Where to put a voice

Graphic: Caroline Smith

Graphic: Caroline Smith

Must we repair the past in order to establish the future? Must we heal before we can fight? The endeavor for justice is manifold, and cooperation between sympathy and activism is lost in the overwhelming desire for change. When presented with victims, the best way to help is unique for each person. The first response is sympathy and consolation. Support systems and safe spaces are great starts. Another response to the victims’ experiences is anger—anger for change. Both responses have their place and involvement and action for one can exist without interfering with the other, but because of the high emotions running in both groups, there is often conflict over which is more time-sensitive: promoting change or consoling victims.

Safe spaces are healing communities—anything from a blog to an organized community group—governed by rules to ensure that the victim’s trauma is not triggered. They are forums where marginalized groups are able to discuss their experiences without feeling judged or shamed. They are places where people who already agree on certain points, such as contraceptive rights and the opposition to victim-blaming, can congregate. Since there is no need to discuss the points that members already agree on, they can move on to further nuances of their interest.

Even a classroom can be labeled as a safe space, just to acknowledge that it is a place where harmful behavior will not be tolerated at all. At college lectures, there may be a trigger warning and a safe space apart from the lecture hall. The sectioning off of one area as safe, however, has the effect of making the classroom seem like a war zone.  A high school classroom is safe and beneficial because there is no abusive language, but limits on conversation are also undesirable. There has been a common backlash against the idea of a restrictive environment because some argue that the lack of conversation create more damaging than beneficial. No one is endorsing the use of slurs, but rather, many feel that this idea of limiting conversation can only be harmful. It is widely agreed upon that talking about an issue is the only way to make steps toward a solution, but it is unclear if the emphasis on political correctness hinders conversation. In the classroom, teachers may not discuss issues of oppression out of ignorance, discomfort, or out of respect. By not putting any students in a vulnerable and heart-wrenching place, the class remains a safe space for them. Where, then, can we discuss these issues in a way that is guaranteed to be both thought-provoking and respectful?

Last Friday, many students participated in the GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) Day of Silence by taking a vow not to talk during the instructional hours of the day. Over 8,000 schools nationwide had participants who pledged to maintain a respectful, observant manner to reflect on the issues affecting the LGBTQI community and to raise awareness. There is powerful social justice and compassion surrounding the Day of Silence; it seems like a wonderful union of sensitivity and activism. The Silence is criticized by both sides, though, for not having enough of either. Students excuse their lack of participation with the case that silence does not help inform the student population significantly. Activism is not always about the numbers, though, and impactful exchanges with one person are just as crucial and as powerful as larger campaigns.

The fog of this conflict often veils the genuine tie between the groups: all groups involved are striving toward the same goal of acceptance. Instead of uniting with politically like-minded people to achieve social justice, though, we bicker over the exact path to getting to that place of equality. Why we let these fights escalate is a larger question. Are we too set in our beliefs to make sacrifices for a greater good? Are we unable to compromise details to make any strides in the right direction? We have a collective ambition, and there are viable paths that have the potential to support the others.

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