To view the opposition as dangerous is to misunderstand the basic concepts of democracy. To oppress the opposition is to assault the very foundation of democracy.
― Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters from Burma
Tim Squirrell, former president of the Cambridge Union said:
“Safe space gets a bit of a bad rap, most of the people involved in advocating these types of policies don’t mind debate; they just they don’t want to do so in their homes with strangers… Every time you invite someone like Germaine Greer on to campus, or someone who disagrees with the rights of sex workers to do their work, or a racist or a homophobe, you’re not endorsing their views, but you’re legitimating their views as something that’s up for discussion. There’s a place for that discussion, but the question of whether it should happen in people’s homes is a difficult one. Greer doesn’t think trans women are real women. These are not abstract issues. They affect real people.”
This is a very interesting statement, it equates the safe space with ‘home’. Home is where the heart is, it is a deeply conservative desire to be safe, to be comfortable and to be with ‘family’ – not a family that is reflective of real families maybe, more the ideal family that is mutually supportive.
Actual ‘safe spaces’ can be purchased for a classroom, a place of calm, away from over stimulation and I wonder if there is a connection with this need for a place of calm and reflection? Don’t we all need this? Good, beautiful places full of good people. Places of quiet, places to be ‘at home’ – a church, a day by the riverbank ‘fishing’, smoking in a Gentleman’s club, or baking bread at your Aga on a gorgeous Spring morning… As John Major put it: “long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’.” Home. Or as Winnie Adams puts it: “To me, this is the real world… and it’s a very peaceful world. I don’t hear anything except the leaves falling. I get up in the morning, I go out on my front deck and I dance and I say, ‘It’s another glorious day on the mountain.’ Men are violent. The minute a man walks in the dynamics change immediately, so I choose not to be around those dynamics.” Home.
If you’re not ‘at’ home with the home that is imposed upon you, if your home is ruptured, if it stifles you, ‘others’ you, if you are alienated from your surroundings the making of a new ‘home’ is imperative. Looking for partners to share your space and build ‘homes’, people with whom you feel comfortable, becomes an absolute need. The setting up of communes, with codes and practices, has a noble history, for example, small arrangements undermining ‘2000 years of patriarchy’.
Making homes separate from the community is not easy, one of the first things to do is create a door – who is allowed in and who is not. For Winnie Adams this is easy, women in, men out. For safe-spacers though this becomes far more difficult because people who ‘self identify’ might be more difficult to ‘exclude’ on first sight. The ‘Safe Space Network on Tumblr’ has its rules on its homepage, it states:
We want this to be a Safer Space as possible, recognizing that no Space is entirely safe, and free from Oppression. If anything shitty needs to be called out to make it the safest possible space, then let it be known that this space is open to other’s idea’s, thoughts, beliefs and realities. These issues will be tackled as they arise.
It goes on to say:
Offensive, Oppressive and Shitty Behaviour will not be tolerated. We have a three-strike system, to encourage self re-educating on topics, however, we maintain the right to deal with each infringement case as we see fit, and give no warnings.
And for clarity:
This blog is for any identity, orientation, thoughts, beliefs and/or people, as long as that identity, orientation, thoughts, beliefs or person does not oppress another.
And to further clarify:
It means that this blog will not tolerate;
Bi erasure/ Monosexism
Sexism / Misogyny
Mental illness- shaming
Over at ‘Occupy London’ another set of rules govern their safe spaces:
Occupy London wants to operate and conduct our discussions in a safe anti-oppressive space – whether offline or online – that is welcoming, engaging and supportive.
In order to ensure this we feel it is necessary to establish some guidelines for participants. These have been agreed by the OccupyLSX General Assembly.
Its rules include:
1. Racism, as well as ageism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, ableism or prejudice based on ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, gender presentation, language ability, asylum status or religious affiliation is unacceptable and will be challenged.
2. Respect each other’s physical and emotional boundaries, always get explicit verbal consent before touching someone or crossing boundaries.
3. Be aware of the space you take up and the positions and privileges you bring, including racial, class and gender privilege.
4. Avoid assuming the opinions and identifications of other participants.
5. Recognize that we try not to judge, put each other down or compete.
6. Be aware of the language you use in discussion and how you relate to others. Try to speak slowly and clearly and use uncomplicated language.
7. The group endeavors as much as is feasible to ensure that meeting spaces are as accessible as possible to the widest range of people.
8. Foster a spirit of mutual respect: Listen to the wisdom everyone brings to the group.
9. Give each person the time and space to speak. In large groups, or for groups using facilitation: Raise your hand to speak.
10. “Respect the person; challenge their behaviour.”
11. If someone violates these agreements a discussion or mediation process can happen, depending on the wishes of the person who was violated. If a serious violation happens to the extent that someone feels unsafe, they can be asked to leave the space and/or speak with a person or process nominated by those present.
