Yes, Men Really Do Need Safe Spaces
Over the last few weeks an internet meme mocking ‘safe spaces’ has been making the rounds on social media. There are a few variations, but the general theme attempts to draw comparisons between 18 year old males (because, of course, males) in World War II storming the beach at Normandy while this generation of 18 year old males need ‘safe spaces’, because a coddling society has made them weak. The social changes experienced over the last few decades, including the breakdown of traditional gender roles, has caused a knee-jerk reaction from those who wax nostalgic for a time that never really existed for most of us.
This is damaging in a couple of ways. First, it continues to bind men into a limited range of expression. In the world of this meme, needing a safe space as a child or young adult to avoid bullying or harassment means you won’t be viewed as being manly enough. Limiting the types of emotions and experiences available to men is not only harmful, it can become dangerous over time. More on that later.
The perspective of this meme also perpetuates the myth that “safe spaces” are some type of softly lit, lemon scented rooms where kids go to avoid the world and eat graham crackers while talking about all the feels. Actually, that sounds pretty cool, but I digress.
Safe spaces actually emerged as designated areas in schools where kids, primarily LGBTQ kids, could rely on as being bully and harassment free zones. Stickers and other symbols became visible indicators of places where kids could go to be themselves, without fear of being beaten up. If a queer kid was being hassled in the hallway, they could easily identify people and places that were “safe”. More like a shelter in the storm for kids who were targets of bullying by peers, parents, teachers, principals, etc. Safe. It’s a big word for kids growing up in environments that are unsupportive or openly hostile toward them.
Another aspect that this specific meme misses entirely is that providing safe spaces to children or young adults, and having courageous soldiers defend our country without thought of their own demise, are not mutually exclusive. It assumes that giving kids a place to go when they feel unsafe somehow prevents them from growing into complete adults. Quite the opposite, when children are allowed to express themselves in a supportive environment, everyone benefits. Society ends up with more fully developed people who are capable of empathy and acceptance.
Positioning World War II soldiers against a safe space background is especially (likely unintentionally) ironic, since Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was largely dismissed or misunderstood as trying to avoid duty by the previous generation of World War I veterans. The devastating condition of PTSD was referred to as ‘shell shock’ and soldiers reporting symptoms were often viewed as being weak instead or suffering a very real psychological response to the horrors they experienced.
Because of the stigma associated with depression and PTSD, many individuals did not seek treatment. Rather than admit to the fragility of being human, far too many self-medicated with alcohol or were lost to suicide. Men are allowed to express anger and rage, but not sadness. When men attempt suicide they are not only more likely to succeed than women, they more frequently chose a violent and explosive death. Almost as though a more passive method would be viewed as less manly. So much compartmentalization in the name of preserving a limited definition of masculinity. So much wasted in an attempt to conform to society’s expectation of your gender.
We love the myth of either or designations. It’s easy and lets us blithely walk through life without much consideration of nuance. Men are either brave soldiers charging into battle or delicate flowers incapable of contributing and therefor unworthy of the title “man”. The reality is that human emotions are dynamic and fluid; crying is a moment in time, not a lifetime commitment. That emotion you’re tamping down is going to come out somewhere, and odds are that somewhere isn’t going to be good.
As a society, we’ve progressed and learned. We’ve realized that people shouldn’t own other people. We’ve realized that husbands shouldn’t beat their wives. We’ve also deepened our understanding about the fragility of being human and that bullying or abuse is not a rite of passage. It doesn’t build character, it breaks people. And when we people have been broken, they need help, not toughening up. We’ve also realized that our capacity for emotional expression is huge, regardless of gender. Men, embrace your humanity and continue to encourage others to join you. Don’t let a meme generator dictate your expression as you walk through the world.