Safe spaces

I have an essay swirling around in my mind about ‘safe spaces’ and I need to get it out of my system, but I can’t seem to talk about it in a simple, succinct way.

Let me try. So… some people think that safe spaces have a coddling effect. And maybe that’s true. And the examples are pretty lurid and fun to mock.

But the inverse is also a huge problem. ‘Nasty spaces’, or ‘free-for-all’ spaces. (I think there should be a better phrase). Toxic spaces. Basically open, anarchistic areas, “free market” areas, where anything goes.

The wishful ideal is that the freedom is intrinsically good, and the public will use it to engage in civil, mature debate, build things and make progress in an enlightened, open way.

The reality of it is a lot uglier and messier. Without some sort of ‘house rules’, the place ends up catering to the lowest common denominator. The gangsters and drunks storm the joint and mess shit up. Moderates get silenced by whoever is willing to be most destructive, most violent, most ugly. Online, for example, you can shut people up by doxxing them in a bad-faith way. This is fun for the bullies and assholes (because it gives them a sense of power), but thoroughly damaging to the community. Each time a good person leaves, the community becomes a marginally less good place for everyone. And the next best person leaves. And so on.

(This sort of happened to me on /r/singapore a few months ago, which hit me really hard and forced me to reconfigure my attitude towards open public spaces on the Internet – a very painful reconfiguration for someone who grew up dreamy-eyed on the Internet. But probably much less painful than for say, any woman who’s received all sorts of messed up shit from creepy dudes online.)

The bullies of the Internet have a scripted defense for anybody who tries to talk about this. If you’re being picked on for your race or gender, then you’re playing one of those cards, you’re overly sensitive, you’re making it all about yourself, you’re an attention whore. If you’re trying to stand up for somebody else, you’re a White Knight, trying to virtue-signal and get points for being such a good, nice person. You can’t really win either fight. And those fights are really just a distraction – you’re probably better off just ignoring it and focusing on trying to get to emphasize how toxic the environment is. (Or getting out of there, for your own sanity.)

But what the bullies don’t seem to realize – or care about – is that driving away the good people makes the entire place shittier. And this is one of the greatest tragedies. You get deprived of different perspectives, you get deprived of interesting stories, and it’s very hard to be cognizant of what you have lost each time a person-shaped Universe leaves and never comes back.

I’m most familiar with this phenomenon online, but it’s really a human thing. It happens with groups of friends, cliques, groups, etc. I think it’s the problem with sexism in the workplace. And the whole “ugh, why does everybody need safe spaces” response is rather mistaken. The problem is that many if not all environments are toxic to degrees that existing members do not recognize. And there are costs to that toxicity. It’s kind of like being a smoker who says “I’m coughing like mad but apart from that it’s not a big deal”. You just learn to adjust. And if you CAN adjust, then you’re one of the survivors. You can pat yourself on the back for being ‘tough’, but I think it’s much more interesting to focus on what you’re missing.

Anyway, here’s the paradox I’m trying to outline – most people’s dislike of Safe Spaces has to do with a dislike of being restrained. But all the best conversation, the most interesting information (money, debt, family issues, children, doubts, etc) doesn’t come up UNLESS you can create an environment conducive to it.

In a way, refusing to respect that is more restrictive than anything else. You can go anywhere you like, and say whatever you like, but nobody will ever open up to you. In a way, it’s kind of a dystopian, Black-Mirror-esque jail – the entire world around you learns to ostracize you in plain sight.

So – what is to be done? What do you do when you realize this?

I think the first thing to be done is to decide to protect the vulnerable. And the moment I typed that out I thought, “shit, that sounds like coddling”. But there’s totally a difference. Let’s try to outline that.

Think about parenting, as an analogy. You don’t want to be an overprotective parent who controls what your child sees, what she does, who she can hang out with, etc. You might even want to gently challenge her to try things that she’s unfamiliar with and uncomfortable with, because you believe she’ll enjoy it. (This is obviously a push-pull thing that you’ll have to negotiate over time, and you will make some mistakes. I am not a parent. But you get the idea.)

