“Snowflakes” and the politics of vulnerability.

“Snowflakes” and the politics of vulnerability.

What are snowflakes?

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How your Telegraph reading Dad probably views you.

What’s your favourite insult? According to The Guardian, in 2016 it was the term “snowflake.” If you haven’t come across this particular pejorative before, it refers to the idea that an individual is fragile, hypersensitive, and labouring under the false belief that they are somehow special, and thus deserve special treatment. I suppose another way of framing it would be “fuck you and your feelings.” The insult became especially popular among Neo-Nazis in the so called “Alt Right”, supporters of Donald Trump, noted pedophile apologist Milo Yiannopoulos, and an alarming amount of the student edgelords I went to University with, with whom I still, for some reason, am linked to on social media.  “Snowflake” isn’t a term that came out of nowhere; on the contrary, it seems to tie into the fashionable idea that is rather crudely expressed in the featured image for this piece; it’s a generational insult, first of, a term that conjures up images of fragile, self-censoring, immature student (or young person, I suppose, though students are often targeted), who demands safe spaces and no platform policies and are, it seems, such a big threat to the fundamental nature of democracy and society itself that conservative writers can never seem to shut up about a generation of censorious cry-babies, to the extent that you’d almost be forgiven for forgetting we’re all going to die in nuclear fire and fury by Christmas.

Yet I find the whole thing oddly fascinating. Though that might be because I’m procrastinating about building my fallout shelter.

By its own logic, “snowflake” implies that the concerns, hurt feelings, offence, or harm caused to an individual is not really legitimate. It’s the equivalent of something having a total mental breakdown because they can’t find their socks in the morning. Yet, more often than not, the term is thrown out by those responding to allegations of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and the like. All of these are of course real issues, things that (I hope the readers of this blog will agree) it is very legitimate, and indeed, extremely important, to be offended and outraged by. This belittling tactic among bigots is, obvious, a linguistic power play, but if you will allow me to play Devil’s Advocunt (the only role I can play, on account of being a cunt), let’s try to apply the terms logic to its users.

Notions of offendability. 

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I’m going to need whoever made this meme to take their ideas and stick them waaaaaaaaaay up their butthole.

Let’s take the above image, which I found within about 30 seconds of browsing in a Rick and Morty meme group on Facebook. I dislike it because it is a) wrong, b) trans-exclusionary, and c) is about one of my favourite TV shows. It reminds me that I like Rick and Morty, but generally dislike other Rick and Morty fans, in the same way I like metal while not really like metal heads, and tend to think people who eat Avocados are obsessed with status food while munching avocado on toast.

But I digress.

In certain corners of the internet you’ll find much being made of the idea that there are only two genders, and that everything else is some sort of mental illness. You know the type of content I mean. It’s usually made by the sort of person who claims that if you can choose your own gender, then he (it’s almost always a he) can choose to define as an attack helicopter, and then expects to be commended for his wit.

One time, I chose to engage with the maker of one of these memes. The argument went like this: I told him he was wrong. He told me that science “proved” there are only two genders. I linked him to the considerable evidence that this is not the case.  He demanded to know why I claimed to know so much about gender. I directed him to the progress of my PhD in Gender Studies. He called me a cuck. I called him a cock. It continued this way for what seemed like hours, until he got all his mates to send me death threats on Twitter and Instagram. In short, I got violent abuse from a bigot. Story of my goddamn life. 

Someone once said (I forget who) that violence is ultimately the expression of fear. We strike out against what we don’t know. A case can easily be made that erasure of transgender and genderqueer people (implicit in the “there are only two genders” statement) is an act of verbal, structural violence.  And this got me to question why I had provoked such a violent response. And, more importantly…

How can someone be so violently offended by the idea that gender is spectrum?

Seriously?

How does it in any way affect you?

This kind of offence is fundamentally different from, say, a woman taking offence a joke which normalises rape. Rape and sexual violence affect women and girls across the world. A joke about rape makes light of that horrifying reality. This cannot be said for the (in all likelihood) white straight male meme lord, who struggles to accept the concept that gender is far greater than a “boy/girl” binary. How fragile does one have to be to react violently to this notion? How hypersensitive?

How much of a snowflake?

The point I’m trying to make is that reactionaries and bigots have tried to position themselves as being the only ones capable of determining the legitimacy of offendability. An insult to Donald Trump is an attack on American democracy; a homophobic slur is “just a joke.” There more to this than just a kind of misplaced moral one-upmanship. I think it says volumes about the way in which societies seek to regulate and discipline notions of vulnerability.

The Politics of Vulnerability and their inconsistencies. 

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Vulnerability. Apparently.

