Language Matters: “Safe Space”
Your cheatsheet to understanding today’s most divisive terms and how they’re keeping us apart.
In this edition, we’re starting the good work of building the MTTR Glossary. For one, it’s impossible to understand the context around today's hot-button issues using yesterday’s definitions. Knowing the history of words and how and why they changed can help to better illuminate how we got to a crisis of understanding in the first place.
Language doesn’t change in a vacuum. It's also co-opted, politicized, and weaponized. Before you know it, you're using a word one way, someone interprets it another way, and even though you're literally speaking the same language you feel galaxies apart.
We’re over it. Let’s diffuse triggering words by looking at them head-on: where they came from, how they changed, and how they cleaved us. 🔪🔪🔪
First up: “safe space.”
It sounds uncontroversial, right? I mean, who wouldn't appreciate a place of refuge where you can unapologetically be yourself?! People in marginalized groups can't take this for granted, and "safe space" started as a way to advocate for them. But then...things went off the rails, especially at universities, where student activists used it as a rallying cry to change the way their schools operate. Shit went down.
Say "safe space" now and you're just as likely to get an eyeroll as a high-five. The term represents cancel culture gone wild at best and flat-out censorship at worst. It bullies people into silence, makes it difficult to learn from one another, and contradicts our First Amendment principles. You can bet it’s triggering...to feel cornered and unable to use your own voice.
Vox’s Emily Crockett says it best:
“A tool intended to curb abuse has itself turned into a tool of abuse."
A South Park parody puts the 🍒 on top:
⏳ The origins of “safe space” go back more than 60 years. One history indicates that it was originally developed by psychologists in the 1940s in leadership circles (‘sensitivity groups’) to make employees feel more comfortable at the office. It was meant to increase productivity in the corporate world.
“The use of sensitivity groups began to gain currency in corporate America and the idea was taken up by psychologists such as the humanistic therapist Carl Rogers who, by the 1960s, developed the idea into encounter groups which were more aimed at self-actualisation and social change, in line with the spirit of the times, but based on the same ‘safe space’ environment. As you can imagine, they were popular in California.”
🏳️🌈 The book "Mapping Gay L.A." traces the beginning of “safe space” to gay and lesbian bars in the mid-60s. The idea was rooted in creating physical places where people could come together and be themselves without looking over their shoulders.
👯♀️ “Safe space” first became consistently used in the women’s movement during the 70s. Feminist publications like “Off Our Backs” wielded the word to appeal to women banding against male supremacy. A classified ad in the October 1976 issue asked: “Anyone interested in creating a safe space to be mad?” 🤔
🛑 In the 80s and 90s, the metaphor spread, proving especially popular among students and allies advocating for LGTBQ people. Stickers and posters like this would mark such zones.
💥 The “safe space” rhetoric continued to spread at colleges and beyond in the following decades — only by now it was wielded as a weapon as well as a rallying cry. Incidents at universities like Yale, UC Berkeley, and University of Missouri in 2015 and 2016 created explosive situations that accelerated the backlash against the term and everything it stood for.
📺 Watch the first few minutes of Adam Corolla and Ben Shapiro’s testimony before Congress to be dropped in the middle of the debate’s visceral and chaotic energy:
📢 Once again, Vox’s Emily Crockett quickly sums up the tension here:
“To some, safe spaces symbolize the ‘coddling’ of America’s youth, the oversensitivity of modern progressivism, and even a serious threat to free speech.
For people in marginalized groups, psychological safety (or what some would call "coddling") and physical safety are closely related and not easy to separate. That's where the concept of safe spaces is rooted in the first place, and that's why the need to have them is so powerful for so many.”
🏫 In 2016, The Washington Post asked student leaders and activists to elaborate on the term based on their own thoughts and experiences. You can see how these two respondents approached the question of inclusivity of safe spaces in totally different ways:
“Sometimes I feel the white population can be left out of these conversations. You can’t build and create equality without having everyone involved in the conversation.” — Nick Webb
“When I wake up, I think about the fact that I’m black, I have to think about my hair, I have to think about my edges, I have to think about how I look … whether or not I look too this or too that, and that’s something that I get tired of doing sometimes. And so it makes me feel good to know if I can go somewhere and just be me without having to worry about changing who I am — that’s a safe space.” — Roquel Crutcher
📮 The University of Chicago went so far as to pre-empt any safe space debates on its campus by issuing this letter to incoming freshmen:
🧠 On Slate, Katy Waldman unpacked the science of trauma to understand the actual effects of verbal triggers on the body, brain, and psyche. This quote from the piece is a poetic articulation of problematic words:
“It can sometimes feel as though modern language codes pit expressive richness and variety against empathy and compassion. The binary’s imperfect, but pick your team. On one side of the ledger sits the world, which becomes a more vivid and beautiful place when we have vaster vocabularies to draw on, more plots and situations to behold; on the other side are human beings, who have an obligation not to hurt each other when they can avoid it.”
💪 You’re not going to protect people, so the best you can do is make them strong,” opines Jordan Peterson in the “NO SAFE SPACES” documentary.
🇺🇸 “This is one of the few things you could say we have no precedent for in the United States,” says Dennis Prager in the same trailer.
🦸🏾♂️ In 2020, “safe space” took on a new, equally unprecedented form: as a Marvel character part of a psychic twin duo named...wait for it...Safespace and Snowflake. They’re part of the New Warriors crew. (No, we didn’t make this up. We couldn’t make this up.)
"Safespace is a big, burly, sort of stereotypical jock. He can create forcefields, but he can only trigger them if he's protecting somebody else. Snowflake is non-binary and goes by they/them, and has the power to generate individual crystalized snowflake-shaped shurikens. The connotations of the word 'snowflake' in our culture right now are something fragile, and this is a character who is turning it into something sharp.
"Snowflake is the person who has the more offensive power, and Safespace is the person who has the more defensive power. The idea is that they would mirror each other and complement each other."— Marvel
Is Marvel really that woke or just taking the piss? Tell us what you think. ❤️