When is a safe space a safe space?

// 27 May 2008

I was reading over the comments on the Jeremy Clarkson post by Kate Smurthwaite, and it got me thinking – particularly Rhona’s* comment. She said of female commenters (which I can assume included me):

“I also think it’s somewhat inappropriate to leap down a man’s throat when they attempt to offer an alternative viewpoint, particularly when they are commenting on a feminist blog. Is this not a friendly, open space to discuss and learn from one another’s povs? I frequently disagree with several F-Word bloggers’ points but I tend to take the opportunity to attempt to consider and learn from what they are saying, rather than totally disregarding it for not agreeing with my own opinion. Just a thought.”

Which I found gave me a lot of food for thought. Clearly, The F-Word is a site dedicated to sharing various feminist points of view, the more the merrier. The addition of commenting made my day, because suddenly you could get more than one person’s opinions on a post, and there was a chance to learn even more. Yes, it is important to consider where an opinion is coming from, especially if the person holding it looks like they have more personal experience with an issue. If it affects them more, or if they know more about the topic at hand, they’re definitely worth listening to, especially if you disagree with them. Listening to people with more experience than you is the main way of learning the bounds of our privilege, and unravelling societal influences on us.

At the same time, I have issues with how we define a safe space and what we consider to be fair criticism vs. what constitutes an unfair attack. The foundation of much current feminist discourse is that insults on an individual person’s actions are not acceptable, but that criticism, by which we mean deconstruction of an opinion or action are acceptable. We will always have disagreements, and it is only by exchanges where the opposing arguments are deconstructed and replied to that there can be any real education or personal growth. Sometimes this gets heated and personal, which is something impossible to avoid on a feminist blog.

I understand a safe space to be a place where members of an oppressed group can talk frankly about issues that affect them. It is an island in a world where their opinions are pushed aside, and a place on the internet where their opinions are not insulted or assumed to be wrong because they are different. In short, a safe space is there to serve the needs of the oppressed, not the oppressor. This means that their opinions are the ones that are most important, because they are the ones with direct experience of the topic, and the safe space was created to give them a place to share those experiences and related opinions, without having to deal with a lot of dissent or being silenced by the privileged, who after all have the entire rest of the internet to be heard.

This isn’t to say that all people don’t have equal rights to an opinion, they do. And all people have the right to express that opinion where they see fit. However, each space has a right to govern which opinions should be given weight, and which would stop real discussion. I remember feeling pretty bemused at how feminist blogs used to not put up every comment, and used to worry that if I unwittingly wrote something wrong, I’d get banned or have my comments deleted. Hence, I was very careful in what I posted. But when I had been around a bit longer, and had more experience and confidence, two things happened. First, I had enough experience from reading comments to not ask the most repetitive questions, and try the best to educate myself. Naturally, I was just as inexperienced as the most helplessly misguided commenters you can get, not so long ago. I was grateful to those who took the time to explain, and who pointed things out gently, but I was also grateful to those who were a bit harsher. It stung, but it helped me realise where I was wrong.

Second, I realised just why we need to foster an environment that is nurturing to discussion and makes minorities feel welcome in their own space. I saw how even one privileged and fairly-well meaning commenter, or plain troll could quickly side-track a thread, or insist that they know better than the people who have experienced this. I saw many people claim that they know more than women, POC or LGBTQ people, or still believe that when it comes down to it, other people’s lives should be decided based on what makes someone else uncomfortable or comfortable.

In the real world, on most websites, and even on Top Gear, male commenters have the chance to have their voices not only heard and represented more than their fair share, but believed more. They, as men, are brought up to be forthright with their opinions, and to be confident to express what they think, regardless of the foundations of their experience. On the other hand, they should understand that we as women are brought up to be just the opposite. We’re told ‘Don’t be too confident! Who do you think you are, girl? Don’t be too arrogant. Nobody likes opinionated women, so you’ll never get married if you are so forward. Men don’t like smart women, so just talk less. Look interested, don’t disagree, and smile. Don’t make a fuss, don’t correct him, you’ll only embarrass yourself. Keep quiet. Why does it matter?’

