Nothing Edgy in Opposing Safe Spaces

13 September 2016
I read the account of Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who had to walk out of an address given at he Brisbane Writers Festival by Lionel Shriver, who mocked the concept of identity. Shriver, author of We Need To Talk About Kevin amongst other books, proudly declares herself anti-authoritarian and a scandalising provocateur; she recently appeared at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas to peddle her notion of breaking a rule a day.

But there's nothing dangerous about mocking safe spaces, trauma, PC culture or triggers. Everyone who who wants to appear "edgy" or show their version of "common sense", is posting on their blogs and Facebook pages, mocking safe spaces and microaggressions, and finding the whole thing hilarious. Tacos are cultural appropriation! Getting PTSD from Tumblr! I'm a straight white male, where's my safe space? (Shroedinger's shitlord: denigrates safe spaces whilst wanting one for themselves).

It's an extremely simplistic view of extremely complicated matters. As Dameyon Bunson, a Mangarayi and Torres Strait Islander man, said in his acceptance speech for the 2016 Dr Yunipingu Award for Human Rights, "“When I hear about the suicides and I see the devastation that it leads behind, somewhere in that person’s history is an act of racism. Whether it’s because they don’t have appropriate housing, or access to healthcare. We’re not talking about racism because someone won’t sit next to you on a bus. We're talking about entrenched, systemic racism that is keeping our mob sick, and it’s killing them."

Too many people still think racism means a simple dictionary definition. They think they, themselves, would have no problems sitting next to an Aboriginal person, or a person of any other colour, on the bus - and therefore they cannot possibly be racist. But racism is so much more complicated than that.

When you know better you do better. We know now, for example, that blaming bad behaviour on a bad childhood is not simply a matter of making excuses; experiences of abuse, neglect and trauma and early childhood fundamentally alter brain development; neural connections that regulate emotions, attachment, impulse control, are impaired. And we know racism hurts. Homophobia hurts. Harassment hurts. Being made to feel lesser for who you are hurts.

When you are secure in your identity, when you know society places a value on who you are, it is extremely hard to comprehend not feeling that way. No wonder it's easy to sneer at "identity politics", at attempts to reclaim what has been taken from you and repackaged for white consumption.

Because why would one need a safe space? What are they seeking safety from? Safe spaces are not intended to provide safety from "challenging ideas" or "alternative points of view". They are safety from hurt. From harm, from risk. Real hurt, because just toughening up on the outside shreds people to pieces on the inside. The damage may be hidden, but it's there.

People in vulnerable groups learn to automatically perform risk assessment, and it subconsciously informs our behaviour, if I get on a train at night, I'll automatically sit near another women, not near the guys who seem to have been drinking. Because I've been harassed on public transport more times than I can count, I've automatically tried to create my own safe space. If you've never been hassled, harrassed, or groped on a train, I'm sure you would think female only carriages are tokenism at best, bigotry at worst. Sexual harassment is all I have to fear. I don't have the fear that at any moment, someone could start to attack me for using my own language, wearing a symbol of my religion, or simply for my skin colour. It must be horrifying. Jesus I would like safety from that. Solange Knowles is one of many people of colour to have shared experiences of threats they face - in this case, herself and her son being pelted with garbage - simply for being in a predominantly white space. And heavens to Murgatroid, imagine being a scared and confused same sex attracted young person in the lead up to the marriage plebiscite.

So...when straight white men, or any other group in a position of privilege, demand a safe space of their very own, I say safe spaces are safety from threats, not ideas, and what threats are you seeking safety from?

Maybe instead of denigrating universities for offering safe spaces we should see them, as so often in life, as pioneers. Perhaps my perspective of this is slightly skewed because, despite being a undergraduate student myself (although I finally graduate soon!) I am not really part of university life; I can no longer pretend my fellow students are "just a few years younger"; they are a different generation, with different cultural references, different attitudes, and thanks to technology, different ways of connecting to the world - and can I just say, I think the millennials are great? By and large, they're more aware, thoughtful, plugged in to the world and respectful than my generation ever were.

I fear this mindset will have trouble taking off though. In an era of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump, everyone from Lionel Shriver to Andrew Bolt to the University of Chicago can get themselves some publicity by misunderstanding, mocking and banning safe spaces. The ironic thing is, if you want to see someone get hurt and offended by challenging ideas, mention white privilege to an alt-right type and watch them lose their minds. See this hilarious video on white fragility in the workplace:

Sure, we can get rid of safe spaces, just as long as we start having a long, serious conversation about covert racism, street harassment, state-funded homophobia, and other attacks on human rights, and the harm they cause, and we condemn them whenever we see them in society. And in the mean time, if these alt right types really want a place where they can stand for the rights of straight white men with other straight white men and their allies, they can always join the Liberal party.


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