In an enlightening article on Little Atoms about ‘safe spaces’ and free speech, Marie Le Conte writes:
While discussions of identity and privilege online haven’t always been constructive in recent times, it’s hard to deny that this isn’t something cis straight white men will ever get. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they never get picked on, or that their lives must therefore be perfect; it’s just that they’ll never know what it feels like to be continuously attacked for what they represent, not who they are.
The phrase “its just that they’ll never know what its like” jumped out at me, because in its absolutist form I think its very wrong. Cis straight white men might not know what its like; and they will certainly never know what it is to be picked on in this way; but it is certainly possible that they can know what it is like to be picked on… because those who have experienced it can describe it to them!
This is the great value of language—in particular, metaphor and simile. It allows people who have no experience of something to have it described to them in a way that means they can empathise with someone who has experienced it.
Art (and particularly in my view, literature in translation) is an essential tool for achieving this. In reading the stories about people very different from ourselves, we can break out of whatever psychological box in which our particular race, gender or orientation has placed us.
My favourite example is In The Ditch (1972) a semi-autobiographical novel by Buchi Emecheta. The book tells the story of Adah, a Nigerian immigrant struggling to bring up her five children alone on a London council estate. I am neither black, an immigrant, a single-mother or a welfare recipient, but Emecheta’s literary descriptions of Adah’s plight conveys to me and other readers precisely what it is like to be in the metaphorical ditch of the welfare spiral. And it does so quite profoundly: I genuinely do not think it is possible to honestly hold hostile views towards immigrant welfare recipients after reading the book. Empathy with the character and the author is far too strong.
Countless novelists have written equally powerful works dealing with what it is like to be a woman in different social, cultural and country settings; what it is like to be a black person in a white-ruled country; what it is like to be discriminated against because you are gay… or indeed, what it is like to be bullied because you are different.
One reason I am pedantically picking on a particular turn of phrase in Marie’s essay, is that she actually deploys an excellent metaphor in support of her point that consistent discriminations, insults and hurt will rightly wear down the oppressed:
To someone with sturdy ankles, a mild fall will have little impact. To someone who once broke their ankle, the same fall may result in a greater injury. If the ankle was broken time and time again, even the mildest of falls may break it again. The fall is exactly the same in all three cases; the ankle isn’t, and neither will be the outcome. The same logic can be applied to, say, rape jokes.
This is as succinct and persuasive an argument against the suggestion that people are ‘coddled‘ as you are likely to read anywhere. I’ve never suffered the discrimination that women, black people or LGBTQ people might endure. But I most certainly do know what it is like… and I modify my political views accordingly.
As I say, I am acutely aware of the pedantry of this point, but it is important because political progress will develop faster and more smoothly if cis white straight men come to understand what it is like to be something other than cis, white, straight and male. They are capable of empathy, and those on the other side of the identity divide must never doubt that fact.
Far better that they empathise and ally themselves with people with of other races, genders and sexualities, than be hauled into the political future kicking and screaming: The more metaphors and similes that can be deployed in support of this goal, the better.
‘Safe spaces’ are necessary, both for the well-being of the people who seek them out but also intellectually. But they should not become places where those who enter choose never to leave. That would be intolerable, because it would be little more than a cultural prison. It would also cede the public space to the dominant culture… which would become the poorer for it.