Last week was kind of a weird week for me–and it kept getting weirder and sadder for everyone.
I won’t go into my personal stuff here because it’s personal (she wrote, on her blog), but suffice it to say that there were a few things going on in my life and my head that preoccupied me more than blogging or writing or other projects. Such is life when we care about the creatures and people around us. It is intensely rewarding and–in my view–is the only real reason for being here, but it can also be scary and stressful and painful. Withdrawing often feels like the easier, safer option.
It’s hard to be productive when you’re working through things, so I spent a lot of last week just passively on the internet, which for me means lots of reading. Which last week meant a lot of thinking about safety on college campuses for students of color and what it means for any particular group to have a safe space and why the idea of one is often met with such derision.
So I was already wrapped in my thoughts about this when Beirut happened and when Paris happened. These are great tragedies part of an ongoing tragedy. The millions of people fleeing from Syria aren’t safe and may not feel safe again for a long time–if ever. The people of Paris and Beirut certainly won’t feel safe, even if they are brave in the face of it. They’ll be thinking about explosions and gunfire whenever they go out. They may not worry about themselves, but they’ll worry about their friends and their families.
And just to bring all that home even more, on Monday we learned that the college closest to here had closed for fear of a missing student with a gun. Now, we don’t live that close to the school, so I’m not much concerned for my own safety, but it was still unsettling to think of all the students whose lives and educations have now been interrupted because of one man with a deadly weapon. Which is another story we hear all too often.
It’s trite to point out that safety is largely an illusion. It’s more helpful (in my view) to say that safety is a product of the social contract by which our society is affirmed. It is not inherent to human nature; it is an agreement we make with each other not to harm one another and to pay the penalty of law if we do. But it’s still a privilege to feel safe anywhere, one not enjoyed by all people or even really most people. The agreement doesn’t extend to everyone in the same way. It’s flawed because we’re flawed.
We do harm, much more harm than we should. It’s not always bombs and bullets, but it can do damage just the same, in part because there’s no limit on it. If someone verbally harasses you, how do you know they won’t go a step further and do you physical harm? If a man follows a woman down the street, how does she know he’ll simply lose interest after making crude comments? The contract has already been broken; after that point, anything can happen. And a sense of safety is knowing on a day-to-day basis, what other people will do in a public space. That they will obey certain principles.
Now, some people’s sense of safety is less fragile than others. They feel secure in their position and their expectations of the world are often fulfilled. Which is why it’s more shocking to some people when horrors take place in cities like Paris. Beirut doesn’t shock us, because Beirut is not a place we conceive of as safe.
So, how we create a safe space? With rules for people to follow–laws in the broader society. But we know when multicultural student centers are vandalized or whole schools are shut down or yes, when cities come under attack, that the outside can infringe on that safety at any time. It doesn’t make the idea of a “safe space” ridiculous, though. It makes it that much more precious and worthy of protection.