AT THE SAME TIME – you want your child to feel confident and comfortable reaching out to you. You want her to feel safe coming to you and telling you her uncertainties and her doubts. This will make you a better parent. This will make your child a stronger, happier, healthier child.

Of course, you’re not the parent of the whole world. Most of the time, you’re a peer. But the same fundamentals apply. You don’t want to coddle your friends with bullshit – you want to be honest with them. About what’s going on, what you see, etc. And yet you don’t want to mock and insult them. You want them to feel comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. (I’m thinking now of the Loyalty Missions in Mass Effect 2. Some of the most badass people in the galaxy, and going through difficult times and talking about their feelings with one another made them stronger, not weaker.)

There’s a difference between coddling and nurturing. We can nurture people to be strong. And we should, so that they may use their strength to protect and nurture others in turn. Not insulate. Not coddle. Nurture. Empower. Embolden. It can be done.

– 2 –

I saw something interesting happen recently – I’m sure ya’ll are familiar with Amos Yee. The person helping him out with his asylum bid over in the US is Melissa Chen. Melissa has this quote (ownself quote ownself) that “the enforcement of safe spaces = secular blasphemy”.

And yet – a while ago, she wanted to put together a group to help Amos, and if I understand correctly, the group was bombarded with harrassment and mockery.

And so she created a private group, where she vetted who could enter. Effectively creating a “safe space”.

How… ironic?

From her point of view, she wasn’t being inconsistent. Because there are differences between public spaces, common spaces and private spaces. She’s against safe spaces when they mean silencing disagreement in the public sphere, and she’s for safe spaces when she’s trying to get something done and people are harrassing her. I don’t see why any reasonable person would disagree with this.

Whenever people discuss this topic, there’s a lot of conflation that happens. We lump ‘safe spaces’, ‘censorship’, ‘protection from harrassment’, etc all into one. Then we use our pre-existing moral positions to pick a side.

There are always some morons (and false-flag satirists) at the extremes of each side, and both groups will use those edge cases to prove why the outgroup is inferior. Of course, then we hardly ever talk to each other and there is no reconciliation.

If we want to make any progress on these issues, seriously, we have to sit our asses down and really pay careful attention to what is going on, and where people are coming from.

– 3 –

Sunday Morning Thoughts cum Tedious Facebook Essay:


1. be kind
2. use your strength to create spaces where fragile, beautiful things can flourish and become strong in turn
3. nobody wins in a street fight, build gyms and dojos instead
4.protecting the weak does not have to mean creating dependents – every parent understands this)

It’s funny to think about the long FB statuses I’ve written over the past year. The dominant theme (I hope it’s clear) is kindness.

It’s funny because if you’ve known me since I was a teenager, you’d know that I’m also actually a very argumentative, combative person. I can be very arrogant and narcissistic. You kind of have to be, to write long Facebook statuses like this one. (Sorry! 😂) And yet I find myself dropping thousands of words to try and promote kindness. Why?

Because I want things to be interesting, and senseless brutality is fucking boring.

The world can be a mean, nasty and ugly place. It is, and it will no matter what we do about it. And yet, we built walled civilization to protect ourselves from the unyielding harshness and thoughtless cruelty of nature. We invented agriculture to protect against drought and famine. We invented governments and armies and the police to monopolize violence – to prevent “the war of all against all”, as Hobbes put it.

There is no beauty in senseless violence. There is nothing interesting about a free-for-all race to the bottom. It’s just sad. It’s sad if you’re weak, because you get trampled. But it’s also sad if you’re strong. Because you missed an opportunity to experience something interesting.

My idea of a safe space isn’t an insulated, hyper-protective bubble. It’s more like a gym or a dojo where we challenge each other, where we train, get stronger. Where we pick each other up after we get knocked down, so that we can go at it again. How much stronger can everyone get if we just kick people’s teeth in?

The point of strength – and I truly believe this – is to create a semi-permeable membrane, to create contexts in which life can flourish.

