The Limits of ‘Creating Safe Spaces’: Contests of Toughness for Our Time

The Limits of ‘Creating Safe Spaces’

There is a great deal of talk going around about ‘creating safe spaces’ to ‘foster communication,’ ‘open dialogue,’ and ‘facilitate exchanges.’ Discomfort is to be removed, managed, or adjusted. Being uncomfortable is ruled out or encouraged it means being ‘at the edge of one’s comfort zone.’ Ground rules are set, based on non-violent forms of communication, and facilitators ‘check in’ to ensure that these ground rules are applied.

It is one thing to facilitate conversations in post-Apartheid South Africa, where it is entirely appropriate to create safety in lieu of violence, animosity, and rage. Yet it is quite another to believe that ‘creating safe spaces’ is a worthwhile endeavor or a reasonable point of departure in political societies where those particular human beings in the room have, by and large, grown up and benefitted from adequate security and protection during their formative years and beyond.

The mistake is to believe that a particular concept (‘safe spaces’) can so easily be generalized beyond the particular conditions in which it made sense to apply it. This is rarely so, especially in the case at hand, and the result has been a cultural celebration of weakness, ‘compassionistas’ (as I call them) being produced in droves and fallaciously lauded.

Therefore, it seems to me time to ask: ‘Can we create some well-articulated, well-specified arenas where safety is not at issue and where fear is precisely at the heart of the encounter?’

Beyond Safe Spaces: Contests of Toughness

The kind of arena I have in mind is that of the contest. I do not wish to limit the concept of contest to the Olympic games held in ancient Greece, the gladiatorial combats brutally staged in ancient Rome, or, even, the professional sports matches so venerated as public spectacle today. I am pointing instead to smaller, more personal venues in which each participant is invited–better: expected–to confront his or her fear.

‘What makes this arena into a contest?’ The answer lies in self-combat. For in this contest,

  • my fear of losing what I value highly (or, depending on the stakes, most highly) is pitted against a defensible conception of the Good, i.e., what I reasonably take to be most worth securing, defending, honoring, realizing, or upholding.

The Fearful vs. the Good. This type of contest would be about cultivating toughness, with my defeat arising from my giving into the demands of the Fearful and victory going to my upholding the Good over the Fearful.