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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Freedom of Speech and Silencing

Have you heard the news? Apparently, sexual harassment policies and dignity at work schemes are the latest assault on freedom of speech. Or, at least, that’s according to the website Spiked Online, which earlier this week released its “Free Speech University Ranking.” This helpful guide used a traffic light system to rank University campuses according to the level to which they censor free speech. Such a study, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, should be an important tool for free expression. And this would be, if it wasn’t so fucking stupid.


According to Spiked, Cambridge is ranked “amber” (or having “chilled free speech through intervention”). I clicked on the Cambridge page to see what exactly it was that caused the rating, and the first piece of evidence was the University’s own prohibitions on sending offensive emails. Now, as someone who was a victim of a prolonged campaign of email harassment last year, that drove me to the brink of a mental breakdown, I can’t really see how, in that case, it was their right to send me daily death threats. The second thing flagged up here is the the computing services’ prohibition on accessing porn…which leads me to genuinely question if Spiked has confused freedom of expression with, um, wanking?

More disturbingly, CUSU’s anti sexual harassment policy is flagged. Now, I’m pretty interested in my freedom of expression, but I think I missed the memo where we, as a society had decided that suddenly catcalling, making unwelcome sexual invitations and HARASSMENT was a fundamental right of individuals in a democratic society, so key to our identity as free beings that JS Mill would jump out of his grave and personally defend it to the death, while presumably asking nearby women to show him their tits.

Scrolling through the Spiked rankings, I found myself completely perplexed. I could find no reason for why trans rights policies were enough to warrant cries of censorship, or why people suddenly have a god given right me death threats on Twitter because they didn’t like my piece about Germaine Greer. It seemed to have utterly no reference point in reality, but to be the paranoid ramblings of an idiot for whom “freedom of speech” was some sort of shield, to ward away monsters, though the monsters in this case appeared to be women, LGBT people, survivors of sexual violence, and people who might object to you using Pornhub in the computer room.
Debates about free speech are never far away in Cambridge. Whether it’s because the Union has invited someone unpleasant, or because a fascist is speaking in town, every single year I’ve been here there have been arguments, articles and angry Facebook comment threads about freedom of speech. So let’s just get back to principles, shall we: freedom of speech is, in essence, the right to speak freely without censorship. Fine. However it is conceived as a way of protecting individuals from higher authority, in most cases, the state. It does not guarantee you the right to be listened to, the right to a privileged platform upon which to speak (possibly surrounded by high fences) or the right to know that you can say whatever you like and not expect people to get mad, call you an idiot, or even organise a demo against you. The reason we have a concept, both in morality and in law, of “hate speech” is because we acknowledge that there should be limits on free speech, because words have an impact. Violence can be verbal as well as physical.

The highlighting, throughout the Spiked report, of “safe spaces” policies and the like is hugely disturbing to me. Safe spaces policies exist because we have to live in the real world, and the real world is not some idealised fantasy land where we’re on some level playing field, and no one has suffered any sort of discrimination due to being the wrong colour, or being attracted to the wrong sex. Having a “safe space”, whether it is in a campus SU meeting or at a demonstration or whatever is a great aid to freedom of speech. It allows for those who are in oppressed groups to speak freely, without fear of being drowned out by more privileged voices. Yes, I am acutely aware of the irony of me saying this, using my privileged position as a white straight boy, privileged enough to be given the platform to say this in a student newspaper. But it does aggravate me, at a time when true free speech is under threat, whether by extremist groups or by government legislation (*cough Theresa May cough*) that Spiked is blaming some of the very tools for empowering people to speak for limiting free speech.

I can’t help but feel that Spiked’s definition of freedom of speech is really something else. It’s the right to say whatever you want without fear of consequence, whether that’s degrading to someone, whether it’s sexist, homophobic, racist, transphobic, or just vile. We live in an unequal world, ladies and gentlemen, and by attacking the structures that are meant to counterbalance that, Spiked is really just trying to engage in its own form of silencing. They aren’t after freedom of speech. They are after the freedom to be a complete dick..