Safe Spaces And The 'Right' To Be Offended

28/09/2016 12:37


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.