Hesitations Outside the Door: Safe Space Policies

by Alexa Robertson

Maryam Namazie, of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, has commented that ‘it is ironic that these ‘minority’ groups demand a safe space when it is the apostates and liberals who need a safe space to go to.’

A safe space or ‘positive space’ is an idea which exists as a policy within many Student