This is the burden of what society expects us to be, and it’s a message we get over and over. From those who wish us well and those who don’t. Even as confident, eloquent feminists unafraid to speak our minds, it’s there in the background, something we ourselves fight with every day. Sometimes we win, sometimes it does. Especially when it’s safer for us to be silent.

The reason this is relevant is because in a mixed space, even when discussing gender issues, and even in a feminist space, if we don’t make an effort to address this, the societally-enforced pattern repeats itself. Men used to talking over women, or disregarding them in many ways, without meaning to or realising, will perpetuate this pattern, and women will be silenced. Whilst part of dealing with sexism is encouraging women to share their opinions, and trust in their experience, this can only go so far if they are still being talked over. By focusing on being especially attentive to the opinions of an already privileged group, we would be giving men an advantage, and they would probably take it, owing to their privilege. So it’s also up to male commenters to actively try and remember that they are likely to try and talk over women, and to actively try and really listen to women. Not only when it is convenient, but when women disagree with them and when they feel put upon. It’s easy to be an ally when you agree, but it is when you feel put upon as a privileged person, when you disagree that you need to think carefully and examine their experiences, and whether they might be more sensitive because it affects them directly.

In this way I believe it is vital that feminist discourse isn’t confined by having to temper feminist words and opinions to be more palatable to men because of their privilege, or give them special attention. Any opinion, male of female, can be examined. Whilst I believe a person’s specific choices are private, and should not be fodder for insults and personal attacks, choices themselves, and opinions need to be deconstructed and criticised, analysed from a feminist perspective. This isn’t easy, and needs to be done in a balanced way to not tip into attack, but it can be done.

By sheer virtue of being men, male commenters enter the discussion likely to be at odds with feminists, and this will cause friction. They will be in the minority, and have their comments analysed by many people at once. They will probably come into the discussion with privilege, and where this is evident, it will be pointed out to them. Where they have little experience in the issue, this will also be pointed out. It is necessary to remind the privileged that they enter a discussion with the danger of silencing those they supposedly support, and that it is up to them to be aware of their limited experience, and that things will not be tailored towards them.

If we have to spend time and effort paying special attention to men, or tiptoeing around their feelings, we will be putting them before the women for whom this space was really set up. We would be failing women if a feminist space became just another place for men to talk unchallenged or without criticism, with their opinions being favoured. We would also not be doing these men a favour, because criticising an opinion, analysing it and replying are to me an acknowledgement of the person. It says “I see what you have said, and I will read it, and I may disagree, but I will engage the argument.” To a woman, whose arguments all her life have been brushed under the carpet and dismissed without being engaged, serious criticism of one’s words isn’t an insult. It’s treatment as an equal, something I do not experience often. So I won’t feel sorry for the men I engage as equals willing to change, and willing to be allies, because they deserve to go through the same journeys of learning as everyone else, and have their opinion treated to the same consideration. I believe it would be far bigger an insult to treat anyone who disagrees as a lost cause, who is not capable of understanding, as a troll whose arguments shouldn’t be touched or examined. It hurts too much to have one’s beliefs ignored and spurned without being examined for me to willingly do it to someone else, when I feel they can be engaged.

However, that engagement won’t be light. In the end, it is the privilege of an oppressor (white as well as male, straight as well as white) that they can feel offended when treated equally, because they are not preferentially treated as they are used to it. This is something they need to get over if they truly want to be allies, and it’s something that needs work and isn’t easy. Yes, being in an environment where people disagree with you, and don’t give you your way, or your opinion special worth is shocking when you first start. It’s never easy starting to realise what you have, and the privileges you lose in an equal setting. But from what I have seen around the blogosphere, I think that not watering down criticism of the privileged is the bigger mark of respect and the biggest favour. It gives them a chance to learn, and to prove that they really do want equality, and really do want to listen to minority voices. It hurts, and all of us feel offended at some time or other because our opinion got short shrift, but I feel it is necessary to growth.

