Rethinking the Safe Space

Language is a powerful tool. It can be used to teach, to learn, to study. Humans can pass down stories from generation to generation, tales of gods and men or traditions that label individuals a tribe member. We can hurt with language. We can heal with language.

When did we become such pussies about it?

Somewhere in the past fifty years or so, America decided every word that could possibly offend somebody was now verboten. World War II and the resultant Cold War had empowered words and symbols so much that using “Jew” and “Gyp” as verbs was no longer acceptable in common parlance. The “pinko Commie” and the McCarthy hearings in the ’60s showed that even certain schools of thought were no longer allowed in this country.

The dictionary of political correctness has only grown since then. While some restrictions have been lifted (we can say “bitch” on TV now!), certain words are still only referred to in hushed tones as “the n word” or “the c word”, for example. And don’t forget about the terms that are only acceptable in certain subcultures. What, is the earth going to open up and swallow me whole because a Jewish kid from the Boston suburbs drops the word “nigga” while listening to a Jay-Z song?

This has now evolved even further into the “safe space”, organizations and locations entirely dedicated to not offending others. Not only can I not jokingly refer to my Jewish friend as “a fellow Yid”, but even criticism of others is supposed to be tempered in these safe spaces to cater to those who somehow can’t handle it.

The concept of a safe space is inherently flawed. What good do we do ourselves by catering to the most thin-skinned individuals? Is there so much white guilt floating around that we aren’t even allowed to think of words like nigger and cunt in a societal context? Yes, words have the power to denigrate and destroy, but no good can be accomplished by ignoring that people have been hurt in the past.

One must also remember that words have different meanings in different cultures. I can ask for a fag in London and will be handed a cigarette rather than a lecture. Describing an individual as “niggardly” leads to shocked faces even though the term shares no etymological history with “the n word” and you’re calling them stingy. How safe is a space where I’m judged for my use of language?

Offended yet?

Honestly, in discussions with my roommates, we’ve decided to get over the language limitation society has imposed upon us. We may share some salacious language in our humble abode, but calling my Bangladeshi friends “brown” and joking about excessive curry use is no longer a big deal, just as they’re allowed to make fun of my tendencies to save money by paying $4 for powdered dishwasher soap instead of $15 for those little tablets. Regular renditions of “Niggas in Paris” echo through the halls of our apartment despite having no black roommates. Call it salty mouthed, call it offensive, call it whatever.

We call it a safe space.

2 responses to “Rethinking the Safe Space

  1. I think it’s interesting that you begin by talking about the power of language, but then talk about how we shouldn’t be offended by words. Except the words tied to hatred, sexism and misogyny do bother me.

    Think about the word “pussy” for example. Calling someone a “pussy” means that they are weak or “less than”. That is a word that is a term for part of my body being used to call someone weak. That is implying the women are inherently weak. It is a word tried to misogyny and the oppression of women and it can’t be disconnected from that, so yeah…it bothers me. Even when the word is used lightheartedly, it still has such an underlying sexism that it makes me cringe. Using a part of my body as an insult is also an insult to me.

  2. I’m not sure you fully understand the power of language you describe in the first paragraph. Yes, words can transcend their meanings — “gay” originated as a synonym for “gleeful” or “happy,” and the dictionary currently defines it as a synonym for “homosexual.” But to then appropriate the word “gay” to mean “shitty” or “stupid” is offensive, because you are equating the word’s given meaning with its appropriated meaning. To reference Emily’s example, with which I agree wholeheartedly, you are reinforcing the extremely pervasive notion that my genitalia, and thus my gender, is weaker and worthy of degradation. That, I hope we can agree, is not cool. That is also the power of language.

    Now, let’s discuss “safe spaces.” I think you grossly underestimate what safe spaces are meant to accomplish. They are not simply rooms where certain words are banned in order to cater to the “thinnest skinned” individuals, as you put it. A safe space is an area where I can be assured that people will choose respectful language over appropriated language. This is not because my companions in the safe space are walking on eggshells looking to protect my feelings. Trust me, I can handle my feelings just fine (despite the fact that I do in fact have a pussy, since your appropriated meaning might suggest otherwise), and believe it or not, so can the vast, vast majority of people that you’d like describe as thin-skinned. What a safe space offers me, or anyone who chooses to enter, is a retreat. Remember when you were a kid and life just got too overwhelming and you wanted to get away from everything that was upsetting you, and you’d go to your room and shut out the world so that nothing that you didn’t want to get in could touch you? A safe space accomplishes a similar effect — I can rest assured that while I am in that safe space, I do not have to laugh off one of my male friends or colleagues tossing the word “pussy” around, pretending that it doesn’t make me shudder in disgust and shame that a defining characteristic of my gender has become synonymous for weak and pathetic, and I’m supposed to be okay with that. I’m not a woman of color, but if I was, I can imagine that it would be nice to have a safe space where I do not have to worry about running into a Jewish kid from the suburbs tossing around the word “nigga” as he raps along to a song, unable to possibly comprehend what the loaded meaning attached to it feels like when it’s thrown so casually in my face.

    Trust me, Adam, we are all thick-skinned in this day in age. There are very few people on this planet who are optimistic enough to believe that a day will come where words like “pussy,” “nigga,” “gay,” or any of the other examples you cited will be eradicated in their appropriated forms from our language. There are very few people who explode on anyone who uses them. But sometimes it just gets to be too much. Sometimes people need and deserve a space where they can spend time in the company of people who take the extra two seconds to think of a synonym that isn’t derogatory. It doesn’t make anyone thin-skinned to want that once in awhile.

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