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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

safe space

(1980’s | therapese | “refuge,” “safe place”)

“Space” has displaced “place,” and it has happened in my lifetime. When I was young, perhaps the relatively advanced used “space” for indoor places, but I still thought of it as an outdoorsy word: “wide open spaces,” “outer space.” And when it went inside, it meant a big area. (e.g., You’ll need a lot of space to set up that home entertainment center.) But by 1985 you might have heard the word with reference to a performing venue, a gallery, possibly even a room in one’s apartment. We still use “space” to denote the rest of the universe, but I don’t think “outer space” sounds as normal as it did, and “wide open spaces” is an anachronism. You might have heard “inner space” in the sixties, though that referred to one’s psyche or whatever passed for it. There has been a change, but why? and how?

By the early eighties, “safe space” had emerged, both as a general term and as a name for institutions serving vulnerable children, particularly victims of physical abuse. By the late eighties, battered women (that expression sounds out of date, doesn’t it?) or LGBTQ people (not that they were known as such then) were developing their own. From the beginning, “safe space” meant a place where one would not be subjected to violence, and the definition grew quickly to encompass other kinds of persecution as well. The phrase is used literally on occasion, even now, about a child’s playground, for example, but in everyday use it’s about more than well-designed swingsets, or even armed guards preventing muggings. A safe space demands a certain attitude or point of view, which means contrary acts and ideas are not welcome. The argument goes that in certain times and places, freedom of expression for some does not outweigh others’ need to feel unthreatened. Sometimes it’s a strong argument, sometimes it isn’t.

A safe space is where you don’t have to defend yourself, or be on the defensive. You don’t have to be particularly empathetic to see why victims of child abuse or gay-bashing would benefit from having somewhere to escape to. But safe spaces, particularly on college campuses, have proliferated in inverse proportion to the actual need for them — the less danger, the more safe spaces. It’s unwise to be glib about this; gays and lesbians remain targets, although younger people are more likely to accept them than in my day, and trans people have no choice but to stay vigilant — partly because they have begun to raise their voices and demand respect from the rest of society. But when I visited a small liberal-arts college in the New York metropolitan area last year with my girlfriend and her daughter, I was struck by the sheer number of safe spaces. Before long, it became clear that the ones who really needed a safe space were the right-wing kids. The traditional scapegoats and targets were amply palisadoed, with safe spaces in every direction — in much better shape than beleaguered College Republicans. (The College Republicans can’t decide if they should proclaim that they have no need for safe spaces or declare themselves victims of left-wing oppression.)

We go on a lot more than we used to about safety and security, with “safety is our number one priority” having become a ritual declaration not just from amusement park operators but from government officials, school superintendents, or hospital administrators. AIDS and terrorism are responsible for a lot of the increased focus on safety; AIDS brought us safe sex and 9/11 brought us Homeland Security. Life generally doesn’t seem more perilous than it was fifty years ago, but we have become accustomed to unctuous reassurance from our officials and leaders and put ourselves in the position of children looking up to our guardians, who protect us without sharing disturbing details about their methods. Now that consumerism has turned us into a nation of three-year-olds, we’re all set to devolve into hero-worship, revering those who protect us even as they take our money and make our day-to-day lives more tenuous. The safe space has had its own little revolution within a much larger one, in which the unattainable goal of absolute safety has replaced our old ideals of freedom and justice. We know there’s no way the government can keep us safe from everything. How hard do we want it to try?

Another chewy expression proposed by Lovely Liz from Queens. C’mon, faithful readers, don’t make her do all the work. Send your suggestions to usagemaven at verizon dot net.

February 5, 2018: Lovely Liz from Queens made a further point on the evolution of “safe space,” which I will make bold to relay: Originally, in therapeutic settings, “safe space” implied freedom to explore one’s emotions, to say what one was not able to say anywhere else — in other words, where it is safe to speak without fear of reprisal. It granted “freedom to.” But now “safe space” grants “freedom from” fear, persecution, violence, etc. It has become a redoubt rather than a field of exploration. What both senses have in common: creating a setting where you can let down your inhibitions and set aside the restraints that make it possible to get through the day in the world at large.


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