I do think it necessary that ad hominem attacks are kept to a bare minimum, because they are inflammatory, and don’t add to discourse and nobody, no matter how seemingly deserving really needs to be insulted. At the same time, The F-Word has only fairly recently allowed comments, and I think it is still working on its niche of exactly what to allow and not allow. Most blogs have one or two contributors, and clear bounds of which niche both the blogstresses and most commenters tend to fall in. The F-Word is deliberately meant to be diverse, so there is more chance of very disparate opinions clashing. To the contributors’ credits, I haven’t seen comments sink to useless levels, and criticism and debate may become heated, but hasn’t crossed the line as far as I know. It’s just something to bear in mind, because the environment here is unique in that it’s varied, and pitched at more than one level. I think that gives a lot of opportunities, but it does leave confusion and the potential for disagreements.

I won’t pretend that my thoughts on this are the right ones, or the only possible interpretation, so I thought I’d start discussion on this. In a feminist space, how far we should go to educate the more privileged, and the limits of what a space considers acceptable should be a topic of discussion in itself, because we can only gain beneficial discussion about other topics if we set up the right environment for it. I’d like to see what commenters, (men and women) think about this topic, so please feel free to add your opinion.

*Rhona, I hope it’s OK to discuss your comment here, although I understand if you’d like me to remove it. I didn’t intend to single you out, or pick arguments, or imply that you must be wrong, but as a mark of respect for your point of view, which in itself prompted a lot of thought on my account. So thank you.

Comments From You

Jess // Posted 28 May 2008 at 12:08 am

Anne, I’m really glad you brought this up – because I feel we haven’t had a proper discussion on the blog about the ‘safe space’ we’re trying to create with our commenting policy.

Interested to read peoples’ thoughts on this.

Soirore // Posted 28 May 2008 at 1:30 pm

To be honest, I am glad that the moderators/ administrators have control over this and haven’t invited more discussion.

When I first left comments here I particularly liked and noticed the criteria especially “We get to decide who is a troll” and “We get to decide what’s anti-feminist”. You are only a small group of contributers and I like to feel confident that you hold the readers’ interests at heart and trust you to not let offensive comments appear.

Additionally I like that a post has to be trolling, discriminatory, anti-feminist or particularly offensive to be excluded. It is important that you acknowledge people’s views even if they may be written in anger or wildly oppose another’s. Obviously I haven’t seen the posts you have excluded but as some that have been posted are contentious I assume that you’re not censor-happy.

Finally, regarding a space designed for women (or other groups) away from the “privilege of the oppressor”, I agree in theory with much of what Anne Onne said about men having the rest of the web to chat on. But think we should also be careful that we don’t judge a poster on their gender if they announce it or what we percieve their gender to be, based on their name, if they do not. It is true that many male posters state they are male but some may not and we shouldn’t assume that they are automatically a “them”; part of the patriarchal mainstream.

Alex B // Posted 28 May 2008 at 2:24 pm

I think there is immense value in dealing with opinions that differ from your own, whether in minor detail or on major principles. It’s surely one of the main ways you either confirm the validity of your opinions; modify them; or in fact discard them completely. I know in the past I have realised my opinions were in fact completely off the mark. I would not have realised this unless I had come up against opposing ones. That of course does not suggest that the fword does not have a right to reject comments for any reason. But I’d like to think this would mostly be limited to comments that are not conducive to respectful debate – comments that are disingenuous, or just outright offensive.

Anne, that was an interesting piece, and that I mostly agree with. Though there is one thing I’m not sure about, I can’t see how it follows that “By sheer virtue of being men, male commenters enter the discussion likely to be at odds with feminists”.

Jess McCabe // Posted 28 May 2008 at 4:12 pm

Thanks for the vote of moderatorial confidence, Alex B! I don’t think we’ve been too heavy handed, and rarely actually decline to post comments.

I think it’s worth noting that we say in the comments policy that this is a safe space for “feminists”, without getting into specifics about their genders. While there are certainly those that argue that men cannot be feminists, that’s not something The F-Word takes a position on; indeed, although we don’t have any men as regular bloggers, we do run feature articles and reviews by men.

I would agree with your comment about making assumptions about commenters’ gender on the basis of the name they give as well!

Rhona // Posted 28 May 2008 at 4:21 pm

Anne, no worries at all! In fact, I’m quietly flattered…;)

You have raised some interesting points here and, I must say, given me quite a lot to think about with regards to what constitutes a ‘safe place’.

