Staying Soft

Michael Onsando
7 March ,2017

“In effect, this means that speaking one’s truth becomes an action of laying one bare. An action of putting the self on the line. Putting the self in the line of possible violence.”

Something about vulnerability and safe spaces keeps coming back to me. What kind of thinking is produced by and within safe spaces? What does this means for the concept? Do we know how to be vulnerable? What does vulnerability look like when it comes out? Are we equipped to handle it? And what does a lack of tools mean for vulnerability itself?

Particularly when you think about the fact that people have their histories.

Which is to say that everyone comes to every interaction with every other interaction they’ve had. Because we only learn how to be with/around each other by being with/around each other – we all know what we know at a certain time. Many words to ask – how many ways do we break each other because we don’t know how to handle a situation?

“I am listening. Trying to learn how to (un)be. To figure out the abrading social, the threat I am: the threatened I am.”

When and where is who allowed to be safe?

Particularly, I’d like to think about safety from the perspective of “ability to express.” This, I’d hope, will take away the conditional nature of the safety that social circles give us. Like when we tell women to dress in certain ways, or even when we tell a child not to draw at the back of his exercise book.

I ask this particularly now with semi public spaces (semi public as physical gatherings and as online spaces) blowing apart the ways in which we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. The “safe space” now has tonnes of people who don’t have the context to understand why things are being said. Opening up, then, becomes a demand to expose oneself to violence. The kind of violence that is oblivious of its violent nature – and so will continue along the path. And this is not new. But when is a space deemed “safe?” and how do the ways in which we are perceived make us a danger to their safety? Even as we protect the spaces we have made space, the question becomes – how many have we destroyed?

“the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors tactics, the oppressors’ relationships.”

Foucault has interesting formulations here:

“  My aim will be to show you how social practices may engender domains of knowledge that not only bring new objects, new concepts, and new techniques to light, but also give rise to totally new forms of subjects and subjects of knowledge. The subject of knowledge itself has a history; the relation of the subject to the object; or, more clearly, truth itself has a history.”

And, if truth itself has a history – what happens when such histories collide? When the subject, rooted in their own truth and own history, meets another subject rooted in the same? How do we handle these situations? Does the way we do this further aggravate or does it create space for these histories to co-exist?

I write about truths and history but I’m trying to say something about vulnerability.

And because acting students who have watched footage of the dying learn how to die beautifully, flinging limbs this way and that, decapitating their heads this way and that, spilling blood this way and that, those who watch them learn that dying is an art, begin to evaluate when dying is real, proclaim, with confidence, that some forms of dying do not look real, that some dying looks fake.”


What does vulnerability look like? Have we gone out expecting the face of vulnerability to be the face that we have seen? A face that we know? And how do we know? Given that people (and their truths) have histories – what is a historically correct depiction of vulnerability?

I ask this because, if we don’t know what this thing looks like – then how can we claim to have the tools to handle it? And, in a society without tools to handle this vulnerability, what questions lie in this demand? How many moments of bitten tongues and suppressed pain exist to ensure that the spaces that are kept safe for you, remain safe?

At whose expense are you vulnerable?

But even this is a reductive argument – it assumes that there is only one face of vulnerability – one who. But the subject that matters is often a thing of time and circumstance. And because of the ways privilege blinds one person’s vulnerable moment can be opening another’s pain (“I bathe in _____ tears” comes to mind).

And this becomes more complicated when you factor in that intersectionality is about how one is perceived. And there is little that you can do to change how you are perceived, which means that even the ways in which you might think you are communicating properly – you aren’t. Your body itself is a wall that obscures your words, actions and intent.

A meandering to remind us to be aware of the ways we are seen, the ways we see each other – and how that navigation allows for people to be whole.

Stay soft.

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