If you cast your mind and eyes back to the featured image (hideous, isn’t it), you’ll see an underlying theme in the whole shebang of snowflakes, anti-social justice, anti-safe spaces and the like – a contempt for perceived vulnerability. It seems second nature to see being vulnerable as a bad thing, or a hardly an idea state. Vulnerability comes with connotations of a lack of agency, weakness, and an inability to withstand any sort of attack. Taken this way, it’s hardly surprising that dominant powers often try to eschew any allegations of vulnerability – Raewyn Connell, for example, notes that a key aspect of “hegemonic masculinity” is the rejection of vulnerability of the self (for example, in adhering to a stoicism and constant display of resilience) but also be perceived vulnerability in others (see in violence against gay men, women and men with alternative masculinities by men with hegemonic masculinities).

Yet vulnerability is not really just a thing it itself. In fact, the powerful can often use vulnerability strategically to try to shut down dissent from the subordinated. Take, for example, the tendency of reactionary groups to portray heterosexuals (and in particular, heterosexual children) as vulnerable to a militant LGBTQA “gay agenda.” The strategic deployment of vulnerability can also try to use the language of (for what of a better phrase) “real” vulnerabilities. The example which comes to mind is the tendency of Islamaphobes to claim that Islam, and Muslim men in particular, are a risk to white women. The man of colour is cast a predator, taking advantage of women’s vulnerability by either policing their dress in the name of religion, or by sexually assaulting them. More commonly, vulnerability is deployed as a means of delegitimising an opponents world view. The casting of another group as vulnerable comes with connotations of immaturity, or perhaps inability to speak or act for themselves. Thus, their voices are silenced, their concerns dismissed, and the status quo pervades.

However, vulnerability is not opposed to the resistance. In Vulnerability in Resistance, feminist theorist Judith Butler makes the valuable point that “resistance” can be applied to vulnerability in two ways – firstly, there is the resistance to vulnerability, the building of resilience; the sort of resistance which is perhaps most familiar to us in this context. Secondly, there is resistance that is informed by vulnerability, resistance which is a social and political form. To be vulnerable is not, necessarily, to be passive, but can in fact be the jumping off point for engaging in dissent.  To be branded as vulnerable, or snowflake, of whatever term the alt-right chose to come up with next, does not render us as radicals incapable of response. In fact, in the vulnerability we possess, we have the tools to shake up the fabric of the world.

1ikkim

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If you’re a socialist, how come you went to Oxbridge?

If you’re a socialist, how come you went to Oxbridge?

There’s a new Radio 4 series I’ve been listening to recently called “Reflections,” in which the historian Peter Hennessy (or, as Wikipedia informs me, Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield, a title which sounds vaguely dirty, but then again everything does when you’re a single man in your twenties, who is increasingly anxious about the approach of his thirties) interviews various notable figures from British politics. It’s not particularly interesting listening, but then again I listen to a lot of not particularly interesting things on Radio 4, mainly because it beats listening to the clank of all the empty wine bottles scattered around my feet, and the sound of my cat meowing disapprovingly about my drinking problem. I say drinking problem; I refuse to accept I have a drinking problem, mainly because I’m really bloody good at it.

But I digress.

Having listened to a few episodes of “Reflections,” what struck me were two things (three if you count my cat’s paw, because I wasn’t paying enough attention to him):  First, all the stories were very similar. Early political awakening. Time at Oxbridge. Vaulting into the upper echelons of society. Eventually election, government, scandal, some sort of inappropriate behavior with a nun, drugs, or a Middle Eastern dictatorship, and then an afterlife of comfortable country existence, occasionally being reheated in order to go on the Today program and say something nasty about Jeremy Corbyn. So far, so unsurprising. The more surprising thing for me was that I felt an odd, deeply uncomfortable connection to those stories, specifically the early part of them, the parts that involved formative years at Oxford or Cambridge.

The more I think about it (and I try not to, hence the heroic quantities of booze) the more I loath Cambridge. I imagine I’d loath Oxford too, but I’ve only been once and I had a decent sandwich there, so that makes up for any negative feelings for now. If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll know my rationale for disliking Cambridge, but if you care for a quick reminder, see here, here, here, here, here and here. I suppose one thing I’ve danced around is the class aspect of my education. I never really mentioned it because it seemed rather obvious. Cambridge is the home of the elite. I marvel at the number of people I met, back in my first year, who are now enjoying large salaries and the prospect of being the next Conservative minister of something or another, and at the same time I don’t marvel at it, because going to somewhere like Cambridge and being catapulted into a position of power and authority before you’ve lived a quarter century go hand in hand. It is not really necessary to come from privilege to study at Cambridge, but going there is a privilege. The same goes for me as it does for the former colleague of mine who works for the Home Office and constantly shares Britain First memes. I am, regrettably, by virtue of my education, a member of the Establishment.