I actually spent quite a lot of time last night thinking about this and also definitions of privilege. As a white, straight female, I realise that I’m pretty ‘out of the loop’ on a number of feminist issues and as I say, I’m always happy to listen and learn.

Good points, well made, raising interesting discussions – I *heart* the F-Word on days like these. :)

Anne Onne // Posted 28 May 2008 at 5:02 pm

Soirore, good one. Yes, I think there is definitely a space for feminist men (and even men who are trying to get into feminism, and want to find out more about it), and that places like the F word, which are really varied, and try to put forward multiple points of view are a good place for them to start.

I can’t remember which feminist had a post up about ‘giving the benefit of the doubt’ (I think it was at Feministe), but the focus of that post was that goving the benefit of the doubt isn’t assuming that the person is right, or on your side but giving them a chance to explain themselves, and engaging discussion. I should hope that there’s a place for men here to add their comments, whatever they believe, and that they will be engaged in debate in a respectful manner.

I do think it’s important to not try and single people out for the hell of it, or needlessly insult and antagonise people who are willing to talk and learn, and I especially respect people who go out of their ways to answer the simple questions and go through the feminism 101 stuff so that other feminist posts can be pitched at a higher evel and not interrupted by ‘what is feminism’ questions.

And I agree about learning and modifying opinions when you come accross mroe fact, and realise that there were thigns you haven’t considered. I have changed opinions on a lot of things over the years, and thoughtful feminist debate on blogs has been a huge part of that (lets face it, we don’t get that kind of discourse in the main stream media!).

It’s just that it’s not always relevant to a discussion to ahve to explain the basics of feminism, and I stand by feminists who don’t want to spend their time explaining everything to newcomers (male or female, but especially male), or focusing on issues that affect men. Sometimes, a particular post isn’t the right place to bring up a topic, or get side-tracked by people who are new to feminism, or disagree with feminism as a whole.

Alex B, I was trying to say that as men, they would be much more likely to not realise how sexism affects women, because it doesn’t directly involve them, and that as privileged parties, they are more likely to see feminism as trying to take something away from them. I don’t mean to imply that men, by virtue of being men are not feminists (I hate essentialism), but that in today’s society, they are privileged more, so they would me more likely to be suspicious of feminism, since everybody concentrates on how things affect them the most. I could have been mroe careful with my wording there, so thanks for pointing it out. :)

Jess, interestingly enough, it was a post by a man on the F word that led me to this site! It was a post by a man who was writing about how he didn’t realise how much harassment and fear of rape was a part of womens’ lives until he talked to his students. I came for that, then stayed for the Uk centric focus, and the lack of huge comment threads, and now it’s a mainstay of my feminist reading.

Rhona, I’m glad you don’t mind.

Yeah, as a person who is privileged in many ways, and oppressed in a few, it’s important to try and fight for equality even where it doesn’t affect us, and to support those who it does. I admit I have a lot of privilege to work out, ant to me, the feeling of when I am oppressed, and how it affects me makes it much easier to imagine what it must be like for other people, in a kind of ‘Do unto others…’ kind of way. Actually that phrase underpinned my upbrining as a kid, and pretty much formed the basis upon which my feminism grew.

I wonder how you can explain oppression to someone who is theoreticaly unoppressed, ie a rich, het, cisgendered white Anglo-Saxon man? So much of how I explain privilege depends on finding the person’s experiences where they have been oppressed, to help them empathise, but trying to explain it to someone who hasn’t experienced anything of the sort is more challenging.

Alex T // Posted 28 May 2008 at 7:24 pm

A very interesting and thoughtful piece, Anne. It really chimed a chord with me because of my name: I’m a woman, but people often assume I’m a man (on the f-word more than once). Sometimes I make it clear that I’m female, sometimes it’s irrelevant, and sometimes I allow people to think I’m a man (you’d laugh if you saw me – I’m very petite and womanly!)

I really don’t know whether to make my gender clear or not when commenting. Sometimes it’s amusing to let people dig themselves into holes when they think I’m male; sometimes I think it shouldn’t matter – and it’s my name, it’s what everyone calls me and I don’t want to be called anything else; and sometimes I wonder if actually I benefit from people thinking I’m male.

