From college campuses and corporate cultures to social media, workshops, seminars, and therapy sessions, the issue of safety and creation of “safe zones” is rapidly becoming the latest concern that one cannot question without being regarded as insensitive at best. This concern with safety has strayed far past the standard consideration given to context and material so that factors such as culture, gender, and race are respected. It is manifesting as censorship and intimidation and goes hand in hand with our increasing national obsession with micro-identities, which not surprisingly tends to be more divisive than unifying and fosters resentment rather than compassion.
But why is the focus always on how someone is going to make an environment safe for us, rather than acknowledging to what extent we ourselves may be a threat to that safety?
What does this safety look like and what does it ensure–that someone will be so scared to be perceived as unsafe that they cannot act and express themselves honestly? Is there some twisted assumption that this will facilitate honest communication between human beings? Because, I don’t know about you, but I find that honest human interactions are remarkably rare. And now we’re encouraged to be increasingly dishonest in our interactions through suppression of expression that is deemed offensive.
The belief that diversity is always supposed to feel enriching. harmonious, and inclusive is one of the royal lies of these United States. We use euphemistic language such as “melting pot” and “a rich cultural tapestry” to gloss over fundamental human nature, which is to be suspicious of differences, resistant to change, and focused on self-preservation. If we cannot get real about the train-wreck we call a human being in all its contradictory, confused, conflicted glory, then we will dress it up in the name of safety.
Now, some of us are very skilled at appearing to be completely safe, but really are not, which describes myself for at least the first 40 years of my life. It was intensely embarrassing, enlightening, and liberating to discover that I wasn’t the safe and secure person people believed me to be, but was, in fact, a passive-aggressive nightmare.
I was recently reminded of this when I chose to respond to a Facebook post regarding the interpretation of a quote. Looking back on it, this was like those movies where the newly reformed career criminal decides to do “one more job” before retiring into respectability. We all know how that typically ends. Yes, my ass was summarily handed to me by a gentleman who generously informed me not only of the quote’s correct interpretation, but that I had also “missed the point.”
So, what was my response to my learned friend? Was it, “Well done, old boy, for that bracing bit of sportsmanship, but it seems we shall agree to disagree”? No, what I really felt was a white-hot rage surface instantly in the midst of which (thankfully) I couldn’t even verbally respond. All I wanted to do was kill the cocky motherfucker.
Not only did this cause me to instantly renew my commitment to diligently avoid social media discussion other than “liking” cat videos, I was also grateful (after my blood pressure normalized) to have been shown that my only reason for responding to the post was to demonstrate that I was right, with no room for dissent.
For decades I projected a false modesty to make myself tolerable to others–a common malady in American culture—until it finally toppled in the face of years of honest scrutiny. Besides, it may work as a child, but as an adult presenting oneself to the world in this way is neither fun nor interesting.
As a result, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do to acquaint myself with the arrogance that lurks under that artifice. However, I’m clearly still sufficiently conflicted about that arrogance that I didn’t catch my underlying agenda for responding to the post and preferred to believe that I was innocently sharing my opinion. And that is what makes me about as innocent as a mongoose in a hen house when it comes to social media.
Let’s get real: When was the last time you went into a situation thinking, “I’m so freakin’ stoked to have my assumptions and beliefs challenged, revealed as fraudulent, and possibly altered!”? Um, like never, if you’re me. The dashing of beliefs and exposure of hidden agendas only comes in unexpected bursts due to our carefully scripted interactions.
Consequently, staged events such as town meetings, debates, and panel discussions are largely a presentation of polarized positions for which the participants have exhaustively prepared to make a case for their respective platforms. It is not about coming to an agreement or compromise, letting down one’s guard, or breaking down barriers. The only value these events provide is a stage to witness the tragicomedy of the ego and possibly recognize ourselves in the stultifying spectacle.
It is painful and embarrassing to have a light shone on one’s hidden bigotry, pettiness, and insecurity, but having the vulnerability to reveal these shortcomings to oneself is in the only way to bring polarized positions closer together. These difficult realizations are denied to us when someone–in his or her patronizing benevolence–decides that we need extra shielding from the world. We are on a mission to eradicate the very elements that might cause us to face our fears and grow from that encounter.
A facilitator, counselor, boss, teacher, etc. can obviously do some very simple things to ensure a basic degree of safety: don’t hold a meeting or workshop in the stairwell of a crack house; make sure there’s a bathroom nearby; check any firearms at the door; have ample water and snacks on hand to reduce the chance of low blood sugar aggravating any already-primed feelings of outrage.
