The Cornered Cat
Safe Space

At first glance, this long-ish post will seem to be a little unrelated to my usual topics. But it does apply in many different ways, since self-defense and self-care and conflict resolution are all very closely linked. And since anyone who owns a gun and carries one in public for personal protection might sometimes need to come to grips with the effect our choices have on others. Do the people around us have a “right” to feel comfortable with our choices? Do we have a moral obligation to limit our choices to only those that help others feel comfortable? These are some bedrock issues in many ways.

So I’ve been ruminating on this one for awhile. Forgive me, but I’m going to indulge in a somewhat extended analogy as a way of exploring some issues. If you have a hard time transporting a logic chain from one domain to another, you may not enjoy this. Or you may enjoy it, but miss the point. For that you have my sympathy. Nevertheless, here it is.

Some time back, I came across a blog post written by a woman in the early stages of recovery from alcoholism. In that post, she told the story of a planned get-together among a group of casual friends who knew each other primarily through their shared volunteer work. One of the women invited the others to come to her home for a mid-morning, midweek social event that the blogger was really looking forward to attending.


In the midst of the flurry of group emails planning the event, one woman offered to bring Prosecco. Cue angst and a bit of anger from our blogger. She writes, “The meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. Day drinking while the kids are at school. I can’t go there. It’s not that I’m nervous I might relapse. I know I won’t. I just can’t go hang out at someone’s house where there is alcohol being consumed at that hour and I won’t be able to enjoy myself … I have made a very conscious decision to limit my exposure to mommy drinking. It’s not that I can’t go; it’s that I don’t want to go. I don’t want to force a smile and fake my way through what will be extreme torture for me.”

In short, this newly-recovered alcoholic wants a safe space, where she can – if only for a short while – enjoy the pleasures of socializing and getting to know new people without the stress of being pressured to drink. Or having to explain why she’s not drinking. (This is, apparently, a non-trivial undertaking in some circles.) She adds: “I feel so defeated. Less than. And, I have never cried so hard or been so physically ill over something that doesn’t involve death or a broken heart.”

Thought Experiment

Now for a thought experiment. Just, you know, to try some ideas on for size.

Let us pretend for a moment that among this same group of friendly acquaintances, there is another woman who sometimes feels panic-sized levels of discomfort during social events. Stipulate that she has had poor luck with most prescribed relaxants, but has discovered that a glass of wine helps her calm down to the point where she no longer has to force a smile and fake her way through a social occasion that would otherwise be extreme torture for her.

She, too, desires a safe space where she can – if only for a short while – enjoy the pleasures of socializing and getting to know people in an environment where she will not feel pressured to be someone she’s not. She, too, feels stressed and unhappy when she thinks about the social pressures others might bring to bear to stop her from doing what she needs to do for her own mental health at that time and in that place. And she, too, feels like weeping – but instead of weeping at the stress of being surrounded by drinkers and feeling pressured to drink, she feels like weeping as she thinks about how hard it would be to be the only one drinking or about having to deal with the group without a glass of wine in hand.

With me so far?

Either one of these women, the real one and the one we just imagined together, might have friends willing and able to accommodate her need for a safe space on this issue. But both of them together… well, let’s just say that it would be difficult for them to share a space without a lot of goodwill and care on both sides, because the conflict is binary: either there is, or is not, drinking at the event. One or the other of them would have to give up her own need in order to accommodate the other’s need.

The space would be “safe” (read: comfortable, with an alternative of truly extreme discomfort) for one of them, but not both of them.

Extend the Idea

We can extend this idea to any number of other conflicts that are binary in nature: one person wants to relax with a cigar, another wants to breathe in a smoke-free environment. One couple wants to teach their children how to dine in an exclusive, fancy restaurant; another wants to enjoy a rare evening blessedly free from the sights, sounds, and smells of small children. One woman wants to relax among her friends without worrying about her choice of words; another finds the sounds of F*** and P**** and D*** and similar words highly offensive and wearying, and wants to enjoy a visit without hearing those words – and without having to explain them to her young child. One person wants to bring his abuela’s favorite recipe to a get-together, and another cannot stand spicy foods or is allergic to a key ingredient.

A little help for the analogy-impaired: sometimes, people get really wrapped around the axle about whether a firearm is – or is not – present in any given place. Shall we allow firearms here, or forbid them there? Sometimes this gets tangled up with “open carry” vs “concealed carry” vs who owns the property vs human rights that apply everywhere a person goes vs all sorts of other things. In every case, when you think about it, one person’s comfort often comes at the cost of another person’s freedom.

Do you find your sympathies naturally shifting alignment as the subject shifts? It would be unusual if you didn’t. Human nature at work there.

