In Defense of Safe Spaces

In Defense of Safe Spaces

Safe spaces. Who’d have them? A fair number of students unions and leftist campaigns would, but the list of people who wouldn’t includes, in no particular order, Stephen Fry, the Guardian,and Theresa May, a list that is coincidentally the world’s most disturbing and confusing game of shag, marry, avoid. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to speak for safe spaces, but the list of people to speak against them is long and acerbic in their condemnation. If you knew nothing about them, you’d think that safe spaces were some sort of ungodly bogeyman responsible for all evil in the world; Theresa May brands safe spaces as “self censorship” and even went as far as to blame them for potential problems in the UK economy ( a little bit rich from the mostly not elected leader of a party which has presided over a £555 billion increase in the national debt ). According to The Atlantic, safe spaces are part and parcel of an extremist agenda. More commonly, we hear the claim that safe spaces impinge on freedom of speech, and are the product of “molly coddled” or “snowflake” students who want to live in a bubble, isolated from the sober realities of the world. It’s funny, really; one of the principles of free speech, as I understand it, is that you try to understand your opponent’s rationale, and it seems in majority of cases, the free speech advocates haven’t bothered to do this with safe spaces. So, now, let’s speak for safe spaces, and why, in my opinion, they are a sometimes clumsy, but vital part of enriched public discussion and political participation.

Let’s begin with a few distinctions. People have a tendency to elide “safe spaces” with “no platform” policies. While these are correlated, they are not the same. “No platform” (a refusal to permit someone a public stage or forum) as a political concept originates from the anti-fascist movement, as a way of preventing the dissemination of racist ideas. This in itself is not a concept which is divorced from wider societal expectations – we do, after all, have a legally enshrined concept of racial hate speech, and provision within law to take away the liberty of who racially abuse others. Since the 1980s, no platforming has spread to prevent those who advocate hate or violence to marginalised groups from gaining a platform, and there’s a separate debate to be had about that and the concept in general. Safe spaces, on the other hand, arose from the LGBT movement. It was, in essence, a policy proposal to allow LGBT students in particular to find “spaces” (whether these be physical spaces such as rooms in a university building, or metaphorical spaces like a social movement) where they could escape from homophobia and transphobia. This is principled on, for example, encouragement to modify language, to think before you speak, to never presume experience on another person’s behalf, and to be reflexive and supportive. From there, the concept of safe spaces have grown to be incorporated by feminist movements, BME movements, leftist organisations, and beyond. I, for example, attend an alcohol support group which isn’t remotely connected to any university environment, where we are reminded that within that space of a church hall in South Leeds for one hour every fornight, we are in a safe space, a space where we can talk about our addictions, where we will not be judged for them, and where we must not judge others. At least in principle, safe spaces are based on the idea of consideration and solidarity. What’s so wrong about that?

Part of the criticism of safe spaces is that people who want them do not want to engage with the difficult issues of life, and instead live in fantasy. This is a rather simplified way of looking at things. If anything, people use safe spaces as a method of engaging with difficult issues, often to do with deeply personal topics such as discrimination, rape, ostracism and so on, in a different way. Feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser argues that we tend to think that there is only one “public sphere” which we are all part of, and this is fundamentally incorrect. While there is a “public sphere” each individual and group forms their own “counterpublics” where the rest of the actors in the public sphere are not, necessarily, welcome – your home, for example, is a counterpublic in this sense. Fraser argues that social movements, feminist organisations and the like, function as counterpublics for people with some shared political aim or experience of discrimination. These counterpublics, however, are not seperatist organisations but spaces for recuperation, a place where individuals and groups can think about how best to face the issues in the public sphere. Within certain forms of psychiatry, there is a similar concept of the therapeutic community. This is a place, or group, outside of the usual therapeutic setting (i.e, the hospital or the counselling service) where individuals may find some sort of escape from the issues which affect them in daily life. This may be a gym, a community group, or even family. These communities are not separatist, but, rather like safe spaces, are positioned as a place of temporary withdrawal, and recuperation. What is so grossly offensive about that? Fraser writes:

Perhaps the most striking example is the late-twentieth century U.S. feminist subaltern counterpublic, with its variegated array of journals, bookstores, publishing companies, film and video distribution networks, lecture series, research centers, academic programs, conferences, conventions, festivals, and local meeting places. In this public sphere, feminist women have invented new terms for describing social reality, including “sexism,” “the double shift,” sexual harassment,” and “marital, date, and acquaintance rape.” Armed with such language, we have recast our needs and identities, thereby reducing, although not eliminating, the extent of our disadvantage in official public sphere.

