You Can’t Lie on Facebook, 2: On ‘Safe Spaces’

Real-person "safe spaces" are totally unlike those we find online.

In my previous post, I discussed ways in which social media can foster mental illness, by allowing users to curate their social worlds according to their desires. And I discussed how social media demands limitations on language and perspectives. This post will continue by discussing the limitations of “safe spaces” in the social media setting.

People with certain forms of mental illness or distorted views of reality often gravitate towards online relationships, because such relationships are susceptible to the narrowing perspectives often sought in mental illness. We can condition and narrow online engagements to fit our perceptions of what we think reality should be. We can add or delete friends on a whim, and limit or block certain sorts of conversations we deem unacceptable or “unsafe.”

No real flesh-and-blood human relationships are like this. Real human communities and friendships aren’t susceptible to such easy curation. Entanglements and disentanglements of human life are complex and multi-dimensional, and will not bend to every inclination of will, whether good or bad. We cannot force reality to match our desires. Only a digital world can provide for this.

This is why we often rely on the digital world when we seek “safe spaces.” We can bend our online interactions around our fears and insecurities and the things which trigger them. In this way, we seek to create an online world which is one large “safe space.” What, after all, is a “safe space,” other than a world removed from that which we fear or do not understand, a space in which we only experience acceptance in the way we want to experience it, in which we can hand out the words we want people to use and expect to hear them?

One might look at this characterization of “safe spaces” and dismiss them as the dangerous facilitators of psychoses. But I don’t mean to dismiss “safe spaces” altogether. It seems to me that one important role “safe spaces” could play in one’s life would be to provide respite from the conflicts and tensions around us so that we can cultivate an interior peace, create a sort of “safe” and strong space within ourselves. Then we can go out into the conflicts of the world with an interior peace and empathetic confidence.

This, after all, is partly what prayer provides. It is a space in which God quietly takes us in as we are and listens to whatever we have to say, nonsense and all. God hears us in the words we choose to use, and God’s first response is the silence of the listener, before He slowly begins to transform us and our words. But the transformation occurs only after we have disclosed ourselves to Him in the way we choose.

Perhaps one valuable role of “safe spaces” in life would be similar to the role of “safe spaces” in my creative writing group. In my group, each writer says what he or she wants out of each meeting, and we focus our discussions of their work around these requests. We create a “safe space” for the writer, who knows that we are not here as simple critics, but as teammates helping one another grow in stages.

When we critique a piece, we think about the stage in which we find each writer. The space is “safe” because of this thoughtfulness. In my group, we treat a piece of writing differently if we know it is a first draft, or a third draft, or nearing publication stage. We know when someone wants to focus on developing the plot, fixing character flaws, or workshopping ideas for the final scene. Sometimes people need us to set aside larger issues of plot as they focus on developing style. Sometimes we need to ignore the minute details of style to focus on big-picture plot. Sometimes they need encouragement to work through writer’s block or to recover after a rejection. And sometimes they need the hard, hold-nothing-back criticism we expect to get from a publisher or an MFA application committee. Likewise, our real-life “safe spaces” have different rules and expectations for different stages in our lives. But only the regular attendees of our lives can really know them.

“Safe spaces” are intensely personal. No forums, whether online or in actual life, can be “safe” as a general matter. They can only be “safe” for specific persons at specific times, because each person has different needs at different times of life. “Safe spaces” curtail or cut short conversations or dispositions which may be offensive to one person but which may be necessary (even if temporarily) for another’s development. And because of this, we can only create truly “safe spaces” in specific settings with specific persons. A generally “safe” environment is a pipe dream. And online forums can never really be totally “safe.” They can only be moderated and censored for certain topics and perspectives determined by vocal majorities.

In life, “safe spaces” usually organize around insecurities. In “safe spaces,” we don’t bring up particular issues or topics or perspectives because of someone’s fears and insecurities, and the danger of “triggering” them. But friends know that life cannot always bend around our fears. At times, friends work within the bounds of our insecurities and, at other times, friends challenge them. At least, real friends do this.

This is another reason why online forums, whether they be Facebook groups or Twitter feeds or magazines, can never replicate actual human relationships. The bounds for “safe spaces” are insecurities, which can only be truly understood by those who know us personally and who will also know when and how to push against these bounds. They know that sometimes we need to be pushed, even when we don’t want to be. And they will be there with us, to hold and support us even as they challenge us. In this way, real-person “safe spaces” are totally unlike those we find online.

Now, I don’t mean to argue that we shouldn’t have Facebook groups, or online forums for help and support. For many, such spaces can be a helpful way to begin processing certain questions and to connect with like-minded people. I’d simply like to caution people who engage in such forums, and encourage them to step out of them into real life.

These forums can never replace actual human relationships. The danger in using them is that we’ll prefer the internet to reality, using its “safe spaces” as an escape, a sort of digital hallucinogenic. And we’ll believe that the ease with which we engage in online conversations indicates flaws in the world around us, rather than ourselves. The world waits for us, the world outside the computers screen.

If you’re struggling to cultivate a fuller life outside of social media and are wondering where to begin, I suggest four things here.

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