Safe spaces and the power of argument

I argue with people a lot. Case in point: I argue with people enough to willingly write in the Opinions section of a newspaper. But truth be told, I dislike the large majority of these arguments because there is nothing to be gained from them, no lesson to be learned—they simply digress into a frustrating “tit for tat” Monty Python-esque contest, in which the other party asserts, “I am right!” and I counter by saying, “No, you are wrong.” And unfortunately, this attitude is one I have seen, and indeed have held myself when faced with a perspective that runs contrary to my own. We shout, “You are wrong, and I am right!” when we should be saying, “I see your point, but I disagree.”

There is a difference between having an argument and making an argument. It is the same difference that exists between an argument and a debate, and the difference is confusing (not least of all because arguments are components of debates, in addition to being distinct things in their own right). Having an argument is what I stated above: two parties have a contradictory and therefore, inherently digressive conversation. Making an argument is when a party sets forth an arguable claim that is supported by fact. Similarly, a debate is an exercise in process-oriented thinking, in which one must always concede that one is not entirely right. The former tests how tightly one can hold onto a set of beliefs in a maelstrom of attacks against one’s person, whereas, in order to do the latter correctly, one must genuinely consider the merit of a contrary opinion, and in doing so, be equally critical of one’s own.

Nuanced and insightful arguments that are parts of debates are not easy to make. They require time, energy, and commitment, which is why so few people are willing to take the time and energy necessary to craft them. Furthermore, the process of making a good argument about a topic that matters to someone will nearly always make that person uncomfortable because doing so requires that person to challenge their understanding of that topic. Only after one has done that does one send that argument out into the world to be systematically dismantled by the other party in the debate. It is far easier simply to contradict when confronted, or just to avoid confrontation altogether.

But if one has taken the time and put in the effort to create a debate-style argument, one deserves the respect of having that argument listened to, even if one listens only for the purpose of dismantling it immediately after. And a place in which people have agreed to demonstrate this sort of respect for other points of view is a Safe Space.

Making someone feel unsafe, however, is an entirely different matter. To make a person feel unsafe is to make an attack against that person. “Unsafe” implies an urgent physical or psychological danger, and that sort of affront has no place in a Safe Space. That being said, there is a huge difference between a threat and a challenge. This is not to say something so crude as “actions towards people matter and words do not” (if language has taught us anything, it is that words matter a great deal), but the words that make up a critical debate should not attack people’s personages but their points. Of course personages and points are inextricably linked, but the whole point of a Safe Space is to recognize this truth and to create a place in which it does not have to apply.

Note here that I am not referring to Solidarity Spaces, Comfortable Spaces, Venting Spaces, or Spaces for Like-Minded Individuals, nor do I wish to undercut or even to challenge the validity or value of such spaces because I know from experience that they are necessary in certain situations. Rather, I am arguing that a Safe Space is something distinct from, and, frankly, something much more complex than these other sorts of spaces, and that the conflation of the purpose of them with the purpose of a Safe Space is detrimental to the effectiveness of a Safe Space.

Safe Spaces are learning spaces, spaces to challenge beliefs, not assert one’s supreme knowledge of a topic over the ignorant or misinformed and certainly not to “set someone straight,” but their influence is not limited to those inside them. Safe Spaces make people uncomfortable both by nature of the topics typically discussed within them and by nature of what they are. Therefore, they have the potential to affect people outside them as well as within them. But I would argue that the unsettlement they produce is an sign of productivity. It indicates that we are challenging the illusion of self-righteousness that most of us maintain to make it through the day. I would even argue that proper criticism requires it.

When I sat down to write this article, I wondered if people would feel as though I were attacking them. I am someone who has made ample use of Safe Spaces and who has, myself, felt unsafe many times, and I would be dismayed to hear that my writing had so negatively affected people. But, I have not attacked people in this article. I have attacked ideas, perceptions, and points of view. And this last point gets at the concept of ownership. If I challenge the idea of a Safe Space, I indirectly challenge the authority of those who claim ownership of Safe Spaces. The reality is, however, that no one can own a Safe Space, except perhaps those who take part in it at any given time. Ownership would undermine the very power of such a space. And such spaces are indeed powerful because they have the power to create, deconstruct, and create anew.

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