Safe spaces, in this sense, allow for groups to come up with new tools for political engagement in the public sphere, new strategies of resistance. Consider, based on Fraser’s example, how our public discourse is vastly improved for the fact that we have concepts of sexism and so on. Are safe spaces perfect in implementation? No. Rather like political correctness, they are a clumsy, but ultimately well meaning attempt to build a more inclusive society. What’s so bad about that?

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My Feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit

Note: this was published for Varsity under the title “Transphobic Feminism: An Oxymoron” regarding Germaine Greer’s invite to speak at the Cambridge Union Society. You can read the original piece here: http://www.varsity.co.uk/comment/8087

I met Germaine Greer once. She slammed a door in my face and called me a fucking idiot. I was a humble fresher at the time, and I have no idea why she was so keen to get into my college accommodation block and also not allow me in after her. Years later, as an MPhil student in Gender Studies, studying The Female Eunuch I couldn’t help but feel a bit miffed at her, despite the fact that I found the book interesting. I say this because I should get it out there that, no, I don’t like Germaine Greer very much. She owes me an apology.        
I am being somewhat tongue in cheek here. My real problem with Germaine Greer stems not from a chance rude encounter in 2009, but from the fact that Greer comes from a school of feminist thought that espouses transphobic views. Such views were not uncommon in the early stages of 20th century feminism, which was centered towards white, middle class, cisgender women. Greer herself has written some fairly horrible stuff about trans people. In her 1999 book, The Whole Woman, Greer accuses trans women of mutilating themselves because they hate women, and saw them as a “non sex.” In 2009, she called trans women “ghastly parodies” of “real” women.  This vitriolic and hateful vein of thought runs throughout her work. It’s no surprise that most of Greer’s work subsequent to The Female Eunuch has been discredited by large sections of the academic community and feminist activists.          
Greer’s issue is that she seems to think the identities and lived experiences of transgender people are matters for abstract debate. They are not. We’re not talking about some minor point of Kant; we’re talking about a hugely marginalised group in society. According to the charity TransRespect, over 200 people were killed in transphobic hate crimes around the world last year. Comedians regularly use transpeople as the butts of jokes. Chelsea Manning, the brave whistleblower behind Wikileaks, faced waves of horrific transphobia when she transitioned. How can you deny someone the right to exist and pass it off as academic debate? Certainly, there are ‘feminists’ who do so; these so-called TERFS (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), however, are frankly vile and undermine the work of feminism in general. Greer’s work, and that of people like her, is not abstract debate. It’s hate speech.        
Greer has demonstrated that her transphobia is not contained to the pages of her books. As many people will know, she was once a fellow of Newnham College. In 1996, the college appointed Rachael Padman, a trans woman, to the fellowship. Greer objected to Padman’s appointment on the basis of her trans status. The resulting backlash culminated in Greer’s resignation from Newnham. Her actions here were clearly discriminatory: had this event occurred after the passing of the 2010 Equalities Act (which grants protection in the workplace to trans people among other marginalised groups) Greer would have been recognised as breaking the law.
I’ve seen some people on social media moaning about “picky feminists” who should be satisfied that the Union has invited someone as ‘famous’ as Greer. Let me make this clear – feminists’ anger at Greer is not to do with being “picky.” It’s to do with a belief that feminism, like all liberatory theories, should and must be intersectional. It must be open and inclusive and has no room within it for discrimination against marginalised people. Greer’s archaic and bigoted intolerance towards trans people has no place in modern feminism, nor should it have any place in civilised society. Given the Union’s penchant for inviting controversial speakers, I’m hardly surprised Greer is speaking there. I won’t be attending, and I encourage the rest of you to give it a miss. The CUSU Womens’ and LGBT+ campaigns are currently in the process of organising a counter event on the same day about transfeminism, and transphobia within mainstream feminism, which quite apart from anything sounds like a fruitful forum for learning and discussion. If Germaine Greer wants to use her platform at the Union to attack trans people, let her do it to an empty room.
And she still hasn’t said sorry about that door in the face. 

CDE, the SWP, and the need for intersectional radical politics.

