Safe spaces have been pitted against freedom of speech on university campuses. Safe spaces are literally places where students from a racial minority, or LGBTQ students or other communities of interest can go where they won’t face hostile speech from outsiders exercising their “free” speech rights.
It seems to me that while safe spaces may be good temporary refuges, they don’t get us to the place where we can have the important conversations across our differences that allow us to reach a modus vivendi with each other.
This week, a number in the organization I work with went through Crucial Conversations© training. One of the insights shared is that people rarely get defensive about the content of what we say. Instead, they become defensive because of why they think they are saying it. The issue is safety, and the training says people experience safety, when their is mutual respect and a mutual, shared purpose.
What this suggests to me is that safety is not ultimately spatial but relational. The speech of freedom is not just about the content of what we say but our commitment to communicate in our words and demeanor genuine respect even for the others with whom we speak. With this is commitment to mutual purpose. What could be the mutual purpose between to differing people? If nothing else in our democracy, it would seem that wanting others to enjoy all the rights and opportunities of citizenship–a precious gift.
What was even more striking was the idea that we can have really hard conversations when we are committed to the safety of each other.Safety and freedom need not be opposed to each other or mutually exclusive. Rather safety both creates the environment where we might speak freely, and where we might listen, even to difficult things, because we know the other respects us and we are in this together.
“Safety first” may well be the motto of the speech of freedom. To cherish our freedom cannot just be to protect our own “first freedoms” but to ensure that others enjoy the safety we want. Seems like an American thing to do.