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The case for safe spaces

Far from shielding young people from offence, is the movement for safe spaces about learning to stand up for yourself?

The main opposition to the "safe space" stances taken by younger feminists and activists, particularly on university campuses has been that people have, and should use their right of be offensive.

Free speech is, after all, a cornerstone of democratic societies, and one of the few downsides is that the most fragile among us may occasionally feel offended. This is the small price we must pay for being free; having to wilfully – no, gleefully – accept that pricks will be pricks, and there is nothing we can do about it. Even for those who would put themselves firmly on the liberal end of the spectrum, the idea that some may wish to shield themselves from apparently unavoidable unpleasantness is abhorrent. It’s the one great battle led by righteous warriors on the Internet; their crusade for the right to unadulterated bad taste.

In this context, the controversy around safe spaces on campus, with the Yale Halloween debacle at its core, has been a godsend to those with nothing left to fight for. It started when the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to students, urging them to avoid culturally insensitive costumes for Halloween. Erika Christakis, the administrator of one of the student residences, responded with another campus-wide email, criticising the original guidance. She asked:

“Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience.”

The following backlash was huge, and is still going, culminating (so far, anyway) with students screaming at Christakis’ husband, who also work at Yale, and calling for both of them to resign.

There’s no arguing that that response has spun wildly out of control – at least not from this corner – but that shouldn’t be an excuse to discount the students’ original concerns.

This, sadly, is what’s already been happening, even before Yale. Led by The Atlantic (The Coddling Of The American Mind), American publications have been quick to condemn the relatively new trend of students attempting to establish “safe spaces” on their campuses. According to these articles and the ensuing Twitter theses, the new generation of progressive students, having no battle left to fight, have decided to ban everything they disagree with, from bigoted speech to, say, Halloween costumes with dodgy implications. They are demanding to go through university, and presumably life, tightly rolled-up in bubble wrap, away from the harsh realities of the world.

This is, for the most part, because no-one has bothered to try to understand these students, or go beyond a few of their inflammatory statements published in articles actively trying to discredit them. Taken out of context, certain of the demands seem so wildly out of touch they sound like satire – like the law students arguing that they should be allowed not to study rape laws if they find them triggering – but the reality of it is disappointingly sensible.

Kick against the pricks

To someone with sturdy ankles, a mild fall will have little impact. To someone who once broke their ankle, the same fall may result in a greater injury. If the ankle was broken time and time again, even the mildest of falls may break it again. The fall is exactly the same in all three cases; the ankle isn’t, and neither will be the outcome. The same logic can be applied to, say, rape jokes. Some sexist jokes are less offensive than others, and with a healthy dose of optimism you can even assume that no genuine offence was intended. Even the lighter, less offensive ones, which perhaps weren’t even seen as sexist by the person telling the joke, may have far deeper consequences than expected, especially when told by men. That’s because it’s not about the joke in itself; it’s about women having to live in an undoubtedly sexist society, and having heard other jokes like this before, and knowing they’ll hear jokes like these again. It’s about small things piling up, again and again, and knowing that there is no way to put an end to it. It’s a man nicely trying to chat you up in the street and not understanding why you’re not responding well, while you’re thinking about that other man who once tried to chat you up in the street and didn’t understand why you didn’t respond well, and the other one, and the other one, and the other one. The straw, the camel’s back, all that.

This may be women and sexism, but it’s also people of colour and racism; trans people and transphobia; gay/bisexual people and homophobia, and so on, with obvious combinations for those ticking several of those boxes. While discussions of identity and privilege online haven’t always been constructive in recent times, it’s hard to deny that this isn’t something cis straight white men will ever get. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they never get picked on, or that their lives must therefore be perfect; it’s just that they’ll never know what it feels like to be continuously attacked for what they represent, not who they are.

As a result, they never were the drive behind the creation and implementation of safe spaces, and – from admittedly anecdotal evidence – the ones most likely not to understand their purpose. Not having experienced this wider picture means that seeing, for example, people of colour arguing for the ban of culturally appropriative costumes on campus may feel nonsensical. However, the sad truth tends to be that these students fight passionately over small things because they know these are the only battles they’re likely to win. Putting an end to the disproportionate targeting of black men by the police on both sides of the Atlantic is impossible on the short term; making sure that white frat boys don’t wear traditional Native American clothing as costumes while getting hammered isn’t. In the microcosm of university campuses, this is a significant step.

It is also quite ironic that one of the main criticism against safe spaces is that they can’t adequately prepare students for the life they will have after graduating, as it feels like the exact opposite. If, as a 21-year-old, someone learns how to stand up for the right to be respected, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation, this will give them the social and mental tools to argue for bigger and better things once out of university. Standing up for oneself is scary, and though yes, students are likely to get carried away, because they’re young, naive and hopeful, proving to themselves that they can do it is empowering. As recent Booker Prize winner Marlon James pointed out in a Facebook post, older progressives are forgetting that progress didn’t stop with them, and they should welcome the continuing change. Students of past generations fought against institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia, because they were young, naive and hopeful enough to believe that things could change –  and they did. There is now a new generation of progressive students looking at a society a lot of us have accepted as imperfect in ways we can’t change, and not seeing them as immutable. They’ll get some of it wrong, hopefully more of it right, will sometimes make arses of themselves, because that’s what students do. If you feel like they may be threatening your right to free speech and offensiveness, maybe you’re the one in need of bubble wrap.

Marie Le Conte is a French freelance journalist living in London. Her latest book is Haven't You Heard: Gossip, Power and how Politics Really Works.