Brave and Safe Spaces: bell hooks + Laverne Cox

bell hooks + Laverne Cox

I’ve recently found myself advertising a talk from November between bell hooks and Laverne Cox. This was part of a series hosted by bell hooks while she was at the New School, and I cannot emphasize how powerful, salient and accessible these talks are. To give a list of names, bell hooks speaks with Gloria Steinem, Janet Mock, Cornel West amongst others. If you’ve got a lazy Sunday afternoon to waste, there’s not a better way to do it.

I’ve been advertising this particular talk for a reason. Towards the end of it, hooks and Cox get into a brief discussion about the subtle distinctions between the concept of a “safe” space and a “brave” space. The main idea being that a “safe” space is one without true exchange while “brave” ones are all about exchange. bell hooks emphasized her preference for the brave space by positing it as a question about love:

“But I have to interrupt you because actually, I’m pretty critical of the notion of safety in my work, and what I want is people to feel comfortable in the circumstance of risk because I think if we wait for safety, the bell hooks that wasn’t sure if she could get on the stage with Janet Mock would never have gotten on that stage. The bell hooks that was afraid of ‘what if I use the wrong words, what if I say the wrong thing’ would have stopped myself. And so to me, I’m very interested in what it means for us to cultivate together a community that allows for risk, the risk of knowing someone outside your own boundaries, the risk that is love–there is no love that does not involve risk. I’m a little wary because white people love to evoke the ‘safe spaces’ and I have a tendency to be critical of that but I do believe that learning takes place in the harmonious space, the space that you and I are embodying tonight.” at 49:00-50:05, bell hooks “A Public Dialogue Between bell hooks and Laverne Cox

For love to exist, one must be willing and able to risk certain aspects of themselves. This risk rests in being able to expose elements identity with the fear of rejection and realizing that one’s community is susceptible to accepting those elements as part of human expression. In this regard, a brave space is a region in which communication across difference becomes possible, rather than a space caught in cathartic paralysis: we need not fear the full participation of its members, because there is an underlying assumption that we all trust the group to support us where we falter, and cheer us where we fly. This seems particularly relevant in a number of ways. First, it fits neatly in a long storied tradition about thinking critically about the concept of love. Hannah Arendt, in her dissertation on St. Augustine on love and her later work was particularly emphatic that love was anti-political. Politics, for Arendt, is the process of getting work accomplished through a spectrum of difference. Politics is the success of results despite vastly different orientation on a number of issues. Love, on the other hand, transcends difference. Love is a mode of transformation, where we all learn to recognize not difference but similarity. The reason why rhetoric about love is so powerful is because it selects and chooses from amongst the number of identities those which so firmly resemble our own, something that is politically powerful. Marx wrote about this as well. His sense of re-orienting the relationship between the person and the world was, in part, a sense of understanding the humanity inherent within alienating constructions like property and labor. MLK is less concerned with the act of love as passive, and neutralizing hate. Rather, love is something that fundamentally transforms the human condition. It is a new ontological perspective on existence that categorizes the individual in methods and means that had not previously existed; no longer is class primal for the socialist, race for the minority, nor gender for the non-cis male. Love orients both giver and recipient into a new form of relation, through which the world can be constructed anew. Second, it intersects with what seems to be the latest of panic topics about higher education: the question of discourse properly. If you tune to websites like, you’d believe the biggest issue on college educations is the censorship that seeks to insert partisan bias into the terminology of a discussion. Chris Rock recently came out and said the reason he’d stopped touring college campuses was because of a conservative movement, irrespective to politics, had taken hold in which “taking offense” had become the dominant paradigm for guiding conversations. At the University of Chicago, we had our own run-in with this question when Dan Savage came to talk about his work and life as an activist, and he used the t-slur despite being asked by a participant to not. Many of these writers develop large cases that fabricate themselves on their conjectured notions of the University: it is a place of inquiry, and of challenge, one in which we must acknowledge free speech becomes even freer since they function as Mill’s marketplace of ideas. Even in the latest slings of mud from the multi-culturalists, and the avant-garde post-structuralists, there is some base sense that a debate filled with facts and words is the best way to seek the truth of affairs. It is interesting to conceptualize how far we’ve come in regards to our ideas on truth and progress, and I think it speaks more to the range of perspectives often found in one camp that they find themselves rigorously stimulating each other in regards to furthering thought and discursive practice. That someone like Michel Foucault could simultaneously point out the nature of rules, structure and order, and how each of these aspects develop certain layers of cultural nuance often lost on its participants while actively participating in one of the most structured ordered societies in the world—the academy—shows how the power of paradox exists. When he asserts that he’d like to give the prisoners a voice, it is this very paradox of power and powerless that Spivak is so quick to critique. In this regard, traditional boundaries based on political separation no longer really apply. That’s what Chris Rock was getting at when he referred to the “conservatism” of censorship on college campus. It’s not about being for or against affirmative action, it’s about how one discusses the issue. This is a narrative that’s been going on for the better half of a decade, and I think it’s been thoroughly augmented that it does little to try and argue that “censorship” is not what it appears. That ship has sailed. Rather, I think it is worth thinking about the circumstances through which censorship has become a viable solution. As part of the general knee-jerk reaction away from the twenty-first century, we’ve seen a number of writers and journalists suggest the problem lies in the instantaneous reaction of social media. Instead of engaging in “civil” debates, the millennial generation can get away simply by blocking someone, or unfriending them. Such journalists suggest that we feel discourse must be controlled in a similar way, unfriending or blocking people in real life with whom we do not agree. In a similar narrative, such censorship can be viewed as the predictable result of the “Me” generation. Incapable of separating reasonable standards from those that satisfy ourselves, this lends itself particularly well to those liberal thinkers who desire to place the University in an unreachable location wherein it does its job when the student is made uncomfortable. These sort of sentiments allow older individuals and general supporters of the status quo to have a means by which they can combine the super-structural power of exclusion with a normative form of development: if you are not feeling uncomfortable, then you are not growing up. If you are feeling uncomfortable, everyone does, so get over it. If you’ve followed my varying rants on this blog, I think my problems with these narratives are pretty clear. The millennials aren’t monolithic, discomfort isn’t a monolith, nothing’s a monolith blah blah blah. But in the context of discussing why control has become so prominent in today’s circles, I’d liken it to bell hooks’ assessment of brave vs. safe spaces. And I would suggest the “why” is because there is a general lack of love on and off campus. When every other week, a new station for anonymous confessions appears and goes to trolls, there is no reason to believe a community is capable of the faith required for a brave space. Spaces in which discourse and debate have been allowed, traditionally, have been spaces where stakes were active. This is a new type of ideological control. After hundreds of years of underdevelopment, it is highly appealing to the neoliberal apparatus to allow all ideas to flow forth. The ones that emerge victorious are generally those with more years of labor, more thinkers and more reconciliations present than the ones who’ve recently started to become playable. We see this, even in the derision of traditional academia for the deconstructionists. Stuart Hall’s Birmingham School of Culture, Edward Said’s Orientalism, these are all examples of the first fruit that has been borne from what we might call the first century of proper resistance. Resistance that manifested itself not simply in the slaves running away, but also in the writings of authors like Frantz Fanon, W E B DuBois, Sojurner Truth, and Bayard Rustin. These are the intellectuals from which our first schools are properly drawn. Ultimately, there is still a fundamental lack of acceptance for the historical limits of possibility and a belief that the truth sets us free in a way that is not true of falsity. Unfortunately, even the most rational narratives of our past still produce what we have crafted them to produce: a justification, either transcendental or empirical, about our present state and the history that has gotten us here.


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