Safety. It’s become a bit of a buzzword in the social justice community. While the Right mocks safe spaces and snowflakes, the Left is busy carving out corners of insulated thought that are considered emotionally “safe.” Don’t get me wrong, both creating community with like-minded people and caring about feelings are great. And honestly, when I hear the accusation “snowflake,” I mostly think “Why yes, I am unique and beautiful!”
The problem, as I see it, comes from an overly broad definition of “safety” and a denial of the echo chambers it’s destined to create. Generally speaking, something is emotionally safe when you don’t feel threatened by it. And someone is emotionally safe when you don’t feel threatened by them. Consider this, and then consider the shit shows you’ve seen on Twitter and Facebook. Definitely not safe. But my issue isn’t that someone wants Uncle Ned to stop calling all their friends obscene names while he argues with them about politics in their feed; that’s just good manners and respect. The problem is that Uncle Ned’s disagreement alone is often considered sufficient to steal that concept of “safety” away.
I have always been an outlier in wider communities because I’m drawn to weird sub-groups. So I was an outlier as an evangelical Christian because I was getting into fun movements like messianic Christianity (never heard of it? Told you I like weird stuff.) Then I left Christianity altogether and, fast forward to eight years later, I’m a pagan. But I don’t have the stereotypical mix of conservative opinions or liberal opinions. I have a messy mix that results in fitting in perfectly nowhere. And this essentially means I couldn’t possibly create a community of people who agreed with me about every major issue if I wanted to.
The people in my life don’t get a lot of my passions and interests. And they certainly don’t agree with them all. Were I to make them check off a list of which of my opinions they agree with and require perfect scores to keep them around, I’d be all alone on this great big Earth. So first, we see that I’m not necessarily able to have diverse relationships because I’m awesome, but rather because, you know, I don’t want to be all alone on this great big Earth. ‘Cause come on, that’s scary.
The weirder thing comes next. While I can’t help not fitting into groups, I arguably could have picked a mate who agreed with me about something. But instead, I picked a man to spend my life arguing with. Debating the big topics was foundational to our relationship. God. Ethics. If we would, given the choice, transplant our brains into AI (him=yes, me=no). While we have come closer to center over time, we still love discussions and opinions and those opinions are not always the same.
Due to my familiarity with both debate and anxiety, I understand the panicked feeling of principles being threatened. Of someone you respect saying something that goes against what you think or believe. That feeling of shock and dismay and anger. There have been plenty of times I’ve looked at my husband and incredulously said something to the effect of “You just said what?”
But because of my uncommon method of relationship-building, it’s absurd to me to consider someone as entirely unsafe because of an opinion they do or don’t express. My husband is emotionally safe because we commit to caring for eachother over any disagreement about ideas. Not because he agrees to hightail it to the woods and live off the land with me when the Singularity hits (the traitor doesn’t).
There will always be boundaries in relationships, and those are dependent on who each person is. You can’t get deep into ancient Norse theologies with the Christian friend you enjoy yoga with. The friend who eats at McDonald’s every day doesn’t give a shit about your obsession with health and nutrition labels. And your southern grandma probably isn’t the person to talk to about systemic racism in America. It doesn’t make them unsafe. It makes them different people coming from different perspectives.
I’ve felt the pressure to toe the party line in online circles hard, and I know I’m not alone. I’m seeing people who are arguably pretty into the party line being like, “Guys, come on. I know he used the word “stupid,” but could we, like, tell him we think that word is bad instead of calling him an ableist bastard?” If you don’t agree that it’s bad, God help you. And if you don’t believe in God, may your weary bones rest listlessly in this materialist earth in a spot of your choosing.
Diversity is an asset that broadens our perspectives. Even differing opinions about the Big Things serve to keep us honest. That feeling of threat? It comes up at the edges of our dogma, of our beliefs. And while there’s nothing wrong with belief, not being aware of where it begins and ends, of where our biases lie, will render those opinions flat and unexamined. If we only talk to people who use the words we like and ask the questions we want them to, we’ll never be challenged in the same way as if we engage more broadly. And we’ll never make a difference with those ideas anyway, because no one new will hear them.
The self-censorship has started to feel gross. It keeps our mouths shut and hedges us into friendships ready to shatter at the first sign we’re not quite what the other person wanted us to be. For myself, I guarantee you do not agree with everything I think. Some of you will like me, and you’ll agree with some of it and maybe decide to stick around.
I think I can handle it if you can.