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Monday, August 5, 2013

What if safe spaces were violent to us? (2011)


This text was translated and published in April 2013, in Edinburgh, Scotland, by Mr. Scruffles publishing.
About the diffusion of this text: This text was mainly written to be a support for discussions and reflections in the feminist and queer movements or events. We prefer it to be spread in these movements and events. We are also very interested by feedback and comments from you, so do not hesitate to write to us:

What if safer spaces were violent to us?
For a few years now, we noticed the more and more frequent use of the phrases “to feel safe” and “safer spaces” in the queer and/or feminist circles we evolve in. Their common use, which we feel has not been questioned, made us look at their political significance. Sharing these reflections is one of the reasons which led us to write this text, which aims to be a contribution to the discussion we want to have in these circles. It is addressed to people who take into account the existence of several systems of oppression (racism, sexism, heterosexism, class oppression, ableism,...), which is for us a self-evident basis and which we did not discuss here.

We observed that, when we use the word safe, we do not necessarily mean the same thing, and these different meanings also imply different political views, which are not explicit. We then wanted to make visible and analyse the ambiguity which exists around the word safe. Also, we wanted to talk about the political implications which follow each different use of the word.

First part
To put it schematically, we find that the uses of the word safe denote feelings/ impressions/experiences which belong to two different levels. On the one hand, the fact of feeling comfortable and confident in a space or with people; on the other hand, the fact to feel secure and/or protected physically and psychologically against oppressions and/or aggressions. For example, a woman could consider a non-mixed woman/lesbian space as a safer space against patriarchal oppression, and at the same time not feel safe within this space because of conflicts she has with another person present. We chose here to associate oppression and aggression, because a number of aggressions happen within relations of oppression, although we know it is not always the case. And also knowing that aggressions are rather more precise acts which can be defined in time, which can be part or not of something more diffuse which are oppressions.

These two meanings of the word safe cover very different realities, and the fact we use the same word to express them is problematic to us. As the word safe is often used in relation to the issue of individual boundaries and aggressions, an issue which has an important place in feminist and/or queer circles, it is rather connoted and carries in itself some weight in these circles. Therefore, the fact to use the word safe in cases where we feel uncomfortable/insecure, it increases its significance.

A short example:
In a feminist housing collective, during a period of tension, someone expresses during a meeting of the inhabitants that they do not feel safe in the house. After discussion, it appeared that what they meant by safe was that they did not feel confident towards part of the collective. Since safe has several meanings, we can clearly see here that the ambiguity makes the situation appear more serious than what it is.

As an absolute, it could not be problematic if people want to express the fact they are uncomfortable or insecure by saying they do not feel safe; however, as we saw earlier, this word has several meanings and we feel we must take into account that this use is not insignificant. And as there are other ways to express these feelings, it does not seem a good idea to us to use the word safe in such a way. We find it more useful to use it in relation to relations of oppression/domination and in cases of aggressions, but even there we see some inconveniences.

On the one hand, the use of the phrase “not to feel safe” without going further, sometimes makes the political reasons invisible, and empties the phrase of its meaning. On the other hand, we feel that to express ourselves in that way shifts the focus and the issue towards individual feelings and experience and push back into the margins the deeper political issues.

Another example to clarify what we just said:
At a party during a queer festival, there was a performance with people executing a choreography with music. At some point when a hip-hop song was playing, the music was cut with no explanation by people in charge of the sound. After a moment of doubt and confusion, the audience was explained the reason: the song used the N-word several times and someone had asked for the music to be cut. Soon after someone got on stage to sum up the situation, and did so by saying someone had not felt safe. The use of safe here takes out and makes invisible the political reasons behind cutting the music.

To stress the individual feelings of someone more than the situation in itself shifts the focus and responsibilities. The issue with playing racist music becomes an issue of someone not feeling safe. The political reasons which provoked this reaction are no longer taken into account and only how the person felt is pushed forward. The impression which
this gives us is that the main thing is for people to feel safe and not to take responsibility for or refuse to reproduce relations of oppression and domination within the spaces we create.

Another aspect of the use of the word safe which we wanted to question is its power to shut down a debate or discussion. It is used, rightly or wrongly, as the ultimate argument which cannot be discussed or questioned. It is a bit like the expression of an “absolute boundary” which we cannot cross and must adapt to.

Another short example to illustrate:
In a non-mixed women/lesbian/trans festival, a cis1 person expressed the fact she did not feel safe in a space in which some
people were topless and that this toplessness was felt as a violence to her. This led to a division of the spaces, with part where it was possible to be topless and a ban on toplessness in others.
Afterwards, there was no discussion to discuss this feeling or this division of spaces.

