When is a safe space a safe space?

I was reading over the comments on the Jeremy Clarkson post by Kate Smurthwaite, and it got me thinking – particularly Rhona’s* comment. She said of female commenters (which I can assume included me):

“I also think it’s somewhat inappropriate to leap down a man’s throat when they attempt to offer an alternative viewpoint, particularly when they are commenting on a feminist blog. Is this not a friendly, open space to discuss and learn from one another’s povs? I frequently disagree with several F-Word bloggers’ points but I tend to take the opportunity to attempt to consider and learn from what they are saying, rather than totally disregarding it for not agreeing with my own opinion. Just a thought.”

Which I found gave me a lot of food for thought. Clearly, The F-Word is a site dedicated to sharing various feminist points of view, the more the merrier. The addition of commenting made my day, because suddenly you could get more than one person’s opinions on a post, and there was a chance to learn even more. Yes, it is important to consider where an opinion is coming from, especially if the person holding it looks like they have more personal experience with an issue. If it affects them more, or if they know more about the topic at hand, they’re definitely worth listening to, especially if you disagree with them. Listening to people with more experience than you is the main way of learning the bounds of our privilege, and unravelling societal influences on us.

At the same time, I have issues with how we define a safe space and what we consider to be fair criticism vs. what constitutes an unfair attack. The foundation of much current feminist discourse is that insults on an individual person’s actions are not acceptable, but that criticism, by which we mean deconstruction of an opinion or action are acceptable. We will always have disagreements, and it is only by exchanges where the opposing arguments are deconstructed and replied to that there can be any real education or personal growth. Sometimes this gets heated and personal, which is something impossible to avoid on a feminist blog.

I understand a safe space to be a place where members of an oppressed group can talk frankly about issues that affect them. It is an island in a world where their opinions are pushed aside, and a place on the internet where their opinions are not insulted or assumed to be wrong because they are different. In short, a safe space is there to serve the needs of the oppressed, not the oppressor. This means that their opinions are the ones that are most important, because they are the ones with direct experience of the topic, and the safe space was created to give them a place to share those experiences and related opinions, without having to deal with a lot of dissent or being silenced by the privileged, who after all have the entire rest of the internet to be heard.

This isn’t to say that all people don’t have equal rights to an opinion, they do. And all people have the right to express that opinion where they see fit. However, each space has a right to govern which opinions should be given weight, and which would stop real discussion. I remember feeling pretty bemused at how feminist blogs used to not put up every comment, and used to worry that if I unwittingly wrote something wrong, I’d get banned or have my comments deleted. Hence, I was very careful in what I posted. But when I had been around a bit longer, and had more experience and confidence, two things happened. First, I had enough experience from reading comments to not ask the most repetitive questions, and try the best to educate myself. Naturally, I was just as inexperienced as the most helplessly misguided commenters you can get, not so long ago. I was grateful to those who took the time to explain, and who pointed things out gently, but I was also grateful to those who were a bit harsher. It stung, but it helped me realise where I was wrong.

Second, I realised just why we need to foster an environment that is nurturing to discussion and makes minorities feel welcome in their own space. I saw how even one privileged and fairly-well meaning commenter, or plain troll could quickly side-track a thread, or insist that they know better than the people who have experienced this. I saw many people claim that they know more than women, POC or LGBTQ people, or still believe that when it comes down to it, other people’s lives should be decided based on what makes someone else uncomfortable or comfortable.

In the real world, on most websites, and even on Top Gear, male commenters have the chance to have their voices not only heard and represented more than their fair share, but believed more. They, as men, are brought up to be forthright with their opinions, and to be confident to express what they think, regardless of the foundations of their experience. On the other hand, they should understand that we as women are brought up to be just the opposite. We’re told ‘Don’t be too confident! Who do you think you are, girl? Don’t be too arrogant. Nobody likes opinionated women, so you’ll never get married if you are so forward. Men don’t like smart women, so just talk less. Look interested, don’t disagree, and smile. Don’t make a fuss, don’t correct him, you’ll only embarrass yourself. Keep quiet. Why does it matter?’

This is the burden of what society expects us to be, and it’s a message we get over and over. From those who wish us well and those who don’t. Even as confident, eloquent feminists unafraid to speak our minds, it’s there in the background, something we ourselves fight with every day. Sometimes we win, sometimes it does. Especially when it’s safer for us to be silent.

