Defining Unsafe Spaces

One of the topics that comes up often in discussions of equality, diversity, and political correctness is safe spaces. Areas where a particular group is protected from encountering expressions (or even other groups) that they perceive as a potential source of trauma. These discussions almost always swiftly move to include how it’s a new thing, and previous generations did perfectly well without it. However, that isn’t true: lawyers turned most of the world into a safe space a very long time ago.

On Friday, I came across an article on people treating negative reviews of books they like as personal attacks. The author’s case was that people proactively jumping into a discussion of the merits of a book to claim offence had stifled a lively debate. The comments thread (unsurprisingly) contained a significant number of posts assigning blame to people for being weak or enabling, the targets of blame being (again unsurprisingly) split between the people taking offence for taking offence, the people being stifled by them for not ignoring/attacking the offended better, and modern society as a whole.

One consistent refrain was that of the negative impact of safe space on modern society; that the definition of places as not being suitable for certain topics or styles of discussion had protected people from the consequences of poor reasoning and weak self-esteem.

But it isn’t a new thing: lawyers have treated everywhere outside a court as a safe space for the public for a very long time. I, and most other lawyers I know, have stories of clients being horrified at how aggressively the lawyer on each side picks at the other side’s case, and stories of clients being shocked at those same lawyers strolling out of court and sharing a pleasant coffee.

The secret is that lawyers are trained and experienced in not treating the strength of an attack as a measure of emotional investment. Lawyers learn by arguing cases that never happened for clients that don’t exist, and practice attacking their own statements to find weakness. Lawyers enjoy having complex and forceful debates.

But if you run into a lawyer at a party, they rarely – if ever – shred your assertion that the Black Eyed Peas are better than the Wurzels; not because they can’t, but because they know not everyone has the same ability to separate challenging a comparison is different from judging a person.

And it isn’t just lawyers: decent people in all walks of life have taken other people’s feelings into account for a very long time.

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