People use the term “safe space” to mean at least two different things. I think it’s important to know which usage is being applied to whatever space you’re in.
1. Safe as in Peaceful
This kind of safe space means “this is a safe space for little conflict, no aggression, and everyone’s feelings are prioritized.”
2. Safe as in Shelter
This kind of safe space is usually related to centering marginalized people, not allowing oppressive (meaning racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, ageist, classist, etc.) opinions and behaviors to go un-checked. This is less focused on safety from conflict and more on having a shelter and a break from the effects of marginalization, as much as possible.
Each of these types of spaces has a different purpose and works in different situations.
I think the first type of space works really well for group therapy and small groups in general. Everyone can get to know each other, and people’s individual needs can all be taken into account. People can get to know where everyone is coming from, and people’s intentions can really be taken into account because you can trust them. In a small group you can take care of people’s needs regarding their oppressions and their individual journeys of learning in a more gentle way because you can realistically prioritize personal relationships.
I think the second type of space works well for bigger groups. In a big group it’s hard to keep track of everyone’s personality and history and really get to know them. People’s intentions are hard to read and they tend to be less open to gentle conflict and challenge because most people are strangers.
Whenever I’ve seen people attempt a “peaceful” kind of safe space in a large group setting, it tends to just prioritize people who support society’s status quo. Marginalized people are usually seen as aggressive, unfriendly, or mean for pointing out that something is harmful to them that wasn’t overtly hateful. If someone “peacefully” jokes about [something sexist] and a woman says “hey that’s harmful to me, I’m not laughing”, those running the group will often target her as the source of the conflict because the other person’s tone was jovial even if his content was harmful.
This space is not safe for her feelings or her mental health, but they are safe for this man’s jokes and feelings. At best, people moderating the space will consider each equally causing the conflict and reprimand both people. This is also not safe for her, because her pointing out harm is seen as just as violent as the harm and encourages her silence (“if you hadn’t said anything, there would be no conflict”).
In a smaller group, moderators could know each person and have time and space to work it out with them, but if you’re trying to keep the peace among a hundred or a thousand people, you end up just shutting down any conflict without space for processing on the part of the person expressing that they have been harmed.
I think of large “shelter from oppression” safe spaces with this metaphor:
Imagine a literal shelter from the storm. It’s raining outside, and has been your whole life. Some people are given umbrellas and raincoats and some are not. You are not given either, there is no where to acquire one, you’re always soaking wet, and often ill. People often ask you why you’re always complaining about the rain.
In that situation, if you’re offered shelter, you’d probably be thrilled and relieved!
In this shelter there are lots of people. Most have no raincoats or umbrellas, just like you. Some do have raincoats and umbrellas.
In this safe space (2nd type) the priority is keeping everyone dry. It is a safe space from the rain in particular. In this kind of safe space, if someone opens the window and lets the rain in, remaining dry under their raincoat, the priority is getting the window closed again.
People aren’t going to say “hey, hey calm down, be nice”if someone, in a panic, shouts at the person to close the damn window because they JUST got out of that damn rain! And they aren’t even the one who’s going to get wet so can they close it already!
If that person refuses to close the window, and tells that soaking person they are quite rude for disagreeing about whether or not the window should be open, the people moderating the space might remove the person in the raincoat.
This keeps this space safe from the rain. That’s the main purpose. The person who’s been removed may not feel safe to express their opinions, but that wasn’t what safe meant in that space. It meant “safe from the rain”.
These shelters are imperfect. Sometimes the people without raincoats can’t handle (for good reasons, sometimes because they are wet and tired) the stress of the argument between window-openers and others, and sometimes they’d rather be wet than do conflict. And that’s understandable. People who run these spaces are hopefully always seeking ways to minimize this effect, but ultimately if the safe space promised is “safe from the rain” that has to be prioritized.
If that’s what the shelter is labeled for, it is reasonable for people to have an absolute shelter from the rain, with no worries about whether “some rain” will be tolerated today.
Ideally I’d love every space to be both. I’d love for everyone to be warm and dry and open to gentle criticism and for people’s whole selves to have space to be weighed in every situation.
But we end up with safe spaces that have different priorities out of necessity, and that makes sense. For some people safety means they are allowed to express their fear and anger, for others that means shelter from conflict. Both kinds of spaces exist, and which ones I can deal with change day to day, personally.
I think it’s important for people to know what kind of “safe space” they are entering so that they know if their needs will be met in that space.
There is no such thing as absolute complete safety, but there are spaces with policies prioritizing different kinds of shelter and both are very valuable, it just depends on what kind of safety and which priorities you’re looking for.