(Geek alert) The Earth itself is the biggest safe space that we know of. The atmosphere protects us from radiation (the sun is a deadly laser!) and from asteroid bombardment. We’d all be dead without it. And yet nobody criticises the sky for being overprotective. We know what the world would look like if the atmosphere didn’t protect us: dull and lifeless. With the protection of the atmosphere, Life is able to turn the sun’s harsh light into nourishment. It’s a really great extended metaphor, if you reflect on it. (Consider how the biosphere reinforces the atmosphere, and also how man-made pollution threatens it.)

When I really dig deep down into myself, it seems to me that I want most of all is an interesting life. I want to be surprised, I want to go “oh, wow!” as often as I can while I’m here.

And yet, over and over again, I see interesting conversations get derailed because some insecure, petty person decided to substitute argument with insults. This is something I find intolerable. Not because I’m weak and precious and “can’t stand the heat”. But because the moment you start insulting one another, the interesting conversation dies.

There is something to be said about the utility of keeping the game going. It’s possible to evolve a feature that hinders evolution. The point of intelligent strength is to identify such features and neutralize them, so that the game can keep going.

(I still think a lot about a particular conversation I witnessed on Hacker News years ago – it was an interesting thread about finance, until one guy insulted another. The thread I wanted to read was replaced by two men slinging mud at each other. It’s dumb and it’s BORING.)

I also saw a funny exchange in a group chat earlier, and I love it especially without context:

A: Who’s the winner uh?
B: No one

What were they talking about? Everything, and everyone. Our petty obsession with protecting ourselves by attacking others is selfish, small-minded and BORING. You might think you’ve won when the other party backs off, but what have you won exactly? It’s like when you’re playing football after school, and a scuffle breaks out, so you insult the guy who brought the ball. He takes the ball and goes home. Game over. Yay, you won! Smh.

Life’s a lot more interesting when we stop slinging shit at each other and start asking questions from a place of sincere curiosity. A gym is a better place to build strength than a street fight.

Be like the Earth. Use your strength to create spaces where fragile, beautiful things can flourish – things like honesty, compassion, sincerity. Where people can say things that they’re not sure of, and be confident that their peers will take them in good-faith (AND challenge them to be better).

Kindness is strength, not weakness. And protecting the weak does not have to mean spoiling them, or creating parasitic dependents. It means building them up so we can hear from them too, learn from them too.

Circling back: I think when I was younger, I used to be combative because I thought it meant that things would be more interesting. Why go with the flow? Resist the flow! Demand answers! A street fight is more interesting than mindless compliance and deference! (Kiiiinda true. And easy to say when you’re a privileged dude with little to lose.)

But I was naive and thoughtlessly blunt about how I did it. I was putting people on the defensive, instead of winning them over and persuading them to open up to me.

I still want the same thing I did a decade ago. I want answers. I want to know the truth about things. I want to understand people, and the world, and myself. My experience has taught me that you learn this better when you struggle together against ignorance, rather than butt heads at each other senselessly. I’m still fundamentally combative. I just pick better battles now, I hope. And I hope this is useful to somebody.

One thought on “Safe spaces

  1. A A

    I do not want to comment a lot since that takes time, but never changes anything.

    Regarding the safe spaces:
    1) In many cases the safe spaces are sexist or intolerant in other ways. How are female-only spaces really different from black-only spaces or white-only spaces or rich-only spaces or poor-only spaces? This is not arguing for or against,. It just gives a glimpse of how it looks from other sides.
    2) Melissa Chen safe space nuance: There is a difference between creating a *new* safe space (either online or in real world) versus conquering an existing space and calling it a safe place exclusively for your kin.
    Melissa Chen has *created* a private place of her own. I do not think anyone has problem with that.
    Some people on the other hand start crusades, conquer “lands”, establish the “holy land”/”safe space” and banish the native/barbarian/savage/unholy people from their own communities.

    99.9% of the ideological clashes and fights that you see are caused by a simplest thing – hypocrisy. All far sides are guilty of it.
    If you want to see hypocrisy and bias, just use the painter’s symmetry trick. They use a mirror to check that their drawings are symmetrical and unbiased. Otherwise the drawings may look crooked from another side.
    Do the same. Flip ideologies, flip races, flip genders, flip classes. Flip and listen to changes in someone’s attitude.

    BTW, Can you define what “a right” is?

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