A recent event was held at Emmanuel College to discuss safe spacesEllie Matthews

Last week I was fortunate to attend the launch of the Orwell Prize 2016 at the Frontline Club in London. The Orwell Prize recognises the best in British political writing, so it was no surprise that I ended up (quite literally) rubbing shoulders against journos and pundits as I clambered towards my seat. Coming down from Cambridge, I felt distinctly out of place; a book-laden rucksack was the shell to my tortoise, sticking dolefully to my back. The callipygian glass of dessert wine kindly offered on arrival somewhat helped to calm the jitters. We then sat down for the opening address by the Chair of the Prize, The Right Honourable Ken Macdonald QC.

In a determined defence of free speech, he offered a critique of the Counter-Extremism Bill pending in Westminster. According to Macdonald, the Bill could feasibly be directed against any non-violent but alternative streams of discourse: “Marxist analysis of a supposed class basis for our rule of law, and many atheist deconstructions of religion”, to mention a few. That is a legitimate concern. But in the very next breath Macdonald identified a second threat to free speech, and his words caught me off guard:
“… demands for so-called ‘safe spaces’ in which some young people in universities believe they should be protected from speech they find ‘offensive’ … could represent a real risk to the robust discourse and intellectual exchanges”.

Strictly speaking, it was my own reaction that startled me. I had never previously considered myself to be invested in the concept of a ‘safe space’. Indeed, I had dismissed it as a mechanism that compels minorities and various marginalised groups to hermetically seal themselves off in a room where they collectively brood over their difficulties. It seems anathema to the idea of active campaigning, negotiation and integration in wider society. At the ‘safe space’ forums that I have observed in Cambridge, the procedure is fairly ritualised. Various hand signals and gestures are expected to be learnt by all participants in order to facilitate communication. No matter how affable the co-ordinators are, some would understandably find the experience itself to be an overwhelming one.

But this is nothing new. Elaborate protocol has always been the order of the day in university societies and roundtable groups. Casting one’s mind on the Bullingdon Club or the ‘Piers Gav’ initiations puts things neatly in perspective; at least there’s no desecration of pigs or other related livestock involved in the making of a safe space. Suddenly ‘safe space’ regulations like attaching particular gender-neutral pronouns to attendees from the LGBTQ+ community no longer seem inconsequential.

A ‘safe space’ implies that danger is everywhere else. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t want people I like and respect to have to go there. But semantics aside, there’s an easy way to tell if you need a safe space. Just listen to the way you define yourself amongst people you should feel comfortable around. Really listen. It didn’t seem like much, until I tried it myself.

On multiple occasions I have explained my choice to study a humanities subject with the phrase: “'Cause I’m such a coconut!” What does this show about me? Does it show that I, even as a first-generation BME, am still desirous of asserting my integrative capabilities in British society (i.e. that I really am brown on the outside, but white on the inside)? Or does it belie the fact that I feel the need to justify my decision to read a non-vocational subject? Does some irrational part of my brain feel self-indulgent about pursuing something I love? I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. For years now, even those on the liberal end of the political spectrum have been identifying immigrants and their British-born children in terms of ‘economic assets’, or as quick-fix stop-gaps in the flagging industrial and STEM sectors.

Living and breathing in this political climate means that realising what your own mind is really thinking isn’t as easy as it seems. We need to desensationalise the concept of a ‘safe space’. They should be seen as a refuge from the white noise by allowing people to communicate with others caught up in the same identity-based flux. In short, it’s a way of finding yourself – cheesy, I know.

Safe spaces are not meant to impinge on the liberty of others. The most dangerous thing we can do is conflate the ‘safe space’ with the ‘No Platform Policy’, which in technical terms does impinge on the right of others to speak out. Earlier this month radical feminist Julie Bindel was “no-platformed” by the University of Manchester because of her views on transgender women and the impact this would have on trans students. Men’s rights activist Milo Yiannopoulos ostensibly came to her defence, capitalising on the controversy by remarking: “I’m disturbed by how quickly American-style no-platforming and the absurd ‘safe space’ culture has infected British universities.” But the two are very different.

On the most fundamental level the ‘safe space’ can help us to honestly articulate our concerns without having to trivialise them or to couch them in a bunch of self-deprecating ethnic, gendered or sexually-oriented slurs. Frankly, if that isn’t freedom of speech, then I don’t know what is.

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