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Safe Spaces Are Not About Political Correctness - They're About Dealing With People Who Tell You What to Think

06/05/2016 12:12 | Updated 06 May 2016

So John Cleese has just issued a video reiterating probably the most common reaction decent, liberal people have when faced with the phenomenon of student unions and other groups banning certain speakers on the grounds of preserving their 'safe space'.

Like probably the majority of good, well-intentioned, left-leaning people, especially ones who've had to debate with genuinely barmy religious fanatics who want them banned, even more so ones who've had the odd tough time themselves, eh John?...he thinks that this is about Free Speech.

I used to think so too. And I still think that at some point, if we are to solve the world's problems, after the banging and shouting and killing has exhausted us mutually, enemies have to get together and talk. Yes, of course they do.

But not at every stage in the process. Only once there actually is a chance of real talk. And that may take an awfully long time. It's taken millennia, in the case of men versus women.

Because, though I love John Cleese, I don't think he, or the majority liberal view, get the point. This issue is not about Free Speech. It's not about equally free and self-affirming people working out their differences together. Nor is it about asserting that words are like machetes.

It is about Power.

Personally, I don't think no-platforming and a policy of non-engagement works as a tactic in most cases. However I have argued for it in some. One is the case of AIDS denialists, because their ideas are so harmful and so likely to influence the desperate.

Sometimes you meet people who are so deluded, so inflexible, so malignant, and so persuasive, what do you do? Everything you say to them will be twisted into their world view - and that world view seems to be designed to hook those already adrift and lost. Who, in the case of AIDS denialism, will die.

In addition, like a domestic bully, like nasty Rob Titchener in the Archers, if you have any degree of uncertainty within you, they'll Gaslight you: they'll end up making you feel like the crazy one. In these cases, as any marital therapist would say, the only tactic is non-engagement. Get away from the bully.

Bullies? Yes. When it comes to things like trans activism, the frustration, I sense, that leads to no-platforming comes from dealing with people who regards themselves so inflexibly as having the right, progressive, intellectually sophisticated and enlightened opinions, that not only can't you actually have a debate with them, but trying to do so will drive you crazy.

Let me tell you what I mean. The BBC recently held a debate between no-platformers, chiefly queer activists, and people who've been no-platformed.

There was an interesting contrast at the BBC debate in the latter group. There was Peter Tatchell, who has been accused of inflexibility and no-platformed for it, but at least seemed to be prepared to acknowledge that opinions in queer politics change. And, sitting next to him, Julie Bindel, who seemed completely stuck in an 80s feminist viewpoint, to which she was clearly deeply committed, that trans activists and indeed trans people are mistaken about what they experience, feel and think. They're Wrong.

This is because trans people can't possibly have an idea about what it's actually like being the opposite gender, are gender imperialists, themselves have rigid ideas about that being a man or women is, and so on; to the point where Bindel not only utterly dismisses their experience of being in the wrong body as invalid, but has said publicly that being a trans person is to have a psychiatric disorder.

A view, given the history of gay politics and the long fight of gay people to throw off the label of mental illness, that lacks historical perspective and a sense of irony to a jaw-dropping degree.

But the issue isn't whether Bindel is right or wrong about trans people.

It's that she was, ironically, deeply patronising towards the trans activists. In other words she, who as a woman and a masculine lesbian-identified woman at that, is used to fighting for the rights of oppressed people like herself, can't make the mental shift to understand when she is the one who is exerting maddening power over another group, with her greater articulacy and greater theoretical background.

So it's not about what she says, it's about the power, certainty and entitlement with which she says it.

The point about new liberation movements is that they are movements of the previously silent, people who are beginning to find their own language and the theory behind that language.

So they can often be inarticulate, strident, contradictory, hypervigilant, angry, touchy people. Sometimes they can be overly cerebral as a way of trying to deal with pain and inarticulacy. Read Frantz Fanon on the problem of black minorities even finding a language to discuss their experience, for instance. It's not just about what words are used, it is about having words at all, it is about power imbalance.

So Cleese is quite right in one way when he quotes Skinner saying "People who can't handle their emotions start having to control others' behaviour".

But that begs the question: "Why should I effing have to control my emotions all the bloody time?" This is ironic in the trans decbate, since so much feminism has been about women asserting the right to be angry when faced with men's bland, overwhelming assumptions that they are the rational ones. Don't worry your pretty little head about it, etc.

That doesn't mean people like Julie Bindel should be silenced - not at all. Not even AIDS or holocaust deniers should be everywhere silenced, in my opinion. On the contrary, they should be vigorously engaged and argued with. If their minds cannot be changed, at least others can change their minds about those minds.

However, people have a perfect right to say "I'll hear that person, but I don't bloody well see why I should have to hear them here. Or now."

That's what people mean by safe space. This can sometimes be handled with insensitive stridency and off-putting militancy but it does not mean that the people doing the no-platforming are necessarily rigid ideologues. Some may be; but it's more the case that, to use a slightly off metaphor, with a big enough flock the sheep turn against the wolves. Solidarity.

It's about wanting the institution you belong to, rather than having a stance of 'balance', instead to advocate for you. To be on your side. A perfectly natural thing to want.

I don't think it's about spoilt millennials failing to grow up and demanding to be cocooned. I think it's about two generations of queer politics clashing who don't understand each other, one of whom want a bit of space to develop without being told they are nutters.

And it's also about a generation of people - do I have to say baby-boomers? - who have such a deeply entrenched view of themselves as speaking for the oppressed and (especially through comedy) mocking authority, that they can't deal with the idea that some people experience THEM as the oppressors.

Right-wingers don't give a stuff about being no-platformed, because they already know it's all about power and manipulation. Left-wingers are deeply hurt. Aren't they the good ones?

I've been on that side. Sometimes I've been the authority. I've been told off by black activist friends when I asserted something about black people's experience without actually having had that experience.

More fundamentally, take the no-platforming that goes on about religion, Jewish vs Muslim, atheists vs religious. As an atheist, I have occasionally come across deeply wounded reactions when I'm flip about religion. Especially when I have used the "religion is a bit mental" line.

I know very religious people who are among the most compassionate and clever people I know, and who think deeply about the same kind of existential, moral and political issues that bother me (probably too much).

And yet I can't deny that I feel proud that I am an atheist. Proud because I think atheism is the harder, tougher choice, to look unblinkingly at the realities of life and death without the reassurance of heaven or a saviour.

But how do I express my belief in non-belief, without implicitly belittling the choice of believers? It is difficult.

I think there is a balance to be struck. On the one hand, yes, absolutely, people don't have a right not to be offended, and speaking up is growing up.

But, on the other hand, you should realise when you are riding roughshod over someone's pain and should f*****g shut up and listen a bit if you actually want people to engage with your point of view, and maybe agree to disagree.

Instead of feeling they have to run away, or block their ears and go la-la-la. Or no-platform you, which is the institutional equivalent.

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