The reason this is relevant is because in a mixed space, even when discussing gender issues, and even in a feminist space, if we don’t make an effort to address this, the societally-enforced pattern repeats itself. Men used to talking over women, or disregarding them in many ways, without meaning to or realising, will perpetuate this pattern, and women will be silenced. Whilst part of dealing with sexism is encouraging women to share their opinions, and trust in their experience, this can only go so far if they are still being talked over. By focusing on being especially attentive to the opinions of an already privileged group, we would be giving men an advantage, and they would probably take it, owing to their privilege. So it’s also up to male commenters to actively try and remember that they are likely to try and talk over women, and to actively try and really listen to women. Not only when it is convenient, but when women disagree with them and when they feel put upon. It’s easy to be an ally when you agree, but it is when you feel put upon as a privileged person, when you disagree that you need to think carefully and examine their experiences, and whether they might be more sensitive because it affects them directly.

In this way I believe it is vital that feminist discourse isn’t confined by having to temper feminist words and opinions to be more palatable to men because of their privilege, or give them special attention. Any opinion, male of female, can be examined. Whilst I believe a person’s specific choices are private, and should not be fodder for insults and personal attacks, choices themselves, and opinions need to be deconstructed and criticised, analysed from a feminist perspective. This isn’t easy, and needs to be done in a balanced way to not tip into attack, but it can be done.

By sheer virtue of being men, male commenters enter the discussion likely to be at odds with feminists, and this will cause friction. They will be in the minority, and have their comments analysed by many people at once. They will probably come into the discussion with privilege, and where this is evident, it will be pointed out to them. Where they have little experience in the issue, this will also be pointed out. It is necessary to remind the privileged that they enter a discussion with the danger of silencing those they supposedly support, and that it is up to them to be aware of their limited experience, and that things will not be tailored towards them.

If we have to spend time and effort paying special attention to men, or tiptoeing around their feelings, we will be putting them before the women for whom this space was really set up. We would be failing women if a feminist space became just another place for men to talk unchallenged or without criticism, with their opinions being favoured. We would also not be doing these men a favour, because criticising an opinion, analysing it and replying are to me an acknowledgement of the person. It says “I see what you have said, and I will read it, and I may disagree, but I will engage the argument.” To a woman, whose arguments all her life have been brushed under the carpet and dismissed without being engaged, serious criticism of one’s words isn’t an insult. It’s treatment as an equal, something I do not experience often. So I won’t feel sorry for the men I engage as equals willing to change, and willing to be allies, because they deserve to go through the same journeys of learning as everyone else, and have their opinion treated to the same consideration. I believe it would be far bigger an insult to treat anyone who disagrees as a lost cause, who is not capable of understanding, as a troll whose arguments shouldn’t be touched or examined. It hurts too much to have one’s beliefs ignored and spurned without being examined for me to willingly do it to someone else, when I feel they can be engaged.

However, that engagement won’t be light. In the end, it is the privilege of an oppressor (white as well as male, straight as well as white) that they can feel offended when treated equally, because they are not preferentially treated as they are used to it. This is something they need to get over if they truly want to be allies, and it’s something that needs work and isn’t easy. Yes, being in an environment where people disagree with you, and don’t give you your way, or your opinion special worth is shocking when you first start. It’s never easy starting to realise what you have, and the privileges you lose in an equal setting. But from what I have seen around the blogosphere, I think that not watering down criticism of the privileged is the bigger mark of respect and the biggest favour. It gives them a chance to learn, and to prove that they really do want equality, and really do want to listen to minority voices. It hurts, and all of us feel offended at some time or other because our opinion got short shrift, but I feel it is necessary to growth.

I do think it necessary that ad hominem attacks are kept to a bare minimum, because they are inflammatory, and don’t add to discourse and nobody, no matter how seemingly deserving really needs to be insulted. At the same time, The F-Word has only fairly recently allowed comments, and I think it is still working on its niche of exactly what to allow and not allow. Most blogs have one or two contributors, and clear bounds of which niche both the blogstresses and most commenters tend to fall in. The F-Word is deliberately meant to be diverse, so there is more chance of very disparate opinions clashing. To the contributors’ credits, I haven’t seen comments sink to useless levels, and criticism and debate may become heated, but hasn’t crossed the line as far as I know. It’s just something to bear in mind, because the environment here is unique in that it’s varied, and pitched at more than one level. I think that gives a lot of opportunities, but it does leave confusion and the potential for disagreements.

I won’t pretend that my thoughts on this are the right ones, or the only possible interpretation, so I thought I’d start discussion on this. In a feminist space, how far we should go to educate the more privileged, and the limits of what a space considers acceptable should be a topic of discussion in itself, because we can only gain beneficial discussion about other topics if we set up the right environment for it. I’d like to see what commenters, (men and women) think about this topic, so please feel free to add your opinion.

*Rhona, I hope it’s OK to discuss your comment here, although I understand if you’d like me to remove it. I didn’t intend to single you out, or pick arguments, or imply that you must be wrong, but as a mark of respect for your point of view, which in itself prompted a lot of thought on my account. So thank you.

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