This arm is my arm, it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:
“Is not this a free country?”
“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”
“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”
The pain. Ah, the pain when the world swings to the right and the unholy alliance of Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins acts as a clarion call for majority groups for whom free speech is being censored, minority groups are in the back yard and something about “robust, healthy debate”. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
The concept of the safe space was born in a different time, I know this. Borne of early LGBT and feminist movements, the safe space became a comforting hub for people who had suffered at the hands of those who at best disagreed with LGBT or feminist lifestyles, and at worst, had been attacked, publicly abused or physically assaulted by those who wished to see alternate lifestyles eradicated. Over time, the safe space has been used extensively on university campuses to protect the vulnerable. High profile cases of speakers being turned away because they might offend mean that the safe space has been ridiculed as a politically-correct mechanism to censor viewpoints and to bring down free speech. Safe spaces create marshmallow students who fail to learn what it means to exist in a big, bad world.
This is all very hard on a girl that is known colloquially as ‘Red Bennie’ – a girl that attended one of the most left-wing universities in the country and grew into an adult learning about liberation groups and safe spaces. I was fascinated. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by debate and thought about identity and society. My goodness, it takes my breath away how lovely it was being young and fired up – and safe enough to be amongst those who had opinions about what was right and good and fair.
I supported the ‘No Platform For Fascists’ policy at Warwick Students’ Union. Who did we prevent from appearing? Far-right speakers from all walks of life – people who we believed didn’t care for the debate, only the publicity. People who had a track record of saying awful things and we said no to that on our space. Not because we don’t want a debate, not because we were scared of it or offended, but because we shared a common belief. We disapproved. And that was our choice. But we didn’t just decide, we debated. We thought.
There is a brilliant article on Al-Jazeera America on the issue of safe spaces on college campuses – you can find it here. In the meantime, one sentence really rings out as true for me: “But what all these critiques get wrong is that they assume “safe” means homogeneous in thought. The reality is that these safe spaces are actually brimming with debate; for many minority students, they are the first place where anyone has ever let them speak about their experiences.”
But for me, the safe space was not about censorship, it was about protection. It was about providing a different space to the one outside the walls where people swinging their fists didn’t care who they were smacking.
And I knew I wasn’t even someone who needed that safe space the most. I learned very quickly that a woman who has been raped might not want to debate whether the length of her skirt determined her fate. I learned that the trans student who was assaulted on his way home didn’t want to debate whether he was really a man or a woman. I understood that the black student who put up up with people touching her hair “just to see what it feels like” didn’t want to listen to the validity of the term ‘micro-aggression’. I know that the Muslim student spat at on the bus might not want to listen to a speaker from Britain First in the interests of healthy debate.
It is all too easy for people who have never faced any of these things to paint safe spaces as mollycoddling bubbles in which students are not allowed to debate difficult things because it might hurt their feelings, or worse, offend them. If you feel the need to mock the concept of or complain about safe spaces, I don’t want to generalise, but chances are, you’ve never felt the need for one.
Who are these students, preventing college campuses being a healthy platform for debate? How dare they create an environment in which they study without the white noise of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia? Those who decry safe spaces as being cotton wool for the masses forget one really quite important thing. The LGBT community, the BAME community, the trans community – women – we all know about the problems in the big wide world. We spend half our lives trying to find ways to shield ourselves from the views imposed on us by the media, by what people deem cultural truisms with any grounding in fact.
Universities are home to many students. Believe it or not, sometimes university is the only escape young people have from difficult backgrounds and difficult histories. It is a space that rescues as well as educates. And remember, education is something university students choose – that’s what makes it brilliant. And some students choose not to engage with things that upset them whilst navigating their educational paths. What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t make them any less of a physicist, or computer scientist, or psychology student. When university is home – making that space an open forum for all can feel uncomfortable when you know all too well what the world thinks of you already.
Let’s not forget what free speech can be. In my time at university, I was well aware of free speech as a right and I was well aware of people who exercised that right without concern for the impact on others. I went on a flyering campaign against the BNP in Tipton Green, a boarded-up shadow of a small town where the BNP were promising to reopen the Library, to bring jobs back to the former industrial town and all sorts of other things. I engaged in debate with a builder who had particularly strong views on immigration. When I asked him what his solution was, he replied: “I don’t have one really, I think it would be best if we just lined them up by the sea and shot them down.”
He was quite pleasant while he said it. He then said he wasn’t a racist because his girlfriend was black. So I went back to my safe space.
I made a decision early in my career about what school should be for my students. So my classroom is a safe space. It isn’t one in the traditional sense – everyone is allowed to be there, but micro-aggressions, assumptions and triggers are discussed, defined, questioned. Do I shut down some discussions? Yes, because if they go on to cause someone distress, my classroom is not the place for that. The world is hard enough without me being a lightning rod for the school of hard knocks.
I live in hope that by seeing university students make the decisions they do, my own students will be witness to a model of debate – where to discuss and vote on the presence of controversial figures in our circles is right and good and fair. If the answer is no, that person cannot speak for these reasons, then let my students see that their right to swing their fists ends when they hit someone else’s nose.
I want to laugh a little when I hear majority groups belittling safe spaces. And then I want to smash things a little bit. I always calm down eventually.
Because let’s not forget that safe spaces for majority groups also exist and have existed for many years. What is a gentleman’s club if not a safe space for the white, heterosexual male? What is the boardroom throughout history? What is parliament before the vote was extended to women?
You’ve had your safe spaces, now let us have ours.