Of course I’m not the first radical with a posh education. Our name is Owen Jones, for we are many. So ubiquitous is the trend that we become collectively known as Champagne Socialists. Not being a fan of champagne, I suppose I’m more of a…Whiskey Wobbly. A…er…Absinthe Anarchist. A…hmm…Real Ale Revolutionary. It’s odd really; there seems to be a stereotype that at Oxbridge, one is expected to dabble in socialism. Tony Blair, when asked for his Reflections, talks about how brave his future wife, Cherie, was for not becoming an “Oxford socialist.” This doesn’t fit too well with my experience. There was a left crowd, mostly decent if you ignored the narcissists, but I never met more recalcitrant Tory boys than I did in my six years there. The sort of person who rabbited on about free speech while abusing transgender folk on Facebook, and periodically set fire to bank notes in front of homeless people. Yes, that’s a thing. A rather common thing.  If you want a pulse on the political nature of Cambridge, here’s a thing. One of the first written reviews I got for doing stand up at Cambridge described me as “funny, but let down by his regrettable links to CUSU [the students’ union] and Communist protest.” Make of that what you will.

I’ve never been entirely clear on how to reconcile my Cambridge education with my politics and current lifestyle.  I am fairly open about it. I’ve got about seven minutes of reasonably good stand up about it.  I’m fairly open about my contempt for the lack of mental health provision, support for survivors of abuse, and the toxic environment of harassment and mud-slinging I encountered there. Yet, as much as Cambridge is a thing I hate, I keep finding myself name dropping it all the goddamn time. All my best anecdotes inevitably begin with the phrase “when I was at Cambridge…”; I can cover it up by euphemistically saying “my former institution”, or “my old uni,” but I acceptable – and feel deeply uncomfortable about – the little self-satisfied arrogant little buzz I get when someone says, with a look of mild admiration “You went to Cambridge?” Ah ha, I obnoxiously think, now she knows I’m really fucking clever. And then I talk about all the terrible things that happened to me there, perhaps in the the hope that my grand messianic behavior will make people like me.

There’s hypocrisy in this. I admit it. I hate the place. I hate what it represents. I hate, on some level, the moments of true academic excellence I experienced, because I know only about 2% of the population will ever experience them, and what the hell makes me so special. Yet I still wear my Cambridge colours, flailing them about with a vague air of superiority. How does this sit with radical politics, principles I try to live by to the best of my ability, rather than just mansplain to people (though I’m sure I do that more than I care to admit)?

I’m honestly not sure, and if there is one thing I fear more than anything else, it is inauthenticity. I just have this horrible feeling that I am, in someway, inauthentic by virtue of being.

 

 

How, if ever, do we make change?

How, if ever, do we make change?

There’s a quote I’m sure you’ll know and it goes like this – “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

In some ways, this sums up life as a left activist.

I recall, a few years back, one of the key slogans of the UK student movement was “call a national demo.” It was in response to the increasing reluctance of the National Union of Students to engage in any meaningful opposition of the government’s neoliberal Higher and Further Education programme, yet it is not an especially original slogan nonetheless.

This is not to say I oppose demonstrations in the slightest. My feelings go more like this: we’d hold a demo. We’d march through the streets of (more often than not) London, a sea of colourful flags, home made placards, erratically dressed hippies, and the like. We’d spot the various groupuscles of the Left by their flags, jostling in the sky for prominence, while their holders glared at their opposites and muttered darkly about something to do with Krondstadt. We’d march for a bit and then have a rally, where a line-up for speakers would tell us things we’d already know. We’d hope for a bit of time on the six o’clock news, or maybe a vaguely sympathetic write up from the Guardian. This may or may not happen, but if it did, it was unlikely that it would stick in the public consciousness for that long, yet we hoped for those column inches nonetheless, because…what, really? Were we expecting our meetings to swell, or some great uprising among the common people like Orwell’s proles?

Occasionally, the script changed. Perhaps the police would kettle a few hundred of us, or a Starbucks window would be smashed, or an ATM graffitied. Subsequently, the movement would split over whether or not such militant tactics accomplished anything, or whether or not they were really militant. The ghost of Millbank Towers would be resurrected, and then contorted to fit one perspective, or other, or both.

And while we were doing all of that, the government would quietly get rid of all the funding to Women’s Aid, or inter half a dozen more vulnerable souls in Yarls Wood.

Inevitably, about six months later, we’d do it all again.

One of the prevailing theories in social movement studies is of “cycles of contention.” This suggests that protests and movements go through ebbs and flows over the generations, sometimes repeating the same old fights, framed in new ways, while other times retreating for a decade or two. A helpful theory, perhaps, for academics who have never taken a police baton to the head. For an activist, it reads like we’re doomed to repeat the same thing over and over again. The definition of insanity.

Sometimes it feels like there are other avenues for change, avenues that take advantages of the apparatus of liberal democracy; the recent Labour surge, on a considerably more left wing manifesto than previous elections, is an example of this. Yet, despite the humiliating loss of the Tory’s parliamentary majority, Labour are not in office. Theresa May has not resigned. And more disappointing, Corbyn seems to be courting UKIP-esque rhetoric on free movement. The victory that was not a victory, which felt so palpable in June, feels hollow now.

