Safe Spaces and Echo Chambers, How Progressive Movements Stagnate Themselves

04/13/2015 01:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

It was a conference just like any other conference I'd attended over the last few years. Small, maybe a hundred people, and housed in an abandoned music room in the arts department, the sound of oboes and trombones and violins slightly muffled by soundproof walls floating in the air. That day the topic was body politics, fat acceptance, and advertising but as I walked up to pick up my registration I saw faces I knew from my other avenues of activism. People I worked with in a reproductive justice framework. People who were doing amazing things in an anti-racist context.

The issues that surround any fight for human rights always intersect, and a lot of times these conferences and panels and lunch-and-learns have a lot of crossover, folks who are fighting tirelessly against an oftentimes unyielding opponent. Maybe this is why I always feel so at home tucked away in libraries and hallways and empty lecture halls. There is a comfort in being among people you know are on your side, like being wrapped up in the world's warmest, most progressive blanket. When you are there you get to let your guard down a little. You get to speak your mind knowing you aren't speaking alone. You feel welcome. Supported. Safe.

I walked up to the check-in desk right as a young woman was wrapping up her registration, her pep radiating around a room that was under-caffeinated and up much earlier than most of its occupants were accustomed to. She excitedly told the volunteer about everything from her homemade silk-screened tee shirt to her friend who backed out at the last minute with a headache she KNEW was a hangover. "Thank you so much for putting this on, you guys," she said, affixing her name tag to her chest, the "i" in Ashlie dotted with a heart. "I am so excited to be here you have no idea." The volunteer just scowled at her, eyes rolling, and pointed to the laminated sign taped to the front of the sign-in desk.

"Your use of the word 'guys' to describe that staff here is transphobic and does not create a safe space for the LGBTQI community."

"I'm so sorry..." Ashlie with an "i" had stammered. "I thought it was just a saying... I didn't intend...."

"Sayings like that do not create an inclusive community. Mispronouning people just isn't acceptable here."

"I understand. Again, I am sorry," Ashlie with an "i" had said, and I watched as the excitement she was so unable to contain just a few moments prior drained from her face, becoming more muted than the sounds of the string quartet practicing down the hall. I grabbed my PowerPoint printout and followed her, watching as she folded herself up origami-style in the very last seat of the very last row of the lecture hall, her hands tucked in her lap and her eyes affixed to the screen of her iPhone. She stayed that way through the panel introduction and through the icebreaker, where she had dutifully listed her pronouns (she/her) and her triggers (rape talk). She barely looked up during the hour and a half discussion and didn't contribute during the open planning session. When we broke for lunch I looked for her, but Ashlie with an "i" and all of her exuberance were already gone.

Later we broke up in small groups to talk about how to address the body acceptance movement with our friends and peers, to share our efforts that had been successful so that we could replicate them elsewhere. "I dunno, it's sort of hard," someone had said. "I mean, all of my friends are already active in FA. So..." A few heads around the semicircle nodded, heads that I recognized from countless other roundtable discussions. I immediately thought of Ashlie and the intersection I had witnessed that morning. Ashlie, whose face I hadn't ever seen before. Ashlie whose voice we hadn't heard today. How many other Ashlies had gone unrecognized? I wondered. How many other people had been made to feel embarrassed, to feel small, to feel unsafe... all in the name of keeping things inclusive. What would have happened if ten years ago I was Ashlie? If someone had shut me down so abruptly despite my sincere regret over a misstep that I didn't even know I was making? Would I even be sitting there? Would I even be writing this?

I grew up in a small suburb of Seattle as an adopted person of color in a town where 92% of my tiny 120-person graduating class were white. The daughter of conservative parents, the only thing I knew about LGBTQ culture I had absorbed from five minute spurts of Will and Grace and whispered talks about my five-states-away Aunt's "secret." It wasn't until I started volunteering at a youth shelter in downtown in my late teens that I started to understand that the things I grew up hearing about welfare and race and class and gender were not only wrong but hurtful. I remember the first time I referred to a transgendered shelter guest as a he, not knowing that their preferred pronouns were she/her. The shelter manager had caught my eye and gently reinforced that yes, SHE wanted her laundry done, and later in the night they had pulled me aside and talked to me about how to deal with any accidental missteps I made in the future.

"I know it wasn't on purpose," they had said. "And I am sure they did too. This is new to you and you are trying your best."

From that night on I can't say that I was perfect, but I was decidedly cognizant. I understood that even though my actions were not intentional it didn't make them hurt any less, and that the simple act of trying to remain aware and working on it was important. I realized that I was ignorant to so many things simply because I had never been exposed to them. That my tiny snapshot of the world was so incomplete. That I had so much to learn, and still do.

What would have happened to me if I were in Ashlie's shoes, if my ignorance was automatically assumed to be willful stupidity fueled by hate? If I would have been written off and shut down and silenced just because I didn't know any better? And though Ashlie might have been my first face-to-face encounter with call-out culture it wasn't something I was a stranger to. In progressive circles the word privilege gets thrown around quite a bit, and in the age of the internet there always seems to be a virtual race to the top when it comes to who can point out someone else's -ism or phobia. Something someone said is always being pointed out as problematic. Someone is always using the wrong verbiage and someone else is always there to chastise them for it. It's a veritable game of "gotcha" and it never seems to end.

The thing is that in and of themselves none of these things are meant to be anything other than a tool to help protect people from the sort of hate and vitriol and abuse they face in the outside world. Safe space agreements are made so that folks can feel free to be themselves in an environment that is protected and supported. When utilized correctly that is just what they do. But what they normally don't do is make room for people who might be unknowledgeable about the heady and often academic ideals that fill these agreements. They don't acknowledge that understanding things like gender theory and privilege and the patriarchy is an act of privilege all its own. Too often in our rush to call out people's progressive infractions we forget to remember the difference between ignorance and willful stupidity and instead ham-fistedly group everyone into two columns: Us and Them. We filter everyone out with the finest sieve imaginable leaving only a select few behind and then wonder why it is that our ranks aren't growing. We complain that our movements are stagnating when we are the ones compulsively pressing the breaks. We keep shouting into echo chambers we ourselves have created wondering why the only voices we hear are our own.

The world is filled with Ashlies and 19-year-old Candices. People who are passionate and motivated and eager despite their lack of knowledge. People who want nothing more than to do the right thing even if they don't quite know what that right thing is. And while it is never the job of the minority to educate the majority if we ever want the majority to change, we need to examine our tactics. We need to step out of our safe spaces and the comfortable communities we have created and open ourselves up to people who might not think about things in the exact way we do. We need to stop having the same conversations with the same people and magically expecting a different sort of outcome.

We must learn to embrace people from all walks of life, at whatever stage they are in their learning process, before we can expect them to fully embrace our vital causes. Because if there is one thing I know from having been in Ashlies shoes it's this: People who are eager for knowledge will find it wherever they can, even if the only ones that are teaching it are wrong.