Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Against A Safe Space

Editrix Latoya Peterson informs me that my essay Look Twice received 22, 000 views on Racialicious in March, making it the most viewed essay on the site. I was happy with how it was received but there was a sub theme that popped up in the comment thread around my use of the word “Bitch” in the post that inspired further discussion on the site... including a reassessment of the commenting policy. Ooops. In Look Twice I wrote,

He jerks his hand away and begins to step back. But I am not making it easy for him. I am ready to go and I tell him so. He is more and more wary and tries to get away from me. “Yeah, when you tell this story don’t forget to add the part where you walked away, bitch!” I shouted after him as he high tailed it up the subway steps.

Yeah, I know. Stupid. I’m not telling it because I am proud of myself.

I thought it was obvious from the essay that I wasn’t using the word “bitch” uncritically, and for most readers, it was. But some could not get past the word itself and that made it impossible for them to interact with the rest of the piece. This small but vocal minority raised this issue aggressively enough that Latoya dedicated an Open Thread (On language and terms) as a follow up. In her preface to the Open Thread Latoya wrote,

1. Where in this is the author’s right to relate a story as they see fit?

2. At what point do the words used in the source piece encourage/discourage certain types of dialogue in the comments section? (For example, I’ve deleted scores of misogynistic comments [from men and women] on the Ciara piece and on the Esther Ku piece - though neither of those posts contained the type of gendered language that normally prompts an outcry.)

3. Is it possible for a place designed to encourage conversation to also be a safe space?

I didn’t post on the Open Thread myself, even though my essay was the catalyst for the discussion and many posters talked about me directly. I thought I’d answered the questions about why I included the word “bitch” well enough during the original thread dedicated to my essay, which can be accessed here. So I didn’t feel any need to explain, elaborate or apologize. I also thought that if I entered the conversation the thread would have become too much about me, and not enough about Latoya’s questions. Mostly people made reasonable assessments, about balancing civility with expression and a free exchange of ideas. But a poster called Bekka wrote,

There are a very, VERY few occasions in which the word bitch doesn’t invoke all the worst stereotypes of women - shallow, petty, and, fundamentally, so far inferior to men that any association with the even the word is tainting. It’s the entire concept of the female as dirty, disgusting, cowardly, mean. There’s a very real problem with that. There’s a problem with the fact that there are huge numbers of men who casually use ‘bitches’ as a stand in for ‘women.’ It parallels, in form, the use of the k word for Jews, the s word for Hispanics, the n word for blacks. It is a denigration of the entire group, and to direct it at someone who is clearly not part of that group (i.e. calling a man ‘bitch’) is meant to insult because the mere association with the group is insulting. Period.

“Bitch” is a rude word but I can’t agree with relating it (in cause or effect) to a racial slur. Creating false correspondences between race, gender and sexual identity etc. does not make things more clear, it obscures the things that make each of these things special in their own right: Everything is not the same. My generation was the one that set about reclaiming slurs from their original discriminatory contexts as a way to bleed them of their power to hurt. “Bitch”, “slut”, “queer”, “fag”, “dyke”, and “nigger” all got a postmodern makeover. I have mixed feelings myself about the ultimate results of this project but nevertheless, it occurred. The fairly playful way that the word “bitch” is used in everyday discourse reveals the disparity between racial slurs and this word—or at least the wider range of its use. For example the existence of a bestselling cookbook written by women, for women, titled Skinny Bitch is only one contemporary illustration.

So I suppose I also have a different, and frankly less dire, idea of what “bitch” means.

But I never thought that “bitch” meant inferior to men, in any case. If anything, it describes a woman who is too loud, vengeful, aggressive, in other words, too much like a man. Used this way, “bitch” is a corrective that says, more or less “Act like a lady.” That is, if you say it to a woman. When a man says it to another man, as I did in my essay, it has the opposite meaning. It is meant to emasculate. To say, “You are acting like a girl.” The assumption of course that being “like a girl” is a bad thing, which is what makes it sexist, about this Bekka and I agree. Even though it was uncomfortable to be the focus I am glad that the subsequent discussion really explored the idea of acceptable public speech vs. free expression.


I do have a strong reaction to the notion that there is such a thing as a “safe space”, which is the impetus for this follow-up.

A story:

After 9/11 I was invited to join a nascent non-profit whose mission involved bringing artists and therapists together to strategize responses to the tragedy with children. I showed up to the first group meeting and discovered that, other than the Executive Director, who had been a dancer, I was the only artist there. I sat at the edge of a large conference table and looked across at a sea of New York area therapy professionals: white women wearing ethnic jewelry who were riding out the terrible disruption to the city caused by the destruction of the twin towers in their summer homes in the Hamptons/Shelter Island/Upstate. And I thought, "Uh-oh."