So how does change happen? In considering this, I cast my mind back to my Trotskyist days. In response to each new injustice, articles would appear on faction websites, offering the analysis of the current situation, which, inevitably, advocated a return to Lenin. Putting aside any coherence and insight such texts offered (and I won’t deny that these are present) it still felt like it was missing something. Texts and great works of revolutionary theory hold their importance and provide some sense of guidance. Yet, re-enacting the politics of 1917 makes no difference to 2017, no matter how much we may be having the same arguments again (the definition of insanity, though the insanity of capitalism and neoliberal order, in this case).

So I looked to other books, the volumes of social movement research, which pile around my flat in increasingly precarious structures. The prevailing wisdom, at least from the mid two thousands and tens onwards, was that social media would unite the masses. Revolutions could be tweeted. This illusion died a death of sorts when someone thought that we might beat the barbaric Lords Resistance Army with hashtags and overproduced videos.

Perhaps the dilemma here is that when you get down to it – perhaps after a long and despondent day when you have little else to do – and try to list everything which needs to be dealt with, the picture becomes so overwhelming that it is hard to fathom any more, and you feel you can spend a life time staring at one square inch of it while being painfully aware of the vast expanses just out of the corner of your eye.

This is by no means a renunciation of revolutionary principles. It’s not a waved white flight. More a pressing question, asked out of a mixture of despair and curiosity.

How, if ever, do we make change?

 

 

 

 

The revolution will not be retweeted: perspectives on pro-Palestine activism and social media.

The revolution will not be retweeted: perspectives on pro-Palestine activism and social media.
It’s common knowledge that activism and social media go hand in hand, but what purpose does social media hold for activists?

On February 14th, 2016, a group of Israeli soldiers confronted pro-Palestinian activists in the West Bank. An altercation between the activists and the military occurred, and the soldiers seized a young woman activist by the scruff of her neck, threw her on the ground, and then dragged her away, violently striking other activists who tried to free her. This story was barely covered by major news outlets (partially, a bleak testament to how regularly this happens to pro-Palestinian activists on the ground) but the video footage of the assault was viewed by well over a million people, after being uploaded onto the Facebook page “Days of Palestine”, and shared several hundred thousand times. A few months ago, my Facebook feed filled with friends “checking in” at Standing Rock, North Dakota, in a solidarity gesture with Native American activists protesting the against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Later that day, I read an article which cited both the sharing of the video and the “checking in” as “Slacktivism,” a catch-all-term regularly used to suggest that any form of activism that doesn’t take place via “traditional” means (face to face meetings, campaign stalls, picketing and the like) is somehow illegitimate. While it is true that social media alone cannot change the world, this does not play down its importance for activists – one only needs to look at the way Twitter and YouTube were utilised by activists in the Arab Spring. But what role does social media play for activists, and what role could it play?

This article explores the ways in which pro-Palestine activists use social media for positive and negative ends. It is based partly on my PhD research into the culture of radical left movements, partially on a series of informal interviews with pro-Palestine activists in Leeds, Manchester, London and Cambridge, and partly on my own experiences as a pro-Palestine activist. Where I quote activists, I have given them assumed names at their request.

The presence of social media has broken down many of the barriers between activists based in Palestine and those based in the UK. Where before information might only be available through traditional news media, activists in the UK can now connect with activists in Palestine and the Middle East with comparative ease. This, as noted elsewhere on this site, contributes to the age old Israel/Palestine conflict now being played out in European states, as well as online. Indeed, the possibilities of resistance offered by social media are evidenced by the way that repressive states try to limit access to the internet: During the 2012 offensive on Gaza, Israel cut internet access, preventing activists within Gaza from using social media to give the world a real-time picture of events as they unfolded. Earlier this year, the Indian government cut off the internet during a crackdown in Kashmir. At time of writing, The Independent is reporting that Facebook, YouTube and Whatsapp have apparently be banned by the Turkish state, another repressive policy in apparent response to a failed coup in July. Activists work within networks, and social media and the internet allows those networks to cross borders, nationalities, and, theoretically, allow information to be disseminated freely. There are, of course, questions of whether social media platforms are “neutral” spaces for information distribution. In September, for example, Facebook was forced to apologise for suspending the accounts of Palestinian journalists, and Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Intercept provides some evidence to suggest Facebook had been collaborating with the Israeli government on censorship.

