There is a lot of talk these days in the post-election fracas about “safe spaces.” Most of the talk I have heard comes from conservative sources and some is decidedly mocking, but you don’t have to look very hard to find a quite serious and sober definition and defense of the safe space concept. (I suppose I should disclose that I do not agree with the goals of campus pride, I am merely saying that they have a well-defined concept of what safe space is and what it is for.)
It is exclusively on the conservative side that I have heard the term “special little snowflake” and variations thereof. It is usually an expression of disdain for young people, (millennials and younger) who as a group (if any group so heterogeneous can even be called group) tend to emphasize more liberal and progressive values such as empathy, tolerance, plurality, inclusion, fair treatment of racial and sexual minorities, and the intrinsic value of all (or at least most) humans. This inclusiveness does have its limitations, as in the case of the unborn, and the overall left-leaning skew in academia decried and perhaps exaggerated by Nicholas Kristof.
In this post I want to throw out my thoughts on these two ideas, for what they are worth. I do not expect to change the culture, but I do hope to provide at least some clarity of thought and charity of heart.
First of all, with the term “snowflake,” I am not sure why this is such an insult. I can definitely understand being put out when a young person with a sense of entitlement joins the platoon (or team, class, office, etc.) and seems to think that they ought to be treated with kid gloves simply for being who they are. I don’t know that it is necessarily a generational thing, as I have known plenty of old-timers in the army who seemed quite pleased to assume that they ought to be treated with respect bordering on adulation simply for having been around as long as they had, or based on things that they had once done, or simply because of their rank. Coming from the Special Forces, I can completely understand the feeling that respect is something that needs to be earned every day. Just because you made it through (basic training/college/trade school/the Q course/etc.) doesn’t mean you are automatically entitled to anything. You have earned the right to keep trying, learning and improving every day of your life.
I understand that mindset, but I don’t condone it without a very strong caveat, that it is not a Catholic attitude. It is based on a utilitarian attitude in which a person’s value is based on what he or she adds to the team/organization/society. It is not a wrong attitude, it is just not a complete one.
Contrast that with the liberal attitude that insists that every person is intrinsically valuable simply by virtue of existing and being human, regardless of what mistakes they may have made or what a drain they may be on society. They can’t help that, it’s the system, or their genetics, or white privilege, or the patriarchy. It is not their fault. Everyone deserves respect, a living, healthcare etc. just because they are human. Again, this is not a wrong mindset, it just isn’t a complete one.
Contrast that with this quote from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
“The human person, must always be understood in his unrepeatable and inviolable uniqueness. In fact, man exists above all as a subjective entity, as a center of consciousness and freedom, whose unique life experiences, comparable to those of no one else, underlie the inadmissibility of any attempt to reduce his status by forcing him into preconceived categories or power systems, whether ideological or otherwise. This entails above all the requirement… of simple respect on the part of others, especially political and social institutions and their leaders with regard to every man and woman on the earth.” (Compendium 131)
The Church has always held that the value of every human person is intrinsic to their identity as a child of God. It does not come from their skills or their knowledge or looks or muscle or any other quality about them. It is an inherent aspect of being personally willed by God from all eternity. From this point of view the liberal philosophy gets closer to the truth than the utilitarian view.
In fact, the insistence on “earning respect” gets it exactly backwards. We do not become worthy of respect because of our achievements, we strive to achieve because we are inherently worthy to do so. To continue the above quote:
“[E]ven more, this means that the primary commitment of each person towards others, and particularly of these same institutions, must be for the promotion and integral development of the person.” Compendium 131.
Earning your place, contributing to society, living up to your full potential, these are all values, but they are not foundational values. Their value is based solely upon our pre-existing identity as children of God, and without that identity no amount of achievement or development could replace it.
It is in reference to the value of reaching our full potential that I think about the concept of a safe space. Roughly speaking the liberal view might be stated as, “Come in here, all are welcome. You will not be subject to violence, physical or emotional, because of your identity. Here we are all safe.”* The conservative view might, equally roughly, be described as, “Grow up! Get over yourself, toughen up. Grow some balls! Nobody cares about your feelings, you big babies.”
I approach the question of safe space from the Catholic understanding of human worth. I do not support safe space, as I am discussing it above, not because I don’t believe that humans deserve respect, but because I believe they deserve growth. The problem with living in a safe space is that there is no growth. Just like the people who go to the gym and spend an hour casually turning the peddles on a stationary bike while watching a movie, or chatting, or reading a book, without ever breaking a sweat, will never reach their true physical potential, so the people who insist upon living in a circle of people who do not and cannot disagree with them will never grow mentally. They will never grow.
On the other hand, this does not mean there is no place for safety, respect and for sharing your beliefs with people who agree. Contrary to popular meathead belief, you do not actually make gains at the gym. You grow best in the rest time between workouts, and even while you are asleep. That growth is conditioned by the time spent in training, but a lifetime of training without rest doesn’t make you stronger. It grinds you down and breaks you.
So I encourage those who want a “safe space” to consider what they want it for. Is it so that you can be comfortable? There is no growth in comfort. You must be stretched and challenged if you wish to grow, and that can best be done by those who disagree with you.
*Of course the “anything goes in here, no judgment” mentality can only operate if there is one unwritten, but inviolable and strictly enforced rule: i.e. no judgment or intolerance. The one point of view that cannot be respected is any point of view that disagrees with some other person’s.