South Park and Safe Spaces

Today I finished the most recent full season of South Park. The overall theme of the season is political correctness and how far some people will take it. In one episode, Cartman is fat shamed online and Butters is told that he must screen all of Cartman’s social media comments so he only sees the compliments. Butters then provides this service for other people and celebrities like Steven Seagal and Vin Diesel. Butters helps create a safe space for people who are shamed online.

Since South Park is satirical and there is truth in everything they show, no matter how over the top. I wanted to share the video of the musical number in that episode that I thought was important (and funny). If you are not a fan of South Park, cursing and all that then I would advise you do not watch the video and just skip down to what I have to say about it.

In the mental health community (as well as many other marginalized communities), there is a lot of talk about safe spaces. The Safe Space Network defines a safe space as:

A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.

Safe spaces are crucial to healing, problem solving and community. When a safe space becomes unsafe the consequences can sometimes be disastrous. Let me provide an example. A handful of years ago I volunteered to sit on a mental health task force at a local University. The particular committee I was on was headed by a Mad social work professor (a friend of mine) and a critical disability studies professor who was a Mad ally. I knew these two individuals, as well as some others who were there, were safe people so I felt safe in the room. One volunteer was a professor from the Journalism School and she made the space very unsafe. While we were all having a discussion on language, mostly surrounding how to keep the space safe we should avoid using words like “crazy”, “insane”, “psycho” etc. This journalism professor flat out refused to change her language, despite myself and another professor explaining that the language is historically linked to violence and cause feelings of violence and trauma within the bodies of people with mental health issues. This person did not care. It was more important to her that she be able to say what she wants (a journalism thing I was told). I later wrote an email to my professor friend telling her that I did not feel safe coming back to the group. My friend agreed that the space was now unsafe and that other volunteers had expressed similar concerns. In the end, the journalism professor went to a different committee that would possibly be a better fit for her.

We all need to have a safe space with “bullet proof windows”, “troll safe doors”, “no shame”, and “people that support [you]”. A safe space can be an actual physical space (such as a peer support group meeting) or even inside your own mind (imagining you are somewhere you enjoy when you experience stress). What I have found important when it comes to safe space, especially the ones we create in our own minds, to not use them to escape reality completely. Such as in the South Park episode, Cartman’s refusal to face the internet trolls and out right have someone erase the mean comments and only allow him to read the good ones, while it seems good, can actually cause some damage. We all need to learn how to cope with adversity and ignoring the current reality will not help you develop coping skills. Avoiding reality also means that we are not actively fighting against the injustice that we are trying to hide from which will result in that injustice continuing. Safe spaces can support us in positively coping and fighting against the injustice we experience.

Of course, there are times where we do need to completely remove ourselves from an unsafe space and recover from what has happened. Feminist author, Jessica Valenti, recently quit social media when she woke up one morning to find her social media filled with horrible threats towards her young daughter. She needs to remove herself, heal, and come back fighting in a different way if she so chooses. In this case, her daughter’s safety is in question and is her highest priority.

Any time I am with my like-minded friends I am in a safe space. I enjoy talking with these friends about all of my experiences and their experiences and there is only support. Pride in Madness has also turned out to be a fairly safe space for me although I am completely aware that the internet is never actually safe. I have had rude comments left pending in my inbox but the positive comments far outweigh them. The safe space I go to in my mind is usually a forest. In hypnobirthing, my safe space is a completely purple room and it is a room I can go to calm my mind and my body during labour.

Where are your safe spaces?


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