But for UK based pro-Palestine activists, social media is not simply a place for gathering and sharing information. Feminist Philosopher Nancy Fraser has critiqued the idea that there is a single “public sphere.” Instead, there are multiple publics that exist outside of the mainstream, spaces (both online and offline) which she refers to as “subaltern counterpublics.” These counterpublics are often formed by groups who have a shared interest, or experience of oppression (Fraser herself uses the example of feminist movements). However, counterpublics are not separatist, but a space for people within them to recuperate and form new strategies for resistance that can be implemented in the “main” public. Subaltern counterpublics in this sense are spaces for pro-Palestine activists to discuss news, come up with new forms of language, new methods of advancing their political aims. The advent of social media as a key organising tool means that subaltern counterpublics for pro-Palestinian activists are not limited to physical meetings of local solidarity groups, but increasingly now are based online. These allow activists to engage in the process of recuperation and reconfigurations regardless of where they are in the world, provided they have access to the internet.

Activist and academic James Gilbert, in his 2008 book Anticapitalism and Culture, argues that activism has a strongly performative element to it. Drawing on the work of feminist Judith Butler, who argued that gender was performed, rather than lived, Gilbert argues that activist engaged in a constant process of identity building. James, an activist based in Lewisham, also identified how pro-Palestinian activists perform their identities:

“Lots of us wear keffiyehs to show our support, or we have a flag badge pinned to our coats or bags…it’s not like a uniform as such, but just little things to show what we believe.”

This performance of activism happens online as well as offline – this might be a small feature such as a Palestine flag Twibbon, or the changing of a profile picture temporarily to a Palestine flag, or the regular sharing of media by pro-Palestinian media sources like Electronic Infidia. Performance, however, is an ongoing process and tied its own power dynamic. Many of the activists I spoke to related how within social media spaces dedicated to Palestinian activism (secret Facebook groups, reddit threads etc) are sites for activists to discipline other activists. Molly, student and activist, described one particular occasion of this:

We were arguing in the [campus Palestinian Solidarity Group] about the line we needed to take for an article. Someone, quite new in the group, wanted us to write about the two state solution. Immediately a bunch of others started commenting aggressively, calling this kid all kinds of names, saying that he didn’t know anything, that he was pro-Israeli, that kinda thing. No one seemed to want to engage with the substance of what he was saying, and he left the group after that.

Molly’s story was echoed in those related to me by other activists. Online discussion forums regularly became a space where a very rigid conception of activism was performed. This is not something unique to pro-Palestinian spaces – my own PhD research into the radical left in the UK shows how online spaces can be both recuperative and also antagonistic spaces. Mark, a veteran pro-Palestine activist, was harshly critical of antagonism in some of the social media spaces:

“I don’t engage in debates on Facebook or Twitter – it gets very personal, very quickly. Sometimes I just look at the arguments and think, fucking hell, we’re all on the same side aren’t we, can’t we just have a reasonable discussion?”

The tendency for online activist spaces to become internally hostile is a well-documented phenomenon, and by no means unique to the Palestinian solidarity movement, but it does raise a serious question: what is the use of having support bases for Palestinian activism in the UK if those spaces are exclusionary for some activists? Surely this undermines, to a significant degree, the benefit of having those counterpublics?

Social media opens new horizons for UK based pro-Palestinian activists. Their access to information, their connection to activists and movements within Palestine, is strong than before. But additionally, there are pitfalls. Social media may be used by the people, but it is not run by the people – media can be censored by corporate interests working with governmental agendas. Furthermore, the culture of online activism must balance the disagreement with acceptance. What does matter, however, is that through social media, we as pro-Palestine activists have the tools for new strategies of resistance, and the importance of that cannot be under emphasised.

Now what do we say?

I don’t normally write this sort of thing, but this isn’t a normal sort of day is it. I’d hoped that today I’d write some sort of cynical analysis of US politics, but instead, I’m writing this, as an open letter of sorts. This is a letter to people who voted for Donald Trump. This a letter for people who are celebrating his election on social media. This is a letter to those who are saying that people who are afraid of a Trump presidency or need to “get over it.”

Ahem

Hi

I know you’re angry. I know not all of you are bad people. Some of you are. You know who you are, so if you wouldn’t mind, treat yourself to a holiday. Somewhere near a volcano. Or in one. But to the rest of you, I have one question, really. Now that the USA will be led by a man who branded Mexican as rapists, who wants to ban Muslims for entering the country, who wants to defund Planned Parenthood, roll back Roe vs Wade, end fragile stability with Cuba, bomb the family members of ISIS, and who thinks his status allows him to sexually assault women….

What am I supposed to say?

What am I supposed to say to the kids I tutor? Those four year 9 boys, decent kids mostly, who come to me for advice on Shakespeare, who I overheard talking in a sexist manner about a girl in their class? We had a long chat after a lesson about respecting women, about using the privileged position as men to fight for a better world, and they listened and they learned. They look to me for guidance. They listened to me when I told them not to be a bully. What am I supposed to say to them now?

What am I supposed to say to some of the young girls I work with, who have opened up to me about sexual harassment they get, about how they feel afraid to talk their desires, hopes and dreams, about how they get pestered to send nudes, how they get groped, how they don’t feel comfortable asking questions in case because of the sniggering of the boys. They’re 13. I tell them that they can find strength in solidarity, that they can value themselves, that they can respect themselves. What am I supposed to say to them now?

