Safe Spaces and the “Right” to be Offended

The “safe space” debate has been given new life at the start of this fresh academic year.  Theresa May condemned them as a restriction on free speech. But NUS vice-president Richard Brooks defended the policy – “some people have more equal rights than others.” This is one issue that is not going to die down any time soon

Following this path,  this morning NUS President Malia Bouattia defended the position  on  BBC’s Today  programme   by correctly  pointing  out  the contradiction  –  I might say hypocrisy –  of those who have so much power and influence, and use it  to create a climate of fear, balking at attempts  by those without such advantages  to assert the right to  a safe space

In my experience, it is not just what is being said, it is how language is used too. The most violent language does not need to contain graphical images or a torrent of swearing.  Similarly, foul words can be and are used for comedic effect.  An angry tone can turn the most innocuous expression into something destructive.

By the same token, just because a racist, homophobic or sexist argument may be presented with intellect, charm, and self-deprecating humour, it is no less offensive.

I championed safe spaces as a students’ union officer many years ago, and I use them now to encourage under-represented groups to become active in my union.

We said “No” to racists and racism, to sexist homophobic rants. We called it “No platform” not “safe spaces” (The mood of the time is captured here)  And in my time, it generally worked, possibly  because it was a clear and narrow  definition.  Debate was lively but kept within reasonable bounds.  And now,   in a  male dominated  organisation,  we  run  networks for young women members and the feedback  we  universally  get  is  positive – these safe spaces give  under-represented groups space  to  breathe,  freedom  to  talk,  the  real ability  to  organise.

So, especially in a general atmosphere of intemperance a cacophony of intolerance, the need and value for safe spaces is real.

But as an active member of Liberty and former press regulator,   I know the value and limits of free speech.

And in adopting   a cast-iron mantra  of democratic self-determination, are  we not uncomfortably close to the point at which  those within a self-declared safe space become as xenophobic, and as angry and as intolerant as those they are seeking  refuge from?

Have we perhaps lost the plot somewhat? There is a world of difference between feeling threatened and being offended.   And surely in a democracy, we have the right to be offended?

Well yes and no. Where is the dividing line between being offended and feeling threatened?  And that’s the crux of the debate.  The media is full of stories of  alleged misjudgements on this,  with people, plays, gigs and debates banned first  on grounds that  they  would contravene the safe space policy  but  then, more worryingly,  because of fears by  university administrators of  reputational, financial and legal  consequences.

And that’s the often  unappreciated  worm eating  away  at the  good intentions and  principled debate around this issue – who  truly  benefits  from a messy  debate on safe space?

Progressive ideas and the very notion of diversity itself end up getting  trashed and undermined –  sometimes  by  over enthusiastic  or uncritical  supporters – and the little power  we have asserted for ourselves seeps back  to the already  rich  and  powerful.

And that is the key issue for me: What is the balance of power in society? Anti-discrimination, anti-hate legislation is good and important, but even if it was perfectly framed and universally implemented, it would not be enough to create a sense of safety, tolerance and respect. You need determined government action  for that.

I think you can’t and shouldn’t vaccinate or insulate yourself against being offended. But in these highly insecure times, you can’t be surprised if people try. Safe spaces are surely a symptom more than anything else.

  This piece also appears in the Huffington Post



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