26 July 2011

Radical inclusiveness, "safe spaces", and other mythical beasts

Wow - the interwebs (or at least the corners of them webs that I tend to hang around) are really abuzz with questions of inclusiveness (can communities and gatherings be radically inclusive and welcoming to absolutely everybody?) and "safe space" (can those same communities and gatherings be places where folks - perhaps folks with a given identity - can go without fear of feeling threatened or unsafe?).  The grand prize, of course, goes to the community or gathering that can achieve both:  inclusive to absolutely everyone, and at the same time safe for absolutely everyone.

No, of course I'm just kidding.  That last one is absurd.  Not gonna happen, this side of "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

But what is possible?  What's worth shooting for?  Obviously (to me, anyway) inclusiveness and safety are both Good Things worth striving for.  Obviously there's inherent tension here.  How might we try to navigate this tension?

One of the first - and best - posts I saw recently on this topic was Katie's blog on Safe Space.  I highly recommend that you go read it.  Katie has more wisdom on these tensions than you're going to find here.

Then, I ran across an excellent point/counterpoint on these subjects.  Neil Christopher, in Can Christians Truly Be Inclusive, argues for erring on the side of safety for some folks (specifically, some historically oppressed folks).  Matt Scott replied with On (False) Inclusivity, in which he calls us to err on the side of radical inclusivity.  (These are my own ridiculously oversimplified reductions of their articles - please go read them and let them speak for themselves.)

So mostly because all of these folks - and many others among my local and global friends - have got me thinking (and because sometimes I do this weird exercise in which I think out loud in public on this blog) I thought I'd noodle a bit on this tension myself.  Because I can feel myself tending toward long-windedness already, I think I'm just going to rattle off a bunch of bullet points.  These are not facts; they are opinions that I throw out there for potential discussion.  They aren't even necessarily opinions I hold tightly.  I'm probably wrong.  That's OK.

Anyway, here goes:

  • There is no such thing as safe space.  (Just ask Katie.)  There is also no such thing as perfect inclusivity.  Just as these values are in tension with each other, each is also impossible to achieve as a standalone value.  Sorry.
  • That said, it is worthy and necessary to attempt to create "safe spaces".  We need to enter into these spaces with eyes open to the fact that they cannot be perfect.  (That's why I put the phrase in quotes.)
  • We also need to realize that "safe spaces" can only possibly aim to be "safe" for some folks - not for all folks.  A space cannot simultaneously be "safe" for both LGBTQI folks, and folks who are powerfully threatened by / threatening toward LGBTQI folks.  There cannot be a space that's "safe" for both atheists, and folks who are powerfully threatened by / threatening toward atheists.  These are just examples; the same would be true of any other potentially controversial aspect of someone's identity: orthodox Christian believers, political liberals, Rush Limbaugh fans, homeless folks, etc.
  • Now before you get all bothered about my previous bullet point, let me clarify.  I'm defining "safe spaces" as places where a particular category of people (or multiple categories, but never all categories) can go without (much) fear of feeling threatened.  I'm sorry, but this simply cannot be a space where folks who are threatened by / threatening to the "safe" categories of folks are also welcome.  Not all communities/gatherings should strive to be "safe spaces" in this sense, but we do need these, especially for folks who have a history of being oppressed.
  • Other communities/gatherings will not (and should not) strive to be "safe spaces" for certain categories of people.  These spaces (if they are Christian spaces) should instead strive to be radically (but not perfectly) inclusive.  Why?  Because Christ crossed every boundary and invited every last goddamn one of us sinners to the table.
  • These radically inclusive spaces cannot be "safe spaces" in the sense I defined above.  They must remain spaces where feeling threatened is a real possibility - for everyone.  (Feeling threatened is possible in "safe spaces" too, for they are never perfect, but it's more likely in these radically inclusive spaces.)
  • That said, in these radically inclusive spaces, it is possible (though HARD) for folks who are  threatened by / threatening to one another to be in community.  How is this possible?  Not by excluding people - not at first, anyway.  Instead, by establishing a firm community ethos - and consistent messaging from community members and leaders - that certain behaviors are not acceptable.  These are behaviors that are abusive, dehumanizing, and/or excluding to other people in the space.  Did I mention that establishing and maintaining this ethos is HARD?
  • It bears repeating:  this is really, really hard.  I think it's especially hard in spaces which are too large for everyone to know everybody else.  Because all a bully needs to practice his or her abusive craft is a little bit of secret space, out of the sight of the rest of the community.
  • Inevitably, there will be folks who cannot abide by this ethos, or who feel too threatened to stay.  These folks will either decide to leave, or (if they have been abusive or exclusionary) they will need to be confronted within the community, as outlined in Matthew 18.  This is why radical inclusiveness can never be perfect inclusiveness, even in spaces that do not attempt to be "safe" (as defined above).
  • So what should most Christian communities and gatherings strive for?  It's up to the particular group and their particular composition, gifts, and sense of calling.  Some should definitely strive for "safe space" - the Metropolitan Community Churches, and their particular calling to be a "safe space" for LGBTQI Christians, are a beautiful thing, for example.  Many traditional Christian churches are, de facto, "safe spaces" for orthodox, believing Christians in their particular tradition - which means that they are not "safe spaces" for folks who are threatened by / threatening to people with those beliefs.
  • Many "emerging" Christian communities - as well as many more traditional ones - are striving for the sort of "safe-ish" radical inclusivity in which everyone is welcome to the table.  Places where atheists and Muslims and Buddhists are just as welcome as orthodox Christian believers - although (in contrast with, say, many Unitarian-Universalist congregations) the overall character of the community remains Christian.  Places where LGBTQI folks, and folks who do not believe that God is OK with folks being LGBTQI, can both come to the table together, pray together, eat together, sing together, serve together, laugh together, weep together, lead together.  Etc.  I think the community that I'm a part of, the Common Table is that kind of community.  It is not a place where any particular group of people - be they orthodox Christian believers, lesbians, atheists, etc. - can feel completely "safe" from words and behaviors that they may find uncomfortable or even threatening.  It is a place where all of these folks should know that behavior that crossed the line into abuse, exclusion, or dehumanization would not be OK - from anybody.  It is messy.  It is also beautiful.
  • We would all be a lot happier, I think, with a lot more up-front, open discussion about these issues in our communities and gatherings.  What kind of space are we striving to be?  "Safe"?  For whom?  Inclusive?  What does that mean?  Can we please talk about this shit, rather than set folks up for (even more than the usual) nasty surprises?
OK, them's all my bullet points.  I knew I was gonna be long-winded.  Holla back, y'all, if you have any reactions.  Peace!

1 comment:

Thabo Mophiring said...

Society is a safe space for hegemonic behaviour.
Examples - women are victims of violence and rarely the perpetrators.
Your example about being people threatened by homosexuals and vice versa, equates the social power of heterosexuals and homosexuals, which is false.

A safe space must counter hegemonic power and cannot pander to it.
If it pandets, t is not a safe space, it is a replica of society.