What am I supposed to say now to the American girl I met, who is queer, and half Mexican, and whom I have spoken to for hours today, because she wanted to take her own life, because she is now afraid of going home, afraid she will not have a home, afraid that she will be attacked as soon as she gets off the plane? What am I supposed to say to her, now?

Revel in your victory. Be a troll. Plant yourself on an ironic, detached pedestal and laugh at “snowflakes.”

You still can’t give me an answer can you?

I’m waiting.

Chris.

 

 

 

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?

Nine Years Ago

Our eyes first met in May 2007.

I had happened to glance up in the library at the same time as she had, while I had been trying to get my head around Robert Frost’s obscure metaphors, and she’d been trying to understand the McDonald’s business model (“That’s not a real thing to study,” I said to her later. At that point in my life I was much more snobbish, and in many ways more stupid. “Well, sorry, I’m only smart enough for Business Studies,” she had retorted good naturedly. I still feel bad about that comment to this day). I’d noticed that she was wearing an Avenged Sevenfold T shirt (it was 2007, that was considered acceptable). She noticed that I was wearing an open white shirt, waistcoat, and long motorbike boots. “You look like Mad Max the Pirate,” she’d said later. To be honest, I looked like an idiot. I still have the boots somewhere in the attic. I think a mouse lives in them now.

The first conversation we had was when I slipped out of my creative writing class on Wednesday (we were given half a day off for “career enrichment”) and wondered down the little sidestreet next to the drama department to have a smoke. None of my usual friends were there, and I had intended to read quietly for a few moments, but instead I’d seen her, smoking a Chesterfield and tapping on her phone. I realised I didn’t have a lighter, and so I’d shuffled up, awkwardly, and asked for a light.

We’d smoked together until the air began to fug with both the smoke and the awkwardness of it all, before I’d managed to splutter: “You have really cool – nice! – hair.” The stop start delivery that had taken the place of the much better opening line I had been rehearsing in my head managed to make the mutual awkwardness start in surprise and try to come to terms with the newer, purer form of awkward. She smiled, handed me a zippo with Jack Skellington engraved on it (“A 16th birthday present,” she told me later,) and, after a moment, told me her name. I pronounced it correctly on the fifth attempt.

I was thinner then. Even thinner than I am now. I weighed around 8 stone for most of 6th form, and stood six foot two. I didn’t have the beard, or any of the piercings, and my glasses were rounder, and my face, while thin, didn’t have the gauntness that haunts it today. Looking back on then, I’m struck by just how ridiculous I was as a person. Yet in spite of my absurdity, when I said “do you fancy a coffee?” she replied “Yes.”

*
“You gonna fuck her or what mate?”
“I’m sorry?”
“I said ‘you gonna fuck her or what mate’?”
I looked up from my script. We’d been intently studying scripts (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui) for about twenty minutes in relative silence, breaking it only to compare suggestions on staging. Our A2 drama practical mock was coming up, and the scene, a mocking mimicry of the Night of Long Knives, was to be learned, blocked and staged in a matter of days. It was 2008 by this point, and winter. Rain spattered aggressively against the windows of the drama studio in a way that only Mancunian rain can.
My friend who’d asked the question was clearly bored of practising his American accent under his breath. The others in our group now turned to look at me.
“I…um, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said, rather pathetically.
He smirked a bit a me. Not in an unkind way. In his own way, he wanted what he thought was best. “You just need to get laid, mate,” was what he’d say, periodically, as we sat next to each other on the bus, or as we rolled cigarettes on the way to the library. Sex seemed to be a cure all for him, a kind of magic bullet that would blast through any depression, illness or anxiety. We had about two months between us in age, but seemed worlds apart. He could drive, smoked copious amounts of dope, was extremely well read in anarchist theory, and his levels of sexual experience vastly dwarfed my own. I’d been hazy with him on the topic of my own virginity. My first kiss had been only a few months before, an unpleasantly damp and tonguey affair in the common room. He, on the other hand, had been through almost a dozen women, as he liked to phrase it. In hindsight, my feelings of inadequacy about lack of sexual experience were ludicrous. People have sex whenever they want, or don’t. There’s no minimum or maximum age. Of course, the 17 year me wouldn’t have this epiphany for a few years yet. My friend reminded me of the absence of my sex life on a regular basis, though whether this was deliberate or not I couldn’t say. He’s married now, and is moving to Japan with his partner. His baby daughter periodically appears on my Facebook newsfeed, and stares perplexedly out from the screen, presumably wondering what the hell happened and whether there was any chance of going back in the womb, if only to avoid having phones and bright lights thrust in her face every few moments.
(If you’re reading this – your baby is lovely. But please stop instagramming her. I can see that she has a face, as can all 1200 friends of yours. We’d like a break.)
“Aw, come on, Chris. She’s properly fit.” My friend, ever the master at reading tone, continued. “You guys have been together for AAAAAAGES.”
I wanted to correct him. We hadn’t been together for ages. Had we? At what point did it start to count? After two dozen coffees in the little vegan delicatessen in Manchester’s North Quarter? After three trips to the cinema (the last one had been Iron Man, a film neither of us had enjoyed until the Black Sabbath song came on over the credits), and one trip to the theatre (“I have a spare ticket to Macbeth!” I had lied, having in fact begged, stolen and borrowed to afford an extortionate ticket to the Royal Exchange theatre). Did it start to count when you touched someone else? Our contact had been limited. Did it count when someone hugged you for longer that was considered socially acceptable at the bus stop? Did it count when you kicked yourself for not sweeping her off her feet like some manly noir era hero, though knowing you and how fucking clumsy you were, that would probably result in you throwing her in the path of oncoming traffic.
My lack of response to the question clearly struck a nerve. He dropped his script in exasperation. “Chris, you need to cheer up. Relax. Live a little, go out and -“
“- get laid. I know.” I repeated. “I’ve just got a lot on my mind,”
“What, like Cambridge?” someone else said, with a sneer.
Cambridge. Yes, I did have Cambridge on my mind. It had been three days since my interview, and five months since my English teacher, a potbellied, bearded Santa Clause like man, had finally, after months of pestering, got me to put “Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge,” as one of my UCAS options. Actually, I lie. What had really got me to make that final call, and start a chain of events that led me to the city that I would still be a resident of eight long years later, was:
Scene: Picadilly Gardens, Manchester. 
 