One of the problematic points, in this case, is that the use of the phrase “I do not feel safe” and “it is violent to me” have prevented a discussion, because in our circles they stand on their own, and we consider that people who use them do not have to justify or explain themselves. Since they are expressions with a serious meaning, very often, no-one dares
question their “applicability” to the situation. We know it is important, at first, to take into account set boundaries without explanations to stop a difficult, oppressive or aggressive, situation to endure. Especially since in most cases these are urgent situations in which the first objective is to end the situation. But we find it useful not to stop there, and try to
manage afterwards to analyse the situation in a more global and “political” way, in relation to a society and its systems of oppression.

By asking for example, why some things are felt like a violence to us, if these are indeed oppressive behaviours which we do not want or if we find it more interesting to see where these feelings come from (different codes, class, prejudices...) and if it is not possible to go beyond them.

The fact that these phrases are seen as boundaries that cannot be discussed and against which we cannot do anything worries us. We are starting to touch on the issue of the political culture which they imply. That is, a political culture in which individual boundaries are seen as things we cannot be discussed or questioned. This often prevents analysing
issues in depth, more globally, and not limiting them to the feelings of people but questioning the space they take, where they come from, and what they create politically.

This issue of boundaries is also linked to how a movement is built and how it functions. Already, in each part of the movement, codes exist and are created. These norms create a hierarchy of themes, but also of boundaries which are more legitimate, recognized, valued than others.

On the other hand, there are people who feel more legitimate in setting boundaries. And why do these people feel more legitimate? They are often people who have more privileges, which belong more to the norms, who easily adapt, an ability to appropriate the norms or the way a group or a movement functions.

It is then important to ask the question of privileges and power relations which exist and are created by these forms of legitimacies.

If we look back at this last example, and see it in a more global way, we realize that the toplessness which was felt as a “violence” was in majority the toplessness of cis lesbians and of trans people. It was in fact non-normal or non-normed bodies, which we are not used to see. The story becomes more complex seen from this angle and it becomes interesting to question the fact to stop at the feeling of the first person without taking into account all that is at stake.

It does not happen often for women, lesbians and trans, to feel comfortable being topless in spaces, knowing they won't be bothered and that they won't be subject to lewd or disdainful looks. It was an experience from which they drew the force to feel good topless.

When we analyse the situation this way, we feel like it would have been interesting to be able to discuss the individual boundary of this person and also what was at stake when expressed in this context, something that no-one dared to do. It does not mean to deny the individual feelings and not pay attention to people's boundaries and how they can live/feel things. It would rather mean to bring nuance to this feeling, and put it in perspective, also to understand where it comes from. The problem is then not that boundaries be set or feelings of unease expressed, but rather the collective reactions which follow them.

Second part
In this text, we also want to share bits of unfinished reflections on “safer spaces” and what they can convey.

First of all, is it possible to create “safer spaces”, without aggressions and oppressions? In the sense that this term is more especially used for concerts, festivals, meetings, space-time... often grouping several dozen people, it seems to us very improbable that “safer spaces” be safer for everyone and for oppression and aggressions not to occur. Because there will necessarily be people with different social positions, and therefore systems of oppression. Because even if we try to reduce the risks of aggression, it is hard to imagine none will happen, without wanting to minimize the responsibility of people committing them. Also, because it is not enough to be oppressed by one system of oppression not to reproduce others. On top of this, often, what we focus on is rather what we experience and think about, so necessarily there are things which we do not realize but convey anyway, whether it stems from our construction and our privileges, or from the fact of being part of the majority in a space.

Sometimes, when we are used to see ourselves as oppressed, it is difficult to realize we are also oppressors, especially when contexts and mixed situations change. For example, in our non-mixed experiences, taken because of our enthusiasm to live in a space without the system(s) of oppression which oppresses us, we forget that it is not the case for everyone, and that some oppressions remain for some people.

Here is a simplified example if we only take into account sexism and heterosexism:
A straight woman will not be in the same situation in a mixed group than in a non-mixed women-lesbian-trans group: the oppressions and alliances at stake are different in these two contexts. Not being subjected to heterosexism, it will be harder for this straight woman to perceive the existence of this oppression and the fact that she also conveys it.

A vicious circle of reproduction of oppressions is installed by the way spaces are set up and by whom they are created. What is offered and who offers it will determine who will be the majority of the people which will form it according to their interests. This majority will convey and reproduce its codes, norms and oppressions. Inside these spaces, these oppressions will not be well recognized because they will be the norm.

A simple example:
An event offered by white young queer people will be especially addressed to white young queer people, who will be in majority and therefore not in a context in which they realize the oppressions they convey.

If spaces are not safe for everyone, then who are they safer for? If we talk about oppressions, as we can see from what we just said, spaces are often safe for the people who have the most privileges and/or form the majority in them. If we talk about aggressions, we must then talk of safer spaces, as no-one will ever be safe from being attacked.

