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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A Plausible Method for Toughness Training?

There is no easy way around it. Compassion-istas are out and toughness will have to be in. Why? Because our time is just screaming for toughness. Too many are folding, too many caving in, far too many bowled over, snowed under, and generally overwhelmed. Trouble: weakness, softness, flimsiness. Moreover, we have no idea what sort of future we are going to face, but that future, we can be sure, will require more of us than we have given so far.

Here, then, is an interesting thought on method with regard to toughness training: to learn what toughness is, begin by gathering together physico-ethical descriptions of a tough experience. Consider, for example these parings:

  • John backs down whereas Jane stands firm.
  • Tom faces up to things whereas Terry turns away from things.
  • Mark puts his whole weight into the endeavor, yet Mary grows slack.

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Sentimentality and Compassion, or Fire in the Belly

Those who can breathe the air of my writings know that it is an air of the heights, a strong air…. Philosophy, as I have so far understood and lived it, means voluntarily living among ice and high mountains… How much truth does a spirit endure, how much does it dare? More and more that became for me the real measure of value. Error (faith in the ideal) is not blindness, error is cowardice…. Every attainment, any step forward in knowledge, follows from courage, from hardness against oneself, from cleanliness in relation to oneself…. What one has forbidden so far as a matter of principle is–has always been–truth alone.

–Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (cited in Luc Ferry, What is the Good Life?)

The big error Nietzsche alludes to–a metaphysical error involving positing a Beyond outside of the real world we inhabit–is not a mistake in judgment, not a mistake in reasoning, not an illusory perception but an instance of cowardice. Truth is attached to courage as the consequence that follows from an act.

Courage is no mere idle concept, either, not something to be talked over or written nauseatingly about. It is the fire of fire people! It is choosing to dwell ‘among ice and high mountains.’ It means enduring, indeed cultivating a spirit that endures the nastiest shit of existence. It is hardness against oneself, a ruthless hygiene, a brutal self-accounting. All these, of course, are metaphors for the development of my power to the point of self-mastery, that, as Ferry argues, requires taking conflicting active and reactive forces and, without fighting against them or pitting them in conflict with each other, allows them to express themselves in a ‘grand style’ with an overall sense of harmony. Self-mastery is power expressed as grace, as quietness, as command.

When I master myself, I quietly command. I find a way to express beautifully the fire in my belly.

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The Post-Martial Orientation: Cultivating Toughness

Long the pride of place among the educated, compassion, empathy, and presentness are giving way to a completely different order of supreme virtues. This is because, at a more general level, the post-religious outlook is being supplanted by a post-martial outlook. It has to be so, since history is uncompromising.

This is what I see. The post-martial order carries forward the essence of physical courage in the forms of mental toughness, defiance, determination, perseverance. We have no single word for this hearty disposition: I could call it cheerfulness or something else. We are in the midst of reinventing a vocabulary for our time, one that should enable us to speak clearly about standing firm, holding our ground, and going on in the face of what once was believed to be known yet now is known to be unknown. Our own ignorance is what we are and will continue to be confronted with.

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