Recently, CDE (Cambridge Defend Education) announced via its Facebook page that they “will not, under any circumstances, organise with the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP).” Now for those who might be confused by a Leftist student group refusing to work with another Left group, I’ll give some context: in 2013, it emerged that the SWP had attempted to cover up a serious allegation of rape. A teenage girl in the party accused a member of the CC (Central Committee) of the party, of rape. The SWP’s response to this was, in a word, disgraceful. The woman who made the accusations was essentially put on trial, subjected to humiliating character assassination, and the party displayed a level of sexism and misogyny that was all the more shocking coming from a group that affirmed its commitment to feminism. Naturally, the rank and file of the party responded with outrage. The leadership’s response was again, from the perspective of democratic socialist organising, a disgrace.

A special conference was held, in which the party ruled, via its Disputes Committee, that “no rape had occurred,” a decision shocking in its supposed ability to pronounce on matters of truth. The fallout from this was that the SWP fragmented. The vast majority of party members split to two new factions, ISN (International Socialist Network) and RS21 (Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century). Across the country, and indeed, the world, the SWP faced animosity for its utter refusal to admit wrong, or offer an apology, or do anything remotely decent. Alex Callinicos, the de-facto head of the SWP had his invitation from a Historical Materialism conference withdrawn. At the National Union of Students Conference in 2013, over 100 delegates walked out when a student member of the SWP stood up to hust for a Vice Presidential sabbatical role. Viral campaigns began, calling for the SWP to be banned from university campuses, trade union meetings, and leftist spaces.

Those unfamiliar with the Left might ask why this is at all important. I would hope that it was obvious. The SWP scandal was not simply the typical infighting between Left factions that has alienated me, among probably thousands of others, from the “Organised Left.” This was the largest Marxist political party in the UK taking part in the most appalling rape apologism. The tone set by loyalists within the SWP was one of denigration of criticism – former SWP member  Richard Seymour, notes on his blog that loyalists would accuse those who opposed the leadership of “creeping feminism.” When a revolutionary group, which in its own manifesto, affirms its belief in women’s rights and liberation, is accusing its members of Feminism, and using it as a dirty word rather than embracing it as a movement of emancipation and freedom, something has gone very, very wrong. The message that the SWP was trying to send was that gender, women’s rights, the rights of rape survivors, was secondary to the grand, socialist revolution. It was bourgeois insurrection, and it had no place in “the revolutionary party.”

I know all of this not just from reading about it – I wrote a significant part of my Masters Thesis on the SWP Scandal, looking at the gender politics at play. As part of that research, I interviewed a dozen former and current members of the party about their experience of the scandal. It made for harrowing testimony. Activists recounted to me that at SWP conferences, supporters of “Comrade Delta” (as the accused CC member was known) would chant old revolutionary songs in his name, and heckle those who supported the accuser. In local branch meetings, comrades who spoke up against the leadership faced aggression, intimidation, and even threats of violence from loyalists. Some small sense of satisfaction can be gained from the fact that the SWP essentially orchestrated its own demise. One of my research participants provided evidence that the SWP had, since the crisis, shrunk from several thousand paid up members (making it the largest far left group in Britain) to less than 200, as of early 2014. The SWP has shrunk, and, frankly, should be allowed to die a death. Part of that process is making it clear that as socialists, radicals, feminists, we should not be organising with such a group. We do not need or want that kind of misogyny or rape apologism in our movement. 

At least, that is what I, and what I presume, most of CDE think. However, I was distressed to see that quite a few students, academics and local Leftist were highly critical of CDE’s decision. There was dark talk of Stalinist censorship, of “pickiness”, or short sightedness, and that the decision would undermine the work of the Cambridge Left, if not the Left nationally. I spent a fair amount of time arguing with people who expressed those views, to little avail, so I thought I’d save myself some time and try to offer a response to main criticism in this blog post. 
1) I don’t support the SWP and am appalled by what they did, but they are socialists and we should work with them. 