Do we think that by calling our spaces safer they will become so? Do we only have to name systems of oppression for them to disappear or diminish in intensity or be taken into account? In the same way, do we simply have to point out situations of aggression for them not to happen?

We noticed in several instances a tendency to list in the charters of places or festivals oppressive behaviours as if expressing/naming them would make these behaviours disappear with a magic wand. It is not enough to say/write down that behaviours are not accepted for them to disappear from spaces. Performativity does not work, saying things do not make them real.

It is true that one of the strategies to make some oppressive behaviours/systems and aggressive situations more visible can be to list them all. It shows there is a will to pay attention to them and can allow people who are faced with situations of aggression/oppression feel more legitimate to talk about them. But we must also stress that it is not enough to prevent them from happening. Everyone must take responsibility to prevent these oppressive behaviours/ aggressive situations to take place and to react when they do.

Without considering whether creating safe spaces is even possible, is it only interesting?

If we mean by safe the search for spaces which are comfortable and without confrontation because it is easier and less demanding, we want to question this desire.

We find that this aspiration is often motivated by defence mechanisms which make us want space-times in which nothing can reach us or surprise us, in which we would be protected and safe from “outside attacks”, as if we wanted to create an ideal space where everything would be perfect. All this also resembles policed spaces where everything would be “under control”, which we don't really see anything interesting about. We prefer being confronted to different experiences and social realities, because that is what makes us evolve and not stay on our positions. We are not saying now that we must always confront everyone and that we do not see the point in non-mixed spaces. What we look for in non-mixed spaces is something else than safe spaces. When we want to do things together, we prefer setting up relations of trust so that confrontation and conflict can be possible, rather than to be in situations/ groups/... where everything seems to be going fine because no-one dares speak of what could be conflictual.

If we mean, by safe spaces, spaces devoid of oppressions and aggressions, we would find it great. But we know full well it will never happen. However, we also know that we can act to improve our spaces by our initiatives and actions about what happens in them. We find, for example, important to reduce the fear of aggression in these spaces, since this fear is part of what allows systems of oppressions to endure and of what controls and limits the actions and lives of the oppressed.

That is why we see a greater interest in talking about spaces in which we are looking to reduce the risks of aggressions and better take into account systems of oppression by making them more visible, focusing on them, taking responsibility for our behaviours, and other strategies we must try and explore.

In the search to create comfortable spaces without confrontation and conflict, it is not insignificant that when someone does not feel safe, one of the responses is to delimit the space and create a new rule.

In the case of the non-mixed women-lesbian-trans event (see earlier), the fact someone did not feel safe with nudity automatically led to a separation of spaces without confrontation/discussion, with the creation of one space dedicated to nudity, delimited, away from confrontation. At the same time, a new rule appeared: we must be clothed everywhere, except in the space reserved to nudity.

It is very problematic for us directly to resort to the tool of “rules” when someone says something is wrong. Also because we are not out of a French, western society, and that the fact that this society functions in a security-enforcement, individualist way has echoes in the way we do things, unfortunately. For example, we find it hard not to see a relation between the fact we evolve in an individualist society, in which only individuals have rights, and the fact that individual boundaries seem a priority to us rather than the consequences that they can have on a collective. Which is not to say that the collective should always be more important than the individual, but that there is nothing systematic in this, which is why it is interesting to discuss cases.

Also, this feeling we need to be secure and protected, is that not linked to the fact we live in a society in which we are bombarded with security messages in our daily lives which tell us we have to distrust others (and others are not just anyone, but mainly stigmatized people)? Wouldn't it be this “fear of others” which we have learnt which makes us want immediately to protect ourselves rather than discuss when there is a problem, separate spaces and therefore separate ourselves from danger? If we try to avoid discussion and confront each other, is it because we are afraid to have to listen to the other, to have to question ourselves?

Also, making rules about a space does not solve the issue, it avoids it because we separated the “elements” in conflict, but it is a failure in the will to do something together. Once again, people could think we are criticizing non-mixed meetings, as it is a form of limitation of spaces. But precisely, the difference we see is that a non-mixed meeting is a way to delimit space politically, and not because we are “afraid of others”.

To us, the reason for, or the goal of choosing non-mixed or mixed spaces, is, among others, to create, develop self-confidence and confidence in others, question our ways of being together and as individuals... All this because we want to go forward, confront our constructions, our fences, our morals, and move them if we can, if we have a space for it. It is also for this that we wanted to make these questions public, because in our lives we need these non-mixed spaces, and we want to pay attention and be critical on how they are made and what happens in them.
A trans and a fag

1  Cis(gender): Word used to make apparent the privileges of people who can develop in
the gender they were assigned at birth, in this gender-based binary society.

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