I’m a big believer in “safe spaces.”
I will stipulate that my definition is non-standard. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a “safe space” thus:
“A place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.”
Bah! I may be tilting at a windmill here, but that’s wrong. At least it should be wrong.
A while back, I was invited to talk story at Paulina Springs Books around my collection of frontier biographies, Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans. The book is intended mostly to be a set of ripping yarns about authentic badasses living lives of hardship and adventure from the 18th through the early 20th Century. But you can’t walk down the trail of frontier history without encountering the giant boulder of race, and that’s what we addressed in what turned into a lively — and sometimes fraught — discussion.
Afterwards, a woman approached me to have her book signed and said, “I’ve been working on becoming more comfortable with being uncomfortable. This helped with that.”
That was a big win.
That’s what a “safe space” should be: a place where you can learn to handle “bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.” Where you can learn to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Because no matter how hard we might try to purge the scary stuff, or to flee from it, it remains. In fact, the things that scare us become monsters that feed upon fear and avoidance and grow ever more strong and threatening.
Safety comes from creating a culture that values dissent instead of trying to eliminate it, and acknowledges that there is a difference between vigorously arguing your corner and being an asshole. A “safe space” is a place where you may be called upon to support your case with evidence — and where you can learn that this is not the same thing as being “attacked.”
And it’s a place where you can decide that you’ve changed your mind without finding your identity melting like that cake left out in the rain.
It is gratifying to see some such “safe spaces” cropping up around town. Sisters Community Church is hosting discussions of weighty films and talks on serious and difficult subjects with authors and other creative types. The new owner of Paulina Springs Books is all about creating a “safe space” for real dialogue. I met with some folks on Wednesday looking to start a First Amendment group to educate folks in town on the origins, nature and practical application of said amendment. Commendable.
This is critical, for “safe spaces” are where we train; where we can fall and fail without dire consequences. A band works out in its rehearsal space so that it can push and make mistakes and sound terrible — and be ready to kick ass on stage. Mistakes and failures in the dojo (if properly corrected) can save a martial artist some pain on the street.
When I started “tactical” shooting training with Rullman, I made lots of basic mistakes. One that stands out in my mind is a moving-and-shooting drill during which my AR jammed. I immediately started to clear the jam — and Craig yelled, “Stay in the fight! Stay in the fight!”
I’d made a fundamental mental error. The whole point was to be moving and sending rounds downrange — and I had stopped to fix a problem. A problem that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the bad guy(s) — not a jam. What I should have done was transitioned immediately to the pistol and stayed in the fight.
That’s the kind of failure you want to have happen in your “safe space” — on the training grounds. Of course that sort of thing is frustrating, embarrassing, humiliating even. That’s why I remember it vividly and why I’ve (hopefully) learned my lesson.
Another key element to the “safe space”: The people you’re training with — whether you’re a musician, a martial artist, in the workplace or in a social group — must all be committed to getting better themselves, helping you get better, and helping the group improve and better tackle its mission.
There’s a lot of folks like that out there, creating real “safe spaces.” Hats off to ’em.