The way it used to be

I can vaguely remember this, from early childhood …

it used to be…

… that in cases where the wishes (or outright needs) of one person in a social group seemed to conflict with the wishes (or outright needs) of another, the people around both of them would voluntarily work to reduce the binary nature of the conflict – making it less either/or wherever possible. And this was normal, not forced by law.

For instance, a business owner might offer separate seating arrangements for people who did, and did not, wish to smoke. Or, even even more commonly, the smoker might say to the people around him, “Do you mind if I smoke?” and (here’s the kicker) it would be an actual question. Maybe a restaurant owner would invite families with young children to dine earlier in the evening, reserving the later hours for couples who wished to dine in an environment that did not include sobbing toddlers. People with different dietary tastes and needs created the idea of a group potluck, which often included an elaborate system of etiquette wherein everyone in the group pretended not to notice that the only person who ate Aunt Jane’s fruitcake was Jane’s husband (who under that same system of etiquette, didn’t dare not). Even the woman with the potty mouth would restrain herself in certain environments, and among certain people.

This didn’t always work as perfectly as everyone might wish. But as long as there was some effort on all sides, and some goodwill, that ad hoc system of gentle accommodation worked well enough for most people, most of the time.

But now?

Now we want a huge number of things to be regulated by force of law. And by golly, if there’s not a LAW forcing us to do (or not do) a thing, well, screw you for asking us to voluntarily restrain ourselves in any way. How DARE you?!

So there’s that.

Social Pressure and Law

Now let’s add another layer of complexity. Back to our first two women, the blogger who wants to enjoy an alcohol-free social event at 9:30 in the morning on a weekday, and our imaginary sociophobe who needs a glass of wine to counter her social anxiety in the same setting.

What shall we do about them, when they show up in our own social circles?

Shall we go on social media, and shame the alcoholic for being an uptight, controlling prude?

Or shame the sociophobe for her self-medication with an intoxicant?

Shall we lobby for, and pass, a law that forbids any social daytime gathering that includes alcohol?

Or should we pass a law that forbids any gathering that fails to allow alcohol?

Either of these social media interactions, and either of these laws, could be presented to others as a way to be caring and inclusive and socially just. Either of them could be considered a way to help an oppressed segment of the population.

And either of them would be equally oppressive to a different segment of the population.

Totalitarianism is comfortable … for someone.

Time to wrap this thing up. The only conclusion that I have here is that a free society includes some discomfort with the choices others make. Sometimes this discomfort will become quite severe, even disabling. And sometimes this will include choices others make that actually do affect your life in some way. It’s all very flattering for us to think of ourselves that we are super-tolerant of other people, but most of us are only tolerant as long as others’ needs do not conflict in any way with our own. As discomfort rises, tolerance declines.

We can opt to live in a totalitarian society. In a totalitarian society, everything not commanded is forbidden and everything not forbidden is commanded. The laws either forbid the things that make us uncomfortable, or require the things that we think will help us feel better. We can even choose to live in a totalitarian society without that type of law, because with cooperation from people around us, we can force our personal preferences on others just by social pressure alone.

Or we can opt to live in a free society. In a free society, people make choices and sometimes those choices cause discomfort in other people. In a free society, we will sometimes be on one end of that previous sentence, and sometimes on the other end. In a free society, we can voluntarily choose to make room for other people’s needs, but there’s no law forcing us to do that. There’s also no law forcing us not to do that. We then need to figure out our own ways through social muddles, and sometimes that’s going to be messy. Worse, in a free society, some  people will choose to be jerks about things and that means that other people will be left crying. In a free society, we can personalize how we deal with people who do that. And in a free society, we are never forced to do things we ourselves find distasteful – although we might voluntarily do just that in order to take care of those around us.

Bottom line

The cost of freedom is discomfort.

And the cost of comfort is freedom.

Choose wisely.

3 Responses to Safe Space

  1. larryarnold says:

    “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”

    College freshman woman at a program: “Mr. Arnold, don’t you think it is the duty of University Administration to provide safe spaces to keep us from being stressed?”
    Me, on a panel: “Nope. I think it’s the duty of Administration to push you into the deep end of the pond, so when you go out into the World you’re ready to swim with the big fish.”
    I got applause.

    Back in the day (1990s) I was a technical writer for an IT company. About half our programming team were Texans, most of us into hunting. The other half was from India and countries nearby. They were vegetarian. Every couple of weeks we did a covered-dish lunch. That took diplomacy, but we were too good a friends to let diet get in the way of fellowship.

    “Hate is always foolish; love is always wise.”
    Dr. Who

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