I was totally not going to say anything about this. It’s all so icky and shouty and serious.
But yesterday, when our Treez declared herself firmly anti-safe space, the clouds cleared. Prime Ministers spouting nonsense tends to clarify shizzle.
The really icky bit seems to be because it’s STUDENTS getting in a designer-backpack-wearing tiz about making spaces ‘safe’ and fretting about ‘triggers’. As we all know, there’s nowt more annoying than upstarty students reckoning they know best.
But you can’t keep telling someone they’re dead clever and can change the world, send them to university in order to get more clever at changing the world, and then tell them off for trying to be clever and change the world.
As with all changing-the-world stuff, there are those who take it to a ludicrous extreme. Some of these types are currently studying at the world’s finest institutions of learning like the LSE and Yale. They will be the Jeremy Corbyns of the future. The Stalins. Or they might get a crap job, have kids and realise the world is one gigantic grey area so they might as well chill and start listening a bit.
However, these worthy-controlly types only tend to emerge when there exists a genuine problem. And it seems to me that the problem here isn’t really that a few people are feeling over-sensitive, offended or uncomfortable; the real problem is that a significant number of us are genuinely traumatised. It might be by war, violence, abuse or hate-crime. Maybe not you. But maybe you.
Far from being easily offended, in my experience these guys are usually EXPERTS at brushing off racism, homophobia, rape-jokes or flippancy about paedophiles, because they have to deal with this stuff ALL THE TIME. But it’s kinda cool when you can study or work without being made to deal with it every two minutes
I went to university four years after my mum’s suicide. The Christian Union used to hand out their suicide’s-a-sin propaganda around campus. Once, when I decided to engage in a ‘debate’ with one of them, he cocked his head to one side and said ‘well I’m afraid your mum is in hell right now and that’s where she’ll be for all eternity’… Now it’s not his fault that my reaction to his right to freedom of speech was to drink myself into a stupor and self-harm all night. But I do think his words were designed to hurt me. And they did hurt, they really did.
What Treeza doesn’t understand is that if you’re say, transgender, and your University has booked a well-known, highly-respected speaker to come and talk about how she believes men who think they’re women are just plain wrong, the impact on that transgender person could be far-reaching, causing them increased prejudice and intolerance from their peers.
I’m not necessarily saying don’t book her. But I am saying that trans people have a right to feel safe while they study which they definitely don’t feel in the ‘real world’ while they’re being routinely beaten-up on the street.
By all means book a leading politician who believes women only get raped because they wear short skirts, but expect your female students to experience a side-order of extra-hate with their usual everyday sexism for a while.
It’s not easy to get this right. And the LSE students union are being daft. But the fundamental principle of safe spaces is a good one. It’s an agreement that here, where you study or work, you won’t have to face hatred or trauma.
It requires a recognition that many students or employees are on the real-life receiving end of the prejudice and trauma you’re discussing as an abstract concept. So yes, all universities should have them. So should your office and your school and definitely, absolutely the House of Commons.
Also, if you’re going to exercise your right to free speech, do remember that teeny extra bit where it says it’s not cool if you’re inciting hatred, even if you’re a dead-clever academic and didn’t mean to…