The concept of a “safe space” is central in contemporary activist praxis, but has only recently become a subject of academic discussion in political theory. In the public sphere, complicated political conversations about marginalization and oppression often invoke what is perceived to be a conflict between “personal safety” and “free speech”–activists often say that harmful speech does violence to them and their ability to participate in deliberation. In retort, actors claim to be silenced. However, all forms of deliberation necessarily involve the creation of boundaries of acceptable behavior. All types of deliberation happen in certain, created spaces; there is no natural space of deliberation that does not have boundaries, whether they originate in norms or institutional rules. The interesting element is not the fact of boundaries, but their content. The typical opposition between “safe spaces” and “free speech” ignores the normative and political core of the idea of a safe space, which is the attempt to grapple with the trauma of marginalization through the creation of intimate communities. This project reconstructs the conceptual and normative apparatus of the “safe space,” using activist literature. The argument places such spaces in their context as an attempted foundation for personally difficult political work and in the face of profound pain as a result of systematic daily oppression. The mechanism of safe spaces, I argue, is about controlling predictable conditions and reactions. We create specific rules as a way of helping people predict what types of reactions are acceptable responses to their own contributions. When it is clear, through institutional or social means, that certain types of reactions are impermissible, it decreases the expectation of negative reinforcement for certain types of political behavior. That is to say, someone might express a sensitive or intimate fact about themselves only if they could reasonably expect that the reaction will not be one that is painful for them. These intimate facts are especially important for activist politics, as it depends on consciousness raising and the empowering embrace of shared experiences, but all politics will touch on topics that are laden with a great deal of emotion.
This mechanism of controlling predictable outcomes reveals why safe spaces are always incomplete and never fully “safe.” Any set of institutional rules or social norms does not fully determine outcomes; the expectation of social censure for sharing a particular opinion, for instance, is only a factor in the decision of an individual to share that opinion. That being said, we can understand all deliberative rules as ways to shape people’s decision procedures by the stabilization of possible reactions. That is to say, deliberative spaces function differently than spaces that organically reinforce dialogue. A family, for instance, ideally creates trust and intimacy through lived experience and many previous encounters. One learns what to expect over time and in the context of expressions of unconditional belonging. The shared commitments to one another are established in a variety of ways and repeated over and over. A deliberative space, on the other hand, must create the possibility of dialogue and a form of public trust through the establishment of formal rules. When an individual deals with strangers in public spaces, the individual does not have a thick understanding of their thought processes and reactions. What replaces this understanding is a probabilistic determination of what others might believe or might announce.
The implication of this is that when we think of how to construct diverse deliberative spaces, we must necessarily do so with a mind to what outcomes are consistent with the goals of that space and we must proactively communicate the rules that will make those outcomes more likely. That is to say, there are no perfectly general institutional rules, suited for all situations. Every situation should have rules geared toward optimizing the type of dialogue that is consistent with the goals of the space. This discussion of safe spaces reveals one mechanism of how rules function to create different spaces. Individuals within the deliberation must be able to make predictions about their fellow deliberators. Knowledge of institutional rules and boundaries educate the participant predictions. All deliberative institutions necessarily shape predictions in this way. Safe spaces control the acceptable behavior of other members in the deliberation in a highly restrictive way in order to facilitate the sharing of opinions and experiences which are sensitive and difficult to articulate. Not all spaces should prioritize those types of contributions, but those designing spaces should think about what types of behavior they are making more likely with their rules and how the existence of that behavior shapes other people’s choices.
Existing literature in deliberative democracy has worked to describe what productive deliberation looks like and to come up with measurement tools that allow us to empirically reason about productive deliberation. Many of the indicators that have been discussed, however, remain somewhat ambiguous as to how they should manifest or be measured within different types of deliberative spaces. A concept such as “respect” is always going to be context-dependent–what looks like respectful engagement in academic philosophy, for instance, is not particularly respectful at Thanksgiving dinner. Both academic philosophers in a workshop and Thanksgiving dinner participants can engage in productive discussion, but it will look very different. This is the case even if both the topic and (some of the) participants are the same. In part this is due to the differences in individual expectations and levels of comfort with certain forms of behavior. People make choices about what to say and how to say it; those choices are informed, in a conversation, by how they think others will react. This analysis also draws out the fact that deliberation can be dangerous and difficult for the individual, something lost in most empirical analyses of deliberation. Deliberation is not only difficult cognitively, it is also often an act of courage that many people are unfamiliar with, especially amongst strangers. My rational reconstruction of the institutional design and function of safe spaces can not only resolve the back and forth between advocates of “safe spaces” and advocates of “free speech,” it can also suggest new avenues for the study of institutional design and deliberative democracy. Safe spaces, and their unique approach to institutional design, reveals more about the mechanisms through which all deliberative rules are actualized.
Image from the zine “Pictures of Me,” issue #2. Written and Published by Nicole Solomon. Photo by Rebecca Traber.