Sometimes it goes the other way, and if I’ve unwittingly posted something that could conceiveably have come from a man, then I’ve come in for more vociferous disagreement than I suspect I might have received as a woman posting on the f-word.

I know this is a bit off topic, but it crosses my mind every time I post on here. Should I make it clear that I’m a woman? Should I have to? Should I really have to think about it at all? Should I just call myself Alexandra (my full name) and stop worrying about it?

Any advice, anyone?

Jess // Posted 28 May 2008 at 7:59 pm

I really don’t know whether to make my gender clear or not when commenting. Sometimes it’s amusing to let people dig themselves into holes when they think I’m male; sometimes I think it shouldn’t matter – and it’s my name, it’s what everyone calls me and I don’t want to be called anything else; and sometimes I wonder if actually I benefit from people thinking I’m male.

Sometimes it goes the other way, and if I’ve unwittingly posted something that could conceiveably have come from a man, then I’ve come in for more vociferous disagreement than I suspect I might have received as a woman posting on the f-word.

I know this is a bit off topic, but it crosses my mind every time I post on here. Should I make it clear that I’m a woman? Should I have to? Should I really have to think about it at all? Should I just call myself Alexandra (my full name) and stop worrying about it?

Alex T – I get this all the time. My full name, the one on my birth certificate, is Jessica but – well, I hate it (sorry other Jessicas!), I’m ‘Jess’ professionally, to my friends, to my family – actually, they insist on “Jessy”. I don’t completely mind the ambiguity, either. Like you, I feel like Jess is just my name and everyone else should just deal with it.

The only time I’ve really considered using ‘Jessica’ is at work; because I write for an international magazine, I often have to call the US, where Jess is much more of a “boys’ name” as I understand it, leading to almost every single conversation with a new contact starting with “oh, I thought you were a man” (um, that makes a difference to answering my question about hydropower?) or “is that jessICA then?”, etc, etc. There’s a real instinct to check gender. However, I do also have a sneaking suspicion it “gets me in the door” with some contacts – maybe there is a bit of an advantage; it’s hard to tell.

I’ve never really encountered this on feminist blogs, but maybe I’m just oblivious to being misperceived :)

Anyway, I would just say there’s no reason to change your own name to fit other people’s expectations. Sometimes at work I add a pointed “Ms” in email responses, if someone has addressed themselves to “Mr McCabe”.

Anne Onne // Posted 28 May 2008 at 8:50 pm

Actually, I was thinking about writing a post tangentially related to the name thing…probably will! It was about the privilege around different identities and how people present, and how the name you choose online can affect the privilege you have in online discussions. Though I think that might be talking up my still-in-my-head-post a bit too much…

My two cents (pence?) are do what you feel fits you. I probably originally picked up an identifiably female name because identifying myself as female seemed important when interacting on feminist sites. Partly because at the start, I was worried about being dismissed as a troll, and identifying myself as female seemed a good way to say ‘hey, I’m not a troll!’. I think I’ve moved past that, but I don’t mind either way. I’ve had gender-neutral or masculine-seeming names online, and I don’t think it matters in most conversation.

I don’t think it matters what kind of name you choose, because when you comment regularly, you do reveal stuff about yourself, including your gender at some point. How considerate an opinion is, and how well the commenter owns up to their own privilege, and is willing to learn more is more important than the name that they use.

However, it is probably necessary in some ways when talking about personal experience (or rather talking about a lot of feminist issues from personal experience ends up revealing your gender).

And for some reason I don’t assume the names Jess or Alex are male, I’d probably assume the opposite! I mean, I pretty much assume that most commenters of feminist sites are women, because most comments tend to reference experiences that women go through.

For some reason, though, I do feel it important to own your privilege if you have it. I would feel uncomfortable talking about LGBTQ issues without the disclaimer that I identify as heterosexual, because it reminds me of my privilege, and that I should be careful not to silence those for whom the space and discussion was intended. It also means that others in the conversation know where I’m coming from, so can better understand the limitations of my answers, or point out my privilege.