Part of the problem that the Left has had historically is its utter failure to work with groups which might have differences on ideological points, but ultimately share the same end goal. The beauty of groups like SYRIZA in Greece was the fact that the party did united a disparate group of Leftists, ranging, ideologically, from Green radicals to Maoists and Anarchists, under one banner, and thus became the main opposition force in Greek politics, a welcome change when Europe seems to be falling into the lap of the Far Right. I think it is necessary to work with people we don’t agree with 100%. I’m a member of the Green Party, but I’d be happy to work with Leftists in Labour, members of Left Unity and so on if I thought we could make a change for the better in politics. Yeah, we might disagree about how we get to our goals, but what we could agree on is that it is simply immoral that, for example, 900,000 people had to rely on Food Banks in the last year, and something needs to be done. 
However: the SWP is different. The SWP demonstrated through its actions from 2013 onwards that it could not give a flying fuck about the rights and voices of survivors of sexual violence. In a world where the police often seem more concerned with pursuing the accusers of rape, rather than the accused, this is simply vile. More the point, the SWP basically made it clear that for it, Socialism is utterly irreconcilable with Feminist politics. It’s a paraphrase of an old cliche, but my revolution will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. If we look at the history of the Left, gender is often side-lined, pushed down the list of priorities, turned into something which parties and radical groups will pay lip-service to, but will be unwilling to act upon. I don’t think it is asking to much to want people who claim to believe in a certain kind of politics to live by them. You cannot claim to be Feminist and then engage in gross acts of misogyny. The SWP has proved itself to be such a group, and thus we can, and should, be unwilling to share a platform with them by association or organising. 
2)What the SWP did was terrible, but they’ve done good work in the past. 
The SWP does have an impressive track record when it comes to organising, certainly. The 2003 Stop the War demo, still the biggest protest act in over 100 years, and considered to be part of the largest protest action in the world, was coordinated in the UK by the SWP. The London demonstration alone was attended by over 750,000 people, and other protest actions in the UK meant that on February 15th 2003, over a million people marched against the war in Iraq. Of course, one could be cynical and say that the demo didn’t achieve anything – we still ended up in a ten year long bloody conflict, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, and laying the groundwork for the rise of ISIS. However, my own personal view is that the fact that so many people did march against the war did shift the landscape of foreign policy debates – it made it very clear that the public would not tolerate future boot on the ground campaigns in the name of fighting terrorism. The long term effect of this, I would argue, is that the fact that so many MPs voted against the government on Syrian intervention was because the memory of the outrage of Iraq was still fresh in Parliament’s minds. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I generally believe that protest actions do not yield immediate result. They just don’t. What protesting does do, however, is have longer term effects which can cause changes in political discourse. So dust off your placards and get marching. 
But I digress. The point I’m trying to make here is that, yes, the SWP has certainly done some good things for the Left. That does not, however, make them exempt from criticism regarding the rape scandal. Someone can be the best person in the world, but if they do something morally reprehensible, their past moral record does not exempt them from being thoughts of different, If anything, it’s sad that an organisation that has done good work can fuck up quite so badly.
There is also a gendered aspect to this, and this was another factor I came across in my research: my participants recounted how Comrade Delta’s defenders tried to paint him as a glorious, experienced revolutionary man who was being brought low by the allegations of some woman who’d never done anything radical. Participants told me of how the women’s character assassination didn’t just stop at comments of what she’d been wearing at the time of the assault. It was framed very much as a gendered divide between an experienced male radical, who should be respected and heroised, and a young woman who quite frankly wasn’t an asset to the party, or the revolution. The defence that the SWP should still be respected because of what its done in the past, regardless of its actions around Comrade Delta, is essentially this argument, but on a grander scale. And it’s an argument I simply cannot sympathise with. I don’t care if you’ve organised brilliant campaigns, if you’ve mobilised people, if you’ve been the “perfect” revolutionary. If you’re a rape apologist organisation, I don’t want to have anything to do with you. End of. 
3) The SWP is one of the most active groups in the UK Left and we need to build a united front to combat capitalism, neo-liberalism, and so on

