21 March 2016

Safe Space

Over the last few weeks I’ve had several issues of safe space and hospitality come up in my participation in the Pagan and Polytheist communities.  As both a community organizer and participant, this is an issue near and dear to my heart.  I’ve got some things to say about it and in the end it’s all about respect.

True safe space does not just tolerate the “other” but actually makes space for them where they can be comfortable.  True safe space actively protects those that might otherwise be ostracized or victimized.  In some Pagan communities this has been confused with “space where everyone thinks like me and we happen to all be part of the same minority that gets oppressed elsewhere.”  This most often manifests in as anti-christian or anti-conservative talk in otherwise non-political groups (if you say you’re a liberal/progressive/social justice/activist group right out front then politic away).  Just because you know the majority of a group of people feels a particular way about an issue doesn’t mean that everyone feels that way, and boy howdy there is no better way to make that lone dissenter feel isolated and unwelcome than to loudly condemn anyone who could possible be so foul as to think that way.  This is not what we’re here for people.  There are whole organized groups that live to ostracize us, let’s not do their jobs for them. 

We need to actively work on creating real safe space.  We have all screwed up at some point and said or done something that has made someone else unwelcome and we need to put on our big kid pants and do something about it.  Enough of this “boys will be boys,” “but I said I was sorry” bullshit.  Take responsibility for your actions people.  Just because you didn’t mean to hurt/trigger/threaten/offend someone doesn’t take away from the fact that you did so.  Harm is not something a perpetrator gets to decide on.  Harm is a subjective experience determined by the person experiencing it.  Sometimes that harm is obvious and understandable, sometimes you have to squint and twist yourself like the Gordian Knot to figure out what the hell happened.  Regardless, if someone says you violated their safe space then you did so and need to accept the consequences.  That means genuinely admitting wrongdoing (or genuinely working to understand why your victim felt harmed and then sincerely apologizing for that harm) and working on making sure it doesn’t happen again.  Safe space has to be maintained with sincerity by everyone in it or it falls apart. 

In any community a balance needs to be struck between the needs of the many and the needs of the few.  Creating true safe space doesn’t mean letting everyone in and treating them equally.  Safe space means we agree on who gets to be in that space, how people need to behave in that space towards each other, and then taking the necessary steps to ensure that people hold to that.  Making space for a victim and then making equal space for their abuser is not safe space.  Certain folks need to be actively protected in order for the space to be safe for them.  Certain behaviours are not compatible with the existence of safe space. Sometimes that means gently reminding folks one how they agreed to behave when they entered safe space.  Sometimes that means kicking people out who don’t respect the space and what it stands for.  Safe space doesn’t come to be just because you declare it so; safe space is an active working that requires effort and attention in order to truly manifest. 

That also means not bending and twisting everything you do for over sensitive individuals.  In the legal world we identify certain folks as having an “eggshell skull.”  These are folks that come to a situation with certain preexisting conditions that make them especially vulnerable to harm.  We want our communities to be safe space for people that come to us with their own personal demons, but we can only go so far to accommodate them while still accommodating everyone else.  We cannot create the perfect environment for everyone - it’s just not possible.  To go too far to satisfy any one individual is disrespectful to the others present whose needs end up pushed to the wayside or worse.  We need to do our best to create safe and hospitable environments, but we also need to accept that we’re not perfect and we just can’t account for every possible need that might come up.

Respect.  This is what it comes down to in the end.  You can believe in whatever you want to believe in, but when it comes to your actions in community you need to respect yourself and those around you.  Community requires mindful action that fulfills your own needs while not infringing upon the needs and experiences of others while they do the same for you.  This is not a quick and easy issue to resolve.  It will take each and every one of us working hard and being mindful of our actions in order to create real safe space in our communities, but it is work worth doing.  Respect yourself, respect others, respect the community.