Empty Spaces

Here’s a stupid and privileged thing I said last week:

“I don’t believe in the language of safety.”

I was out with colleagues and friends, and we were toasting the end of the Winter Term, and of grading, and of submitting the grades. Why was I on such a high horse? What did I mean by that? The answer to the first question is I was having a beer, and I’m a cheap, if usually cheerful drunk. The answer to the second is: many things. It was a thesis to a larger discussion I am not usually prone to launching into. Most importantly, though, I could only say it because of the safe space I was in.

What made that space safe? My colleagues and I have not known each other long, but we meet quite regularly, and have interesting conversations. What I mean by that is we talk about pedagogy, we discuss difficult or interesting teaching scenarios, we exchange wise advice born of our extensive and varied teaching experience. We help each other. We commiserate. We support each other. We were brought together by an institution which owes us nothing, and we try to navigate the requirements of one of the most emotionally-demanding jobs with dignity and ethics.

We don’t normally chit-chat about the weather.

We have come, in our few get-togethers, to share or understand each other’s assumptions.

That’s why it was safe for me to spew out a half-baked, out-of-context inanity.

Because I knew my friends would listen. Ask for clarification. Have patience for me to expound, no matter how long it took me to dust my soap box, step on it, unroll my screed, and pontificate.

Here’s what I meant by it: safety at all costs can sometimes preclude the possibility of intellectual debate. The qualification here is crucial, because we know so much more now about how trauma works, and how what to someone sounds like the height of intellectual debate can actively harm someone else, who had experienced trauma of any kind. Triggers are as ubiquitous as they are harmful.

I’m not writing to rehash the discussion of trigger warnings on course outlines here, but to try to understand how we can move into a post-cartesian space in which we understand that our emotional life moulds our intellectual one.

How do we discuss painful things in a public space without excluding or harming other people?


In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “Stop Saying ‘I feel like’,” Molly Worthen says:

This is what is most disturbing about “I feel like”: The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning. It turns emotion into a cudgel that smashes the distinction — and even in our relativistic age, there remains a distinction — between evidence out in the world and internal sentiments known only to each of us.

I am cringing at the ableist language, as much as I appreciate the attempt to grapple with one of the dilemmas of our cultural moment. But what the casual ableism here shows is how easy it is to commit micro-aggressions as you stand on that soap-box, energized by the righteousness of your own cause.

A different way to frame the issue appeared in a conversation between Jeanette Winterson and Marlon James. The latter says:

But about Facebook. My students grew up in an era where they take partisanship for granted. They have never had to deal with an opposing view, or respecting it, because they grew up believing that, whether it’s liberal or conservative, an opposing view is something you make fun of. Whether it’s really, really brilliant, like Jon Stewart, or whether your aunt said something bad about Bill Clinton. They also grew up with 5,000 Facebook friends who all think exactly like them. They really think the universe is millions of people all on the same page. So when you inject conflict, even in a classroom, they have no idea what to do with it.

This is a different formulation, but my teaching experience is predicated on critical thinking, whereas James is talking about creative writing. The two elicit different pedagogies, even though I would argue you cannot do the latter without the former (and that’s what creative critique is all about). And that’s probably where the rub is: understanding that critical thinking is different than personal conflict.

I have no answers, but I do want to talk more about how we can openly and safely discuss ideas while also being respectful and inclusive. Otherwise, it’s so easy to re-affirm and reproduce the past. Oppression. Exploitation.

What do you think? How do we talk about heartfelt, potentially problematic issues in a way that moves the conversation in new directions without marginalizing or re-victimizing anyone?

4 responses to “Empty Spaces

  • I think this is so interesting. It’s worth acknowledging that in these kinds of discussions, different parties have vastly different stakes. My own experience is not one of trauma, but I’m thinking of “the abortion debate” which many like to expound upon, arguing ethics and principles, as you say “the height of intellectual debate.” And the argument becomes disembodied for some (who are usually men), whereas I am unable to take that kind of reasoned stance. My stakes in the matter are way too high. But from the other point of view, I’m just being emotional.

    • Margrit
      8 years ago

      That’s exactly it! How do we bridge the gap and manage to understand each other not just on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level? How do we get to the empathy that’s needed when we lack personal experience of a particular situation? For example, I know what it’s like to be a jewish kid growing up in an anti-semitic country. I don’t however, have anything other than a theoretical understanding of what’s at stake in living as an African American woman in today’s US. There are limits to my own experience of marginalization that prevent me from understanding intellectually and emotionally, but that’s what listening and reading are for. But then, I have the luxury and inclination to do so.
      My worry stemmed from a desire to expose that complexity to, and to engage college students in conversations about what’s at stake in living with difference and diversity without craving their collapse into identity.
      Your example, Kerry, is really good in this regard: abortion draws its own boundaries of experience, while also generating heated ideological stances. I meant to parade the “height of intellectual debate” as a sarcastic ideal that a mistaken cartesian academic system posits as its mandate. Of course we cannot divest any debate or discussion of the emotional. But how do we make people (*cough* most men *cough*) listen and empathize is a big question mark.

  • For the record, I was at first shocked at the statement but I immediately understood what you were getting at when you elaborated. It is important to challenge concepts and ideas. It is too easy to just remain sheltered in our “safe space” cardigan without challenging what that really means or the need for a statement like that in the first place. Thank you for pushing thought!

    • Margrit
      8 years ago

      And I’m so grateful to you, Ann, for being/remaining my friend after that glib comment. I was making light of it in the blog post, but it’s truly only because of the safe space that emerges when such open-minded people come together, that I could articulate that idea and elaborate on it. And you’re right, maybe we should do it more often.

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