By Rowan Gavin
Several months since the safe spaces debate reached the public eye, I’m sure most of you are by now overly familiar with the arguments being made on both sides. Likely you have had the misfortune of hearing someone say that, instead of attempting to exercise some control about when and how they are exposed to traumatic material, students should just ‘man up’ and ‘soldier through it’ like a certain group of people did ‘back in the day’. Recently, I heard academic John Gray on BBC radio 4’s ‘A Point of View’ making his case against safe spaces, and noticed a worrying number of parallels between his apparently sophisticated arguments and those that start with the command to ‘grow a pair’. I hope that deconstructing Gray’s 9-minute monologue can reveal a bit about how these kinds of substanceless arguments and the prejudices that motivate them attempt to veil themselves with legitimacy.
Gray starts by identifying three types of safe space policy: the use of trigger warnings, no-platforming speakers, and the creation of real physical spaces for students to find comfort in in times of trouble. Given that he’s speaking on national public radio, it’s frankly appalling that he gets away with being so cruelly condescending about physical safe spaces, describing them as “comically improbable” rooms “full of soft pillows and puppy videos”. He may as well be saying that people who seek refuge from abuse are a bunch of wimps and sissies, so demeaning is his tone. I guess anything goes when you’re defending the prejudices of the majority, right?
Anyhow, Gray’s main point is that encountering difficult topics in a certain way is self-evidently a prerequisite for becoming an adult. Implicit here, as in so many worldviews that make a sharp distinction between adults and children, is that this is also a prerequisite to developing out of the supposedly sub-human state that is childhood, to being a ‘real’ human. In order to really “explore what it means to be human”, apparently, we must face up to all the difficult, unpleasant and downright horrifying aspects of the world exactly when and how the blind chance of events throws them at us. But this picture of adulthood, of humanity, is not self-evidently accurate. In fact Gray is misrepresenting humanity, adults and children both. He perpetuates a narrow and damaging idea of what it is to be an adult, one which is pretty close to the macho ideal invoked when someone tells you to ‘man up.’
The use of trigger warnings and the creation of safe spaces are not refusals to engage with or learn about certain topics, as Gray suggests. Rather, these techniques introduce an element of control over how and when we engage. They are ways of making the harsh experience of living in an often-painful world a bit more forgiving. Yes, it is true that we often run into unpleasantness, into accounts or first hand experiences of violence, conflict, or discrimination, when we’re not expecting it. We don’t have to just ‘man up’ and be ok with that. That’s the first rule of activism: just because something is one way, or always has been, doesn’t mean it has to be that way, and doesn’t mean it’s wrong to try and change it. Safe spaces policies represent a desire to make our inevitable encounters with life’s bad stuff less painful and less damaging, especially if we have first hand and direct experience of it ourselves.
And no, that’s not an impractical utopian ideal (although there’s nothing wrong with a bit of utopianism). That very same desire is expressed in our normal conversational behaviour every day. We consider it polite and kind to avoid raising traumatic topics in the company of those who have been on the receiving end of related trauma, at least until we’ve been able to ascertain how they feel to speak about that topic. Whether someone is going through relationship breakdown, has lost a loved one, or has suffered from personal abuse, we give that person the choice of how to interact with the topic. We all appreciate it when people show concern for our feelings by doing this. And how do we describe this process? As ‘giving them space’. The parallel is right there in the language. But of course, these everyday processes are not infallible, and often our own biases will blind us to the moments when some need this kindness the most. Safe space policies allow people to make this space for themselves, to say ‘this is not how I want to engage with this’, in situations where such a choice is not usually available.
So, back to Gray’s problematic prerequisites for adulthood. He notes with concern our fear that acknowledging the facts of abuse, discrimination, war and torture will “paralyse us”. This fear is not unfounded. Anyone who has spent any time thinking over these horrors and their significance, or who have lived through them, will have experienced moments of paralysis, of collapse, of despair in the face of overwhelming reality. It’s pretty fucking horrible. But this is part of what it is to be thoughtful, to be adult, to be human in a conflict-strewn world. No-one simply shrugs off the knowledge of these things and moves on unaffected, as the macho ideal of the adult, supposedly does. Gray’s argument is admittedly more subtle than this stereotype – he rightly notes that coming to terms with the horror of the world, not brushing it off in ignorance, is the truly human approach. But he uses the same flawed assumption that there is something lesser about us if we don’t want to just let the cruelty of blind chance dictate how we go through this adaptation.
Many people have been forced to face up to unpleasant realities when they were not prepared to do so.
In fact, using safe space policies to exercise control over this process leaves us better able to do what Gray thinks we are failing to do. Many people have been forced to face up to unpleasant realities when they were not prepared to do so. Some have ‘soldiered on’ in the macho fashion that Gray and so much of society laud, consciously or otherwise. But many have not, have suffered from this exposure or fled from it, and it is these people who will often end up never engaging with the issues in question at all. Those of us who have the space and time to step back, breathe, and re-engage these issues in the way that suits us are actually better able to understand and address them. Gray is an academic and a one-time lecturer. I’m sure he told his students what all my teachers have always told me: the better you prepare for something, the better you will do at it. It’s not difficult to see this same advice in action in safe space policies.
Taking a careful look at these policies, it is very easy to see that they are meant just as extensions of basic human kindness, of acts that are common but not comprehensive and not unbiased. So why the vehement opposition? Safe spaces policies do not just protect us when we are vulnerable, they do not just offer an element of control to those who are so often denied it – they are a powerful method through which today’s young people are redefining what it means to be an adult, to be a real person, like so many generations did before us. The picture of life we are painting is more forgiving, more accepting, more accessible and more diverse. No doubt the detractors of safe spaces, from sophisticats like Gray to the more vehement abuse-hurlers, fear this new picture on some level, and that fear is the source of their prejudice. So next time you get into an argument about the damage that safe space policies do to free speech, remember that there’s a lot more going on here than the simplistic question of the scope of liberty.
Header image via