Two teenagers sitting on the grass. One pretending to read Bleak House, the other picking her nail polish off and drumming her fingers on the cover of the book.
 
Her: “So are you going to apply to Cambridge?” 
Me: “Fuck knows.”
Her:”You should.”
Me: “What’s the point?”
Her: “The point, Chris, is that if anyone can get into Cambridge, it’s you.”
Me: “Would you like it if I applied?”
Her: “I would like it very much. Now stop reading that book and let’s go do something fun.”
 
Three days before, I had found myself sitting on the Ely to Manchester train (a journey I would become depressingly familiar with in later years) at around six pm. I check my phone for the first time that day. A text from my Dad (When will you be home.) and one from her:
How did it go? x
 
I hesitated, then wrote: Weird. The guy interviewing me had the same name as me. x
 
Lol! Was he anything like u? x
 
Only if I gained a hundred pounds and played the lute x
 
(If you happen to be reading this, Professor Chris Page, I am so sorry. I was a dick when I was 17. But I also changed my name, so hopefully you aren’t still getting my post).
Do u think u got in? x
 
Another pause. I honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead. It was my 18th birthday in a week’s time, and that offered more dread to me than an archaisms of Cambridge’s admissions process.
Guess we’ll see. What have you been up to? x
 
Missing you. x
 
Sometimes words can have a particular charge. They can make butterflies spring to life in your stomach, and make your skin flush and your heart skip a beat.The first time I felt it was somewhere between Chesterfield and Sheffield on a horrible damp day in December 2008. It took me a good fifteen minutes to summon the courage to write:
I miss you too x
 
Wut time does ur train get in? x
 
About 7.30 x
 
Do u want 2 see me? x
 
Yes x
 
The following year I deleted every text we’d ever sent one another, with one exception: Missing you x. The intensity of those two words comforted me and also burned me. At the end of my first year at Cambridge, I was mugged, and my phone was stolen. I regretted the loss of the text far more than the loss of my wallet.
*
Fast forward to August 2009. It had been a rough summer. I had become very isolated.
I hadn’t heard from her for a week. That worried me. Hence, when I got the text: (Need u x) I dropped what I was doing, dodged past the inevitable question (“are you trying to see what whore again?”) and got the first train to Manchester.
 