The meeting began and after introductions we spent maybe 40 minutes discussing the necessity of creating a "safe space" for the work we planned to do. It went on and on as each of the therapists in the room qualified what the others had said in an effort to create an environment of perfect safety in which no one would feel threatened in any way. But of course, since standards of personal safety vary the therapists began to argue so one of them suggested that before moving forward we spend time making our meeting room itself into a “safe space.” That is, a space where differences of opinion might be aired without anyone feeling unheard. There was wide agreement among the assembled therapists that this was necessary and the entire process started again from scratch.

Two minutes into this re-do I raised my hand.

A dozen pairs of eyes turned to face me and I said, “I am an artist, so I don’t believe in creating a safe space.”

There was collective gasp and much shifting of ethnic jewelry.

“If anything, I think my job is to make the space less safe. As an adult I make my own safety and my assumption is that other adults do the same. I don’t need or want anyone to take responsibility to that for me. In fact, when someone presumes to do so it makes me really angry.”

A dozen eyebrows shot up and there was some murmuring. The awkwardness (finally) gave way to a conversation.

So, in light of that experience I can answer Latoya’s question, “Is it possible for a place designed to encourage conversation to also be a safe space?”

No. No it is not.

But that is only bad news if you expect that your community will completely insulate you at all times from anything that might upset you. If you are there to be part of a conversation then you might welcome a free exchange of ideas, which by definition includes dissent. It should not surprise you at this point that I want this blog to be the second one, not the first.

I understand what is meant by the term "safe space" but I hate that expression. It is used so often in lefty circles to passive aggressively control discourse that just seeing it printed on a page makes me angry. This is why I have not bothered to come up with a commenting policy for this blog. If you submit a comment I don’t like because it doesn’t move the conversation forward then I’ll just delete it. Above and beyond that I am happy to quote my friend Andrea who blogs as The Cruel Secretary, “Act like you got some home training.”


  1. I think those people are making a mountain out of a molehill. Please, "bitch" is NOT a racist word for black women. I've called white, black, brown women "bitches" and it was only last year when an Indian told me that "bitch" was racist toward Black women. OH REALLY? That's a big news flash for me.

    People are always going to cry, whine and BITCH over everything. It is impossible to please one group without pissing off another group. Who cares? Write what you want and don't try to please any crybabies who can't get over themselves.

    "oohhh! he wrote the word BITCH in the article! Now I'm so pissed off and I won't read the rest of it!" Boo hoo, cry me a bloody river. It's not like you wrote a hateful, inflammatory article encouraging people to go out and rape women. My god.

    I will always be politically incorrect and I am proud of it.

  2. As DIMA says, these people need to stop bitching about minutia and try to understand the intended point.

  3. For me, it wasn't the initial objection (which I didn't agree with/completely understand but at least inspired some interesting follow up) as the default "safe space" rhetoric. I find the whole idea so infantilizing that it makes me angry. But there are people who, demand...that their communities create a perfect sanctuary for them. But that is impossible. And while I get the appeal of a place where you aren't under perpetual attack (who doesn't want that?) this expectation creates an environment where real discussion is impossible.

  4. I think your comment sums it up. I think you did an excellent job in your original post explaining why you used the word and weren't exactly proud of it. To have not included that would have been disingenuous and it irritates me someone could disregard your entire post because of that comment. I hate the word bitch, Because as you said it is used to "put women in place" and feminize/humiliate/degrade men. However, I don't expect to be sheltered from the word or for people to pretend it is a word they never use. I am against censorship and even have a problem with the idea of "hate speech."
    Personally, I think people have a tendency to use words like racist, cl assist, sexist, etc. in the same way that some people use the word bitch. For example, some people will call someone a bitch as a way of disregarding them. For example, a woman raises a question about something being sexist she is called a stupid bitch or lezzie then promptly ignored. Her opinions and critiques are rendered invalid by that word. I think some people did the same thing with this post. "He used the word bitch now everything else he wrote about is questionable and not worthy of real thought or discussion."
    I thoroughly loved your post and though it was amazing and complex. Not something that can be easily dissected or understood. I thought the inclusion of "bitch" was honest and totally appropriate.

  5. LOL! Thanks for the mod-policy shout-out, Joe!

    Hmmmm...I dig what you're saying about the infantalizng effects of "safe spaces." I guess my vibe is not so much "safe spaces" but the expectation that *every* place a person enters--a blog space, a restaurant, a museum, a movie theater, Applebee's--needs to be a safe space. At that point, I'd have to say, "Will you bloody grow up?" But, there are times and places where creating and holding safe spaces are necessary, like for sexual-violation survivors. And, to me, all that means is giving that person the moment to talk about it w/out criticizing or otherwise derailing that moment for the person. And that may mean a therapist's couch, a group of trusted friends, or a support group.

    But to think that *every* place, *every* social interaction is going to be that way? No. And that's where I think the "safe space" rhetoric fails.

  6. @Andrea
    I'm happy to quote you when you are being so wise. Like Yoda with 5-inch heels...

    I hear what you are saying although I'd argue that there are few populations as aware of the necessity of creating ones own safety as survivors of sexual abuse. Know what I mean?