizing my subject, it seemed like the right thing to do was try to understand it, first.

It's been a few years since this "safe space" term has invaded our collective mind, so this morning I finally sat down to investigate. I was just as inclined as all of us to be fairly annoyed and dismissive of the ridiculous idea...but these days I play the game a little differently. Whenever I hear something that I don't like, or makes me want to ridicule someone, or get angry at them, I instead pull out this little intellectual tool that I try to keep as sharp and honed as possible—I call it Suspending Judgement Until I Know More.

This allows me to move on with my day—I don't have to make a snap decision that what I just heard about is DUMB and now someone needs to be told so. They can be punished with a tweet, a post, a text, a comment—but most often we punish them in our minds, "what an idiot."

The problem is, we don't get to have these thoughts for free. Everything costs something. The judgement infiltrates our mind—it does things to us. Our thoughts are not consequence free. Snap judgments breed more snap judgments. Judgement separate us from those we judge. Which is not to say that it's wrong, we can't survive without judgment—but it's probably a good idea to make sure we are wielding the tool correctly.

So, having Suspended Judgement Until I Know More, I've moved on with my day. If, over the course of time, the need to judge that stupid thing, like a Safe Space, creeps into my brain's need center again, then I am motivated to move on to the second part of the directive—I'm tired of suspending my judgement—I want to know more now, so that I can proceed with getting to exercise my judgement, which just feels so good.

So I did my "deep dive" on Safe Spaces. Let me share with you what I learned:

Not many of us really "get it."

Safe Spaces primarily exist on university campuses. A space that is usually occupied by something else is filled with comforting items—Play-Doe, coloring books, pillows, etc. And usually only people with "like-minded beliefs" are asked to come in.

When they are opened they are not flooded. A few people trickle in here and there. They are not gaining popularity, there is not a wider movement to expand the notion and practice beyond campuses—and nobody really sticks up for them or likes them or thinks they are a very good idea.

For proof, here are a bunch of pieces that critique and criticize the practice, from either mainstream or liberal sources:

Conservative media is exaggerating the phenomena to get a rise out of you.

If you listen to Sean Hannity (and I do not recommend such a thing), you would think that every single Hillary Clinton supporter after the election was in a safe space during the day (Play-Doe in hand and completing a coloring book per hour), and was protesting in the streets and breaking things at night.

You don't hate the phenomena of safe spaces because the phenomena doesn't really exist. We don't concern ourselves with what perhaps a few thousand people across this country of 300,000,000+ do. We don't think about or criticize crazy organizations like the Flat Earth Society, because we know there are all kinds of ridiculous groups of people that advocate for absurd things, but if their movement is isolated, small and not growing we don't waste our time.

You're not angry with people—you're angry because of a wildly exaggerated phenomena you've been fed by people who benefit in ratings and dollars by fanning the flames of your outrage.

Perhaps you would feel more sympathy for those few people who need Safe Spaces if you realized you flock to them all the time.

Talk Radio is a Safe Space. Rachael Maddow is a Safe Space. Sean Hannity is a Safe Space. Church is often a Safe Space. People frequently turn their home into a Safe Space. This is not to say that all of these things are horrible—just that we prefer to be in the company of people who agree with us. We prefer to hear things we agree with, and we are uncomfortable when our orthodoxy is challenged.

I would articulate further on this point—but I stole the idea from this Rolling Stone piece, and it articulates far better than I am capable of doing.

After spending a little time thinking about it, I started to wonder why I, or anyone, would ever criticize someone who felt like they needed a Safe Space. And I don't think it's so much that these several hundred people are asking for finger-painting, sitar music and Koosh balls, but probably more so that these silly things were offered and the ones who needed it were appreciative of the aid and comfort.

When you decry Safe Spaces, and indulge in the disgust, it's a good idea to remember: You. Are. Talking. To. People. Flesh and blood and feelings and contradictions and fragilities and emotions. You're not talking to a concept: a Millennial, a Conservative, a Progressive, a Political Supporter, an "Other". Acquaint yourself with the radical concept that the person you're spewing venom against is your child, your family, your coworker, someone you love.

Hating people who need Safe Spaces proves why they need a safe space.

So, have I come out in defense of Safe Spaces, or have I criticized them? Yes. 

It's called nuance—you don't really get it from the media you consume, but nuance, vagueness and shades of gray are much more reflective of reality than the black and white diatribes you are assaulted with that stoke your massive stores of indignation and outrage.

This is an example of a failure of imagination: The easiest thing in the world to do is to portray your opponents position as untenable. Your followers won't question you, making it that much more easy, safe, and enticing. This cartoon is a very Safe Place for a conservative.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

My Special Purpose

I think I've finally found it. For years I have tarried and toiled in the intellectual wilderness. Armed with a sense that I need to say something, poised before an open page, ready for gold to issue from the pen--I have mostly felt stifled, empty and desperate to write the words that needed to be written--having little to no idea what those were.

Enter President Trump.

Trump's election has exposed a plague on the American psyche. It's a plague I've been noticing for a long time, trying to move against it, fumbling through the dark, feeling for its edges so that I could wrap my arms all the way around it, wrestle it to the light, so that I could see exactly what it was. I had a vague sense we weren't working--I didn't know why, I didn't know when, I didn't know what much to do about it, but I knew there was something wrong.

Trump's election has fully exposed what many of us have us have been noticing for awhile now--we don't like each other. Liberals don't like conservatives, red states hate the blues, boomers berate the millennials--and we're not shy about returning the sentiment, and we're not kind or tactful about expressing our disagreement. That's mostly what we have between each other--disagreement. Fueling the fire is a fully formed bubble we can step into to have all of our beliefs and biases completely confirmed for us. We can carefully curate our tv/radio station/website/magazine/circle of friends so that we never have to hear or think about anything we don't want to. We are neatly and ritualistically provided with our own facts, opinions and intellectual architecture that we perceive to be cryptonite to those we disagree with.

What do you think that does to us? The extent you find it difficult to understand someone's point of view is directly proportional to your sense of disgust you feel for that fellow human being.

So that's my new mission, my new life's work--I have the humble task of getting us to be kinder to one another, dammit. I must persuade us all to embrace our own inner Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers--so kind, thoughtful and accommodating. He's there, lurking in all of us, and with the right media diet and intellectual exercise, he can be coaxed out of the dark internal cave most of us have driven him to.

The goal is perhaps ambitious, but the payoffs are worth the effort. Imagine a people inclined to kindness instead of judgement as their first reaction to something they don't like. What doors does that open? What might we learn about each other if we are more interested in understanding the other than we are in protecting our own pristine worldview? What beliefs might we find we need to let go of, what others might we embrace? What if some of our beliefs are holding us back, hampering our lives, and keeping us from a fuller realization of human flourishing? Spoiler alert--you have lot's of those. So do I.

Liberals, I love you. Conservatives, I love you. Libertarians, I love you. Atheists, I love you. Come, let us all reason and make merry together. We're going to piss each other off, but perhaps, and just maybe, we can keep some good humor about us. Maybe if we know that our interlocutor is not out for our scalp...maybe that can help us relax. Maybe we have the freedom to be wrong, or at least look wrong, and that doesn't have to bother us. It doesn't have to bother us because maybe we realize that all of us are wrong, everyday, about a lot. If that's true, then what's one more errant political stance, false notion or wrong conclusion that was jumped to?

So I'll be over here, exploring and experimenting with my new life's purpose--which is to get all of us to embrace our inner Mr. Rogers, infiltrate him into the confines of your unique personality, and get ready to feel the love.