This topic of ‘safety’ and ‘safe space’ addresses those emotional and physical realties that hurt; and involves such issues as verbal abuse, domestic violence, work place bullying, and cultural insensitivity.
The definition of what is ‘safe’ is growing broader, and interestingly, this increasing sensitivity to any and all distress, is starting to have a backlash.
To this end, one can’t help but reflect on the outcome of the recent US election as Donald Trump, berated by the media (rightly or wrongly) for his “insensitive” and “divisive” mannerisms and beliefs, was nonetheless duly elected to the office of President. It is a phenomenon that begs the question, “what constitutes a sense of safety…and is it really all about being sensitive to everybody all the time?”
That election process was indicative as to how difficult it is to box and label insensitivities, as well as symptomatic of how challenging it is to enforce and restrict them.
Highly prominent in the media these days are the struggles over appropriate and inclusive pronouns. The inherent safety issue is that the careless use of a pronoun can be insulting, insensitive, or at the very least, distressing to those who see themselves as more, or less, than the pronoun suggests. And over time, and left unchallenged, the continual use of an improper pronoun can lead to stereotyping and discrimination (or even harassment), systematically undermining a person’s sense of self.
However, the attempt at sensitivity can be arduous. And too often, it can be absurdly confusing. For example, the task of describing those in LGBTQ community has seen the rise of hundreds of proposed options and apparently one prominent writer sincerely suggested that the English language “would benefit from thirteen genders, including two indefinite, or common gender, pronouns [whatever that means].”
Safety sensitivity is not an easy mark to hit. And in addressing these problems, we must take into account such ongoing controversy as found in the provocative arguments of U of T’s tenured professor Jordan Peterson. He objects to the Canadian government’s Bill C-16, (which proposes to outlaw harassment and discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression under the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code). He believes it has grave freedom of speech implications and, as I read his arguments, makes us vulnerable (morally and legally) to someone construing our words as ‘directly or indirectly’ offensive.
It might here be argued that one person’s safety could quite possibly (and highly likely) be another person’s threat. Our worlds are not colored in black-and-white (a metaphor that could fire up some folks ire) but too often our choices are between shades of grey.
All voices need to be heard. The other’s safety ought to be a goal we all try to accommodate…the operative word being try; and under the condition this doesn’t risk our own sensibilities and creative expression.
As I see it, the swinging pendulum (of what is and isn’t safe these days) must not be stopped from moving between the extremes. Because it is in those extremes we learn about ourselves, and empathetically join in the common goal of living life with joy and in peace.