Discussions about “safe spaces” have become wider over the past two years or so. The pros and cons of what they are and whether or not they should be available have been taken up enthusiastically in the media.
Young adults, from students upwards, talk about “not feeling safe” and the conversation continues. At the extreme end of the conversation, some university students try to ban visiting contributors or lecturers who might want to discuss a different point of view. The argument, from the lobbyists, runs that the audience may feel “threatened” or “unsafe”, therefore any discussion should be curtailed. It could be seen as a way of blocking dissent. It seems effective.
Older adults may seem a little bemused by the idea of a “safe space”, wondering how anyone could imagine there is somewhere out there that is just such a place.
As a counsellor, I understand the point of a safe space (I'm going to put the quotation marks to one side for the moment). I hadn’t heard of the expression until I went to college but it made sense straight away.
Imagine a client comes to see a therapist because they want to talk about something involving their innermost feelings. It’s an awkward situation; they want to talk but they don’t know what to say or they are worried about being judged. Or it may be that they have little experience of listening therapy and do not know what they "can" or "cannot" say. That’s a worry on top of the worry that is bringing them to see a therapist.
One way a counsellor can help them to understand the process is to explain that the counselling room is a “safe space” ie what goes on in the counselling room stays in the counselling room. In other words – and taking into account legal and ethical requirements – what the client says to the counsellor will go no further. That means the client has a “safe space” to speak. And, hopefully from that, the therapeutic process can bring its own healing into practice.
So, while I understand the safe space from a therapeutic point of view, I wonder if there’s been a bit of confusion between “safety” and “trust”.
In order to talk freely, we have to trust that the person listening to us is a person we can feel safe talking to – confidentiality is key. And we have to feel that that same person has knowledge, wisdom and a desire to do the best for us. In other words: Is this person trustworthy and can I trust them to look after my best interests?
Is it possible that the increasing calls for safe spaces within society are more about being able to trust those in authority over us, rather than a place where we can hide and be protected from the outside world?
Here in the UK, we have the chaos surrounding Brexit which seems to be having a powerful effect on all us, regardless of what outcome we want. Our leaders are locked in a bizarre dance about which we can do nothing. They are trapped and many of us watch on appalled as the “grown-ups” demonstrate they’re not really very grown up at all. They seem to have taken on the mantle of squabbling children and it’s really not what we’re used to.
Then we have what’s going on outside the UK – the US’s ever-changing foreign policy, the suffering and fighting in the Middle East, global climate change and natural disasters – it’s hard to find a way round what could easily become catastrophic thinking. No wonder the younger members of society see threats everywhere.
Someone I know with a legal background has a specialist interest in parking tickets. After years of studying the law on this particular subject, the person discovered a parking company was acting unlawfully. They used their knowledge to help people appeal their tickets – and win –and eventually wrote to the Department of Transport to explain that companies working on behalf of the state were allegedly employing sub-companies that were not complying with the law.
You’d expect – or I would – that, when given information and evidence about this, a government representative would investigate but, so far, they haven’t. That seems unfair.
So, too, does the news that some of the people who mark our students’ exams, have been found to be marking them incorrectly. One examining body is going to have to pay out compensation for exactly this. Who would have thought you could study hard for an exam, go in, do your best and still fail because someone else was incompetent?
These are just two examples that come to mind of situations where you would expect those in authority to be looking out for people who need representation but it sadly seems as if they are not. And that might mean something is going wrong.
We learn pretty early on that life is not fair but we are also taught that those in charge of us are looking out for our best interests. When we begin to doubt such "certainties", we may become anxious. We may find ourselves questioning all sorts of beliefs we had not even thought about before. I have a hunch many of us feel those in authority are more likely to be looking after their own best interests, rather than ours.And that leaves many of us feeling unsafe. It's a strange and uncomfortable feeling, and not one that sits well with us.
I wonder if, instead of inter-generational disputes about the benefits – or not – of safe spaces, we might agree that something is not working well enough for any of us in the arena of trust. Maybe, if those in charge could begin to repair that, fewer of us would feel the need to demand so many safe spaces.
By: Lulu Sinclair