If he or she has not provided for the basics, then head for the exit, because safety is clearly not going to be in the works on any subtler levels as well. And, if you can’t get your money back then chalk it up to experience and learn from it so it doesn’t happen again, because you certainly didn’t end up in an unsafe place by chance.
If the facilitator has provided for a basic level of safety, then whatever happens after that is either sourced by the guarding of identities or being vulnerable to their exposure. There is very little that the facilitator can do to assuage the fears of a person who is already searching for evidence of an unsafe world.
If the person sitting next to you forgets one of the letters in LGBTQ, is unable to discern the difference between Hispanic and Latino, has a confederate flag decal on his truck, calls his girlfriend his “old lady,” etc. are you seriously going to stand up and announce that you don’t feel safe, and hold an entire room hostage? Oddly enough, these points of righteous annoyance might be referred to as characteristics of diversity, which the whole theme of safety is ostensibly trying to preserve. If we don’t accept diversity in all its beauty and ugliness, we end up cherry-picking the aspects we find offensive.
Just because we feel uncomfortable it does not mean the environment is “unsafe.” And if we cannot tolerate these perceived slights to our identities in a controlled setting, then how are we going to handle ourselves in a situation where someone intentionally means us harm?
If someone says, “I just don’t want to be judged,” well good luck because that’s just what the mind does—anyone’s mind—it judges non-stop. And, if you don’t realize that your own mind is doing just that all the time, then your status as a safe person is very questionable.
An ideal situation is a room full of people who are capable of being fluid with their judgments, who can witness their minds judging and not act from that script. A facilitator needs to be especially good at this, as his or her energy will be much more available to the group if there is not a constant effort toward suppressing his or her judgments.
There is a dangerous illusion of false innocence in not wanting to be exposed to someone’s negative energy, while believing that we are not generating our own negative energy by what we refuse to acknowledge about ourselves. Yes, it’s become a cliché to suggest that the person whose presence you find most toxic in the room is the best mirror for you, but if the shoe fits . . .
I knew a guy who went through gurus and teachers like they were potato chips, because he eventually found something about the individual that didn’t quite match up to his standards (“this one talks about us behind our backs, that one gets too cozy with his students, this one can’t be so vulgar and be spiritual,”)
He was constantly on the lookout for the chink in the teacher’s armor and when he found it (or became convinced of it) then he was out the door and shopping for the next one. Some misguided souls interpreted his behavior as being uncompromising in his search for the right teacher to support his precious spiritual path.
Do you think it ever occurred to him that if he’d made himself vulnerable to his fear of never finding perfection that he may have realized for once that he was in the right place? Do you think it ever occurred to him that he was not a safe person to have around because of this hidden agenda driven by insecurity? No, he placed the onus of responsibility for safety squarely on the shoulders of the person in front of the room.
I attended a seminar series for several years in which we didn’t refer to it as safety; we called it containment and it didn’t have to be verbalized because you could feel it. It was understood that you were there to lay yourself bare to have a ghost of a chance of leaving the gathering a somewhat different person than the one that entered.
When containment was no longer present, it was palpable and time to end for the day or take a break. It was a valuable demonstration of how the dynamic of any group is being determined on an unspoken level and its ebb and flow depends on what is being discussed and how close it is to lunch time.
In an environment of containment such as this, taboo, insensitive, and seemingly inappropriate verbalizations, opinions, and outbursts can be weathered quite easily by the group because there is no atmosphere of hyper-vigilance around offensive opinions and behaviors. It just occurs to the group as human behavior and very familiar, honest behavior at that.
That’s how to recognize whether an environment is safe or not: from a level of feeling and not through the mind’s multitude of internal states and filters that have nothing to do with being in the present moment, such as: “I’m afraid of being rejected,” “I’ll only be vulnerable if someone else goes first,” “I’m surrounded by idiots,” “I won’t be the one to rock the boat,” ad infinitum. At that point, it doesn’t matter what presents itself in the external environment, because the interpretation of it will be sourced from a mélange of childhood emotions, beliefs, traumas, and skewed perceptions. It may just as likely result in interpreting an unsafe setting as a safe one as vice versa.
If safety is presumed to require protocol and prescription with stilted rules governing the language and behavior of the assembled, then it is much more difficult to access any real feeling of safety and vulnerability because spontaneity is being sacrificed in favor of rote mental gymnastics to avoid offending someone.
We’re dodging our human responsibility to develop our intuitive sense of safety by-focusing inward to assess ourselves first and then our environment, and turning instead to rigid, lazy defaults based on fear and guilt. You are only as safe as you know your own mind.