The author of the term ‘safe space’ is regarded by some commentators as Kurt Lewin, a psychologist who, in the 1940’s, was asked to help develop leadership training for corporate bosses. Interestingly, Lewin was a Jewish academic who left Europe after the rise of Nazism and moved to the United States. Out of his work came the invention of ‘sensitivity training’ which was a form of group discussion. Staff could give honest feedback to each other to allow people to become aware of their ‘assumptions, implicit biases, and behaviours that were holding them back as effective leaders’. Practically, this meant that there was an explicit rule that everyone agreed to at the start of the group. A ‘safe space’ was created, confidential and free of judgement, to allow people to mention views and concerns without fear of being condemned for them, on the understanding that they were open to other perspectives.
On 18th February this year 3FF organised an open public discussion about faith, sexuality and gender identity. This involved, as is the case with all 3FF facilitated discussions whether in schools, universities or the public square, the setting up of a safe space. In line with Lewin (though clearly not replicating his approach), this space enabled the participants to proceed with both the courage to express personal views and feelings, and the sensitivity to listen to and respect the views of others. In this sense such space needs to hold both right and responsibility – no easy task.
The difficulty of holding these two principles together has surfaced of late in the no platforming policies of universities (though lauded by many as an important policy, ‘no platforming’ has also attracted criticism for barring important viewpoints), and in the continued difficulties faced by teachers in handling controversial issues (students and teachers face challenges in handling taboo topics often because these “hot” social issues can lead to emotional outbursts and interpersonal conflict).
This uneasiness with complexity and controversy does perhaps reflect a yearning for safety in a dangerous world, but it also risks feeding the need for protection to such an extent that we begin to associate ourselves too quickly as victims or potential victims. Rather than this, we need the opportunity, capacity and confidence to engage constructively with those who hold the power to pose threat, whether perceived or otherwise.
Whilst the importance of protection from irresponsible and potentially harmful opinion and propaganda must be recognised, we need to remain confident that we have and can build the skills to handle controversy and disagreement. How else can we work through and with complexity? How else can we understand those different to ourselves? How else can we understand our own assumptions and biases, and responsibly challenge those of others? How else can we generate new knowledge?
There is a need to keep working at crafting the kind of space we need, to have the conversations that are needed. Which is why 3FF will be launching a new ‘Hard Talk’ initiative in September. The purpose of this initiative is to support teachers in the management of safe spaces in which young people aged 16-18 talk about challenging and sensitive issues relating to faith, belief and identity. Through carefully managed, facilitated discussions, young people will create ‘manifestos’ which represent and explore the complexities of difficult issues as understood by them. Content will be driven by the needs and interests of the young people involved and manifestos disseminated through a variety of means, and to a variety of audiences including peer groups, the staff of educational establishments, and local and national policy professionals.
Without the continued crafting of spaces that allow for honest, challenging discussions, our caution may inadvertently deepen our insecurities.