12. Whilst ground rules are collective responsibility everyone is also personally responsible for their own behaviour.
13. Occupy London is an alcohol and drugs free space.
Rules are problematic, there will always be some that contradict others, especially in a community conceived from the idea of “someone feels unsafe.” We all ‘know’ what a safe space should be like, the problem comes when one has to police it to ensure its rules are not broken. Sanctions, expulsion: “they can be asked to leave the space”; “we maintain the right to deal with each infringement case as we see fit, and give no warnings.”
How easy is it to be “welcoming, engaging and supportive,” to all comers? You are not allowed to feel: “prejudice based on ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, gender presentation…” and yet if you feel the person is not aware of the: “positions and privileges [s/he] bring[s], including racial, class and gender privilege” s/he can be called out. If someone feels unsafe because you talk too quickly and use complicated language, you might find yourself excluded.
This defining of the borders of the space is important, home needs its walls, fences and doors, it needs to welcome people in and also shut people out. To feel safe, one needs to be able to keep out people who are a perceived threat. This results in the ability to call someone out for not being ‘aware of their privilege’. If you self proclaim awareness then you are better than someone who is not aware. This is not a policy of segregation, it is one of separateness, a safe space is separated off, but is inwardly inclusive.
The policy of separateness is more ‘inclusive’ than the segregated communes of the past, especially where it exists in the same spaces where all congregate: online, in political groups, in Universities etc. but this is where the problem lies. Let us go back to Squirrel’s comment at the beginning of this piece, he is talking about ‘Home,’ “There’s a place for that discussion, but the question of whether it should happen in people’s homes is a difficult one.” A university is not a home, it is an institution. An online space is not a home, it is a communal space. When someone writes a blog, publishes a tweet, releases a record, makes a film, stands up and makes a speech at Speakers’ Corner, they do so in public spaces and can expect praise, critique or even damn right condemnation. When people criticise what I’m saying here on my blog or on my twitter they do so, not in my home, but out in the agora. If I said something in the safety of my home I would feel aggrieved to have it broadcast and attacked, but if I say it in a public space and my views are attacked and, even if I feel upset, I have no leg to stand on re: making my space safe because it was I who shouted into the void. If I am attacked violently, or threatened, or my family are threatened then I have legal redress, but if my ideas are argued with by others even if I am upset ‘to the extent that I feel unsafe’ I would have to be clear that I feel unsafe due to physical threat or intimidation.
Twitter calls it home, but it isn’t.
In an institution, whether religious, educational, professional, or social, I need to be clear that I am a guest and though it may be warm and welcoming, or cold and austere, it is not home. If I go into that institution and talk and upset people then so be it, because having opinions and expressing them in spaces is an essential right. I have a responsibility to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten those within but though I might do my best not to offend it is possible that my ideas might upset some of those in the institution. I think all ideas should be up for scrutiny. I understand arguments where people say the oxygen of publicity gives life to some dangerous thoughts but I think if these thoughts are debated publicly rather than allowed to fester unchallenged the oxygen is better used.
Gorge Orwell said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” In our nation these rights have been fought for and they exist only if every institution realises their responsibility towards that end. If we want a State that has liberty at its heart then every institution, new or old, has to ensure the right to offend is at its heart. Therefore, every time you feel offended and rise above it, seek to reason or argue but not ban then you do so for a higher purpose than your own self absorption, you do so in the name of liberty – you take part in a selfless act for the greater good.
Safe Spaces are utopian where all will be included because no-one will want to be unaware of privilege and the policing of them, based on the elected central committee’s benevolence, will be fair and democratic. The great believer in separateness HF Verwoerd said: “…where there are so many difficulties, do not arouse the suspicion of the world that there is oppression, but show them that there is a policy which seeks rights and justice towards all.” This is where safe spaces are at their most insidious because they pretend they are not instrumentalising oppression, they pretend to seek justice for all, but just like Verwoerd, they close down the very things that protect us against oppression.
Safe spaces as homes are good and beautiful, when they become confused with communal spaces and institutions, which become no-go areas for Germaine Greer and the like, safe-spacers are seeking to exclude people from the spaces we hold in common. This was the problem with John Major’s view of nation as home, his view was not a shared view.
If anyone can be caught out at any time by someone who feels they are being ‘oppressed’ or made to feel, “unsafe” by someone else, and if this person who ‘feels’ unsafe is able to shut down debate then bit by bit we cease to be a place of tolerance, we become little Englanders or little Safe Spacers, cut off in a segregated corner of self-congratulatory narcissism. Who would want to set up their home in a country in which “We have a three-strike system, to encourage self re-educating on topics, however, we maintain the right to deal with each infringement case as we see fit, and give no warnings”? One in which our home can become, like it did for Aung San Suu Kyi, a prison? Instead, we should: “Listen to the wisdom [and even the stupidity] everyone brings to the group.” And through all the noise we need to shut up and realise that someone like Greer is really worth listening to.