Left unity (the concept, not the party) is something we all strive for a socialists. Putting my cynical hat on, I’d argue that it has never really existed, and unless you’re lucky enough to pull a SYRIZA, it probably won’t exist. Morally speaking if you have principles as important standing up for survivors of rape, I don’t think you can legitimately continue to hold those principles if you associate with a group that has so blatantly shown it’s disregard for rape survivors. Critical support is one thing, but working with the SWP, while it still maintains that it did not act inappropriately, is too close to an endorsement, and I will not have any part of it. 
Furthermore: part of building a united front against austerity, or capitalism, or whatever, is only possible if we can win round people who have not been politicised, or for whom socialism was never a realistic concept. In the total absence of arguing for alternatives in Parliament, it becomes the role of the people to fight for those principles. How in God’s name could I recruit people to a cause which tars itself by supporting and sharing a platform with rape apologists. Firstly, I wouldn’t want to, and secondly, even if I did I can’t see myself, or anyone, winning that argument. Yes, we want a united movement, but we damn well better have an intersectional movement, or else we’re going to be caught in the tired left politics of old white men who’d read more than their fair share of Trotsky but have no lived experience of societal oppression leading the movement, and if that’s the case I’d like out. Just on that point, and here is where I differ from many more orthodox Marxists: I believe that any radical politics should, and must, balance experience and theory. By that, I believe that you do need theories of resistance like Marxism to give the movement goals, structure, aims, but no one theory will ever account for everyone’s lives, everyone’s experience of oppression. I am a Marxist because I believe that Marx was right about capitalism. The analysis in Capital is as true today as it was the day Marx put pen to paper. But I don’t believe that Marx got everything right, I don’t believe that Marxism is the one theory that covers every base. Marxism is a useful, broadly correct, but flawed theory of emancipation. It should be used as a tool to fight oppression, ready to adapt itself to new situations and new battles, without being dogmatic. This need for experience based politics is what has always attracted me to feminism. One of the great products of the radical feminist movement was consciousness raising, the realisation that we need to personalise politics, and that the personal is the political. Such a strategy does not water down thing – it enriches it. It allows for theory to become relevant to lives. I became a socialist long before I read Marx because I looked around and realised something was very wrong with the world. Coming across a battered old copy of The Communist Manifesto in my 6th form library just gave me the ability to help tie those experiences into a structural analysis. 
Lastly, and let’s be blunt here, the SWP is tiny. It’s not a mass movement anymore. As I said earlier, we’re talking a few hundred at most, and we can probably safely assume that any decent folk left in the SWP will get the hell out of there as soon as possible. The SWP is so reviled, so mocked, so denigrated that, frankly, it seems like more a hindrance than a benefit to join forces with them. Yep, cynicism 101 there, but that’s the way the world works. Size, however, isn’t the main issue – plenty of groups smaller than the SWP have had a big impact, but it’s the issue of the party, quite justifiably, losing all respect. Not worth our time, in all honesty.
4) Comrade Delta was never charged with rape, so did the SWP even cover up anything? 
That is correct. Comrade Delta was never charged. Lots of people who commit sexual crimes aren’t. If you look at the statistics, a frighteningly small number of rape cases come to trial, and an even smaller number result in conviction. There are plenty of reason why the woman never brought charges against Delta. Maybe it was fear, maybe it was an ideological block about going to the police (given how badly the police do treat survivors, it doesn’t even have to be an ideological belief). But what is important here is the CDE is not a court of law. It does not have to have a legal conviction of a criminal offence to chose who it does and does not associate with. The evidence of the SWP’s actions is clearly available – there’s plenty of links in this post if you want to have a look yourself. The argument that Comrade Delta’s lack of conviction means we have no reason to criticise the SWP is frankly bollocks. As individuals, as organisations, we do not need to have the same standards of proof that a court of law has. We do not need it to proved, and decided by a jury of our peers, beyond all reasonable doubt, that Comrade Delta is a rapist. Yes, one could argue that there is a niggle of doubt, that maybe the allegation was false, but come on – we’re feminists, we’re socialist, we know the importance of believing survivors of rape. Additionally, even if that was the case (and my personal view is that it isn’t) the fact remains that the way the woman was treated, the way the party responded, was rape apologism. Pure and simple. And we do not need rape apologism in our movement.

The future of the left. 

If we’re trying to build a movement to change the world, that movement should demonstrate the values, principles and ideas that we wish to see implemented in wider society. This is why is important, to me, that the Left does take critical stances against groups like the SWP. We want a world without rape apologism, without stigmatisation of survivors, without misogyny. That isn’t a world we can work towards when our “allies” have shown that they uphold those values. I should hasten to say that this is not a partisan, anti-SWP line. If I were to find that my own party, the Greens, did something along the lines of what the SWP had done, I would immediately quit the party and renounce it. Principles are more important than parties. I would also campaign against the inclusion of any group which did engage in rape apologism, racism, homophobia, transphobia or any other kind of assault on the rights of oppressed groups. The focus on the SWP here is simply as a result of the facts being public – it might well be that other groups have done things as terrible as the SWP, but we are simply not aware of it. If so, and if it was found that that was the case, then it would merit the same response as CDE has given the SWP.

Radical politics is not just about trying to change the world. It’s about also trying to set an example of what that world will look like, in particular, promoting the values that should underpin that world. If we side, no matter how critically, with groups like the SWP who proven themselves to be morally bankrupt, then our cause is essentially lost. It is not pickiness to set limits on who we will and will not call comrades. It is our duty as activists to work towards the world we want to see first and foremost by building a movement that can create that world. And frankly, the SWP does not need to be part of it.

P.S for those interested in reading more about the SWP rape scandal, a very useful, and regularly updated, set of web resources can be found here