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?’

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Contests, Modes of Toughness, and the Spirit of Our Times

Not everything in life is a contest but surely some things are. In a contest, I struggle, I risk something, I stake myself. I can avoid contests but only at the cost of avoiding becoming a more excellent human being.

I doubt whether we can continue to avoid the contests we face in the coming years. Some contests will be easy while others will be hard.

Consider the hard contests in life. What I have in previous posts been calling ‘toughness’ would be a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for excelling in a hard contest.

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