What’s wrong? You ok? x
 
Talk 2 u in person. meet me @ afflecks x
 
Afflecks Palace is a department store in the North Quarter of Manchester, part goth shop, part vintage fair, part insight into the mind of a late 2010s emo kid. I found her sitting in the cafe on the top floor. I had run from the station, and then up four flights of stairs. She was sitting by a window, her hands wrapped around a large mug of black coffee.
“Hey! How are you?” breathless and red in the face (I need to stop smoking, I said to myself, a mantra I would be repeating until the age of twenty five).
She didn’t reply, or meet my eye. She was stirring the coffee with the tip of her finger, a habit I’d always considered extremely unhygienic, but rather endearing. “How are you?”
“Fine. Awful. Who cares. You’re doing that thing I do.”
“What thing?”
“The turning the question around thing. Back off, that’s mine.”
I tried to be funny. It didn’t have the desired effect. She continued to stir her coffee. I took off my coat and fanned myself with a menu. Something was amiss. Not just in her behaviour, but in her dress. She was wearing a Slipknot t shirt (a present from me) but also something I’d never seen her wear before.
“Nice armwarmers.” I said, trying a different tact.
She flinched at my words, and I started to panic and question what I’d done wrong.
“Thanks.” Her voice was so soft as to be imperceptible.
“When…when did you start wearing those?” I hesitantly reached out a finger to stroke the hand holding the mug. She drew it closer to her. I dropped my hand to the table and began to tap my fingers nervously.
There was silence. I tried desperately to think of something to say or do.
“I can’t see you anymore.”
“What?”
“I said I can’t see you anymore.”
“…why?”
She finally looked up. She had been crying. Her eyeshadow was smeared, and her lip was bloody from where she’d been biting it.
“Is anyone watching us?” she asked.
“I -?” I frantically looked around, confused, and feeling a growing nausea. “I dunno! What’s going on -“
She rolled back the armwarmers. Her skin was pockmarked with angry red circular marks on both arms. I knew exactly what those were. In my darker moments, I’d inflicted them on myself.
“Who did this to you?” I said. “Who…burned you?”
“My brothers.” she replied.
“Why?”
“Because…” a long pause. The cigarette burns gleamed angrily in the stark light of the cafe. “Because someone told them about us kissing.”
The kiss. It had happened two weeks before. A Level results day. I had opened my envelope to find four A’s written on cream paper, and those four little letters had meant I had met and exceeded my Cambridge offer, and was going south. I ran to find her. She was with a group of her friends, posing for a photo. I drew her to one side, and whispered in her ear: “I did it!”
She pulled away, smiled, and kissed me. It was the first, and only, time we ever kissed.
These days I find it hard to get angry. It’s perhaps one of my greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. I am non-aggressive but terrible at standing up for myself. Swings and roundabouts, really. Perhaps the reason I got put off anger was because of furious intensity of the white hot rage I felt at that point.
“Why.” It wasn’t a question. It was a demand.
“Because you’re not Muslim.”
“Why does that fucking matter?”
“Do you think that matters to me?”
“I’ll kill them.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Go to the Police.”
“No.”
“They assaulted you!”
“They’re my brothers.”
“I don’t give a fuck!”
“I do.”
Silence. The arm warmers were rolled down. She got up.
“I’m sorry, Chris. You have a future without me in it. I…” she stopped. My fists were clenched on the table so tightly I thought my knuckles would break.
She never finished that sentence. She just walked away. Her coffee remained on the table, steaming quietly to itself. I didn’t move for a very, very long time. Those burns had lit a spark somewhere in my mind. It would fizzle there for another four months until a chance encounter would provide the powder that blew me apart from the inside out.
*
January 2015. It is just after 3 am in the morning. My  then-partner is asleep next to me. The rhythm of her breathing is rather comforting during this particular bout of insomnia. The cat is curled up between my legs on the bedsheet, and were I in a more optimistic mood, I would be reflecting on how lucky I was to share a bed with two precious beings.
Instead, I scrolled through Facebook. It was a soul destroying endless road that led precisely nowhere. When I had realised I wouldn’t be sleeping that night, I’d decided to be productive and write up a PhD proposal. Next to Facebook were multiple tabs to JSTOR articles. I’d read abstracts, gotten too depressed, told myself I was an idiot and wasn’t worth a PhD, and had returned to watching my newsfeed update itself with its eclectic blend of leftist articles, cat pictures, and various comedians complaining about PBH Free Fringe. Again.
Suddenly, in the little side bar of friend suggestions, a name popped up. I almost thought I’d imagined it. I clicked on the profile. She looked pretty much the same. Happier, though. She was smiling diagonally in the selfie, which had been artistically rendered in monochrome. She was still wearing long sleeves. Perhaps the burns were still haunting her.
Two mutual friends. Is that all that’s left? God, my friend purges were getting more ruthless by the day. Her timeline was mostly hidden due to privacy settings. I looked through it anyway. In 2009, I found a picture – A Level results day. A large group of mostly unknown students waving their AQA certificates in the air like flags of surrender. She was slightly off to one side, raising her certificate, but also listening to someone with their back to the camera who was whispering in her ear. Me. My 18 year old head half blocked her face.
Very little remained of the 18 year old me. I’d dismantled him and put away bits of him in a box, and replaced those bits with new bits born out of the sludgy and at times horrifying experience of growing up. What remained of her? She lived in Birmingham now. Good. That was at least a distance away from her family.
I write this is October 2016, in a very different place. The partner cheated and left and took the cat, and I got the hell out of Cambridge. I moved north again, and began that long slow journey of a PhD. Too much happened between January 2015 and October 2016 for me to process it properly, but I do recall this, this one thing: The dawn chorus is singing  . My then-partner stirs and rolls over. I sigh deeply, take a deep breath, and click: “send friend request.”
To this day, I haven’t had a response.
But here’s hoping.