Therefore, whilst I don’t think it necessary to outright point out your chosen gender every 5 minutes (or pick a really gendered name), I do feel that it’s best if commenters use their discression to declare their interests on a sensitive issue.

You can normally guess from the comment whether something is coming from a privileged background or not, but it’s a mark of alliance on the part of the privileged party, IMHO, to declare that they don’t have personal experience, because it shows they understand the issues are not about them. To be honest, this usually happens anyway, because part of sharning an opinion usually involves an explanation on how it came to be held (by you), and polite disclaimers on where it’s coming from. I think that since gender (sexuality, gender identity, race, class etc) does have a very real impact on how people see the world, and what they experience, it also plays an important role in online discourse about these subjects. Whilst I don’t think it’s as important as the people’s opinions, and hwo considerate and thoughtful they are, it adds context.

To put it another way, I’d find it unsavoury if say a man deliberately pretended to be a woman on a feminist site in order to give his (usually anti-feminist) opinions credit, because he’d be claiming a set of experiences he never had, and silencing women who have really experienced it by making their issues about him. This is different to someone with an ambiguous name, because it deliberately sets out to decieve people about what they have and haven’t experienced. In that way, I think a certain amount of declaration of interests is important, because it reminds us from where we are approaching the subject, and whose experiences we should be listening to.

Alex B // Posted 28 May 2008 at 10:51 pm

In the interests of openness I would just like to declare I am a man. Alex is my real name.

Obviously my perspective is going to be different, but I’m here to learn and understand and offer an opinion where I think it might be of value – obviously other people might determine it’s not ;-p.

I would consider myself to be very far from a misogynist, but no doubt I have acquired behaviours and opinions that need analysis and alteration.

I do think it’s a bad idea to worry too much about WHO is saying something. Better to stick to the ideas and opinions put forth – ie worry about the WHAT.

Holly Combe // Posted 28 May 2008 at 11:38 pm

Anne: I agree with you about the pressure on women not to be arrogant and think the need for safe spaces arises because of the more subtle ways this pressure operates (as opposed to the more blatant ones). Sure, there are still people who openly say women shouldn’t be opinionated but I reckon even the mildest feminist tendencies are often enough to put a dampener on that sort of rubbish. IMO, the real danger to our free expression comes when unequal treatment is covered up in a flurry of lip service to feminism and women’s ability to be successful. I’d say it’s when we receive conflicting messages about strong women, but still find ourselves discreetly sidelined by those with more privilege, that we really need a space to call our own. I think it’s when it seems like there’s only room for one or two apparently reasonable women and everyone else must be irrational and unreasonable that the feminist-only (if not women-only) flags need to come out.

It seems there is a difficult balance to be struck. On the one hand, we need to be mindful not to end up buying into the sexism we criticise (i.e by taking it as a given that men will dominate a group setting while we women inevitably battle with our cultural conditioning to let them). On the other, I realise we can’t afford to ignore the more discreet aspects of male privilege and that we obviously can’t do that without acknowledging that, yes, there is a problem and, yes, we need to work that out without the demand to pander to men getting in the way. (I totally agree with your comment about offence at equal treatment and suspect that’s where a lot of the “the poor lost men don’t know where they are” laments in the media come from.)

We walk a fine line in feminist spaces. We teach each other to do-as-we-would-be-done-by and set a good egalitarian example but are also supposed to be firm in the face of the pressure on us to not make men feel uncomfortable with our forthrightness. I’d say my experience within the JC thread is significant here. I had a sense that I could either have set myself up as the Bad Feminist who leapt down a guy’s throat and lowered the tone of the debate with sarcasm or the archetypal caring sharing woman, going out of her way to include the men and make sure they didn’t feel attacked. I’m over simplifying somewhat but I do genuinely think these are often the dominant readings of female behaviour and that, as feminists, we sometimes end up contributing to the problems we highlight as well as the solutions.

Kristy // Posted 29 May 2008 at 5:11 am

(trying not to generalize here) but… i have noticed at uni in class (women paper) and on that blog this blog was made from, men tend to dominate the argument/conversation when they are one of a few men and many women and put themselves in the spotlight whether their opinion differs or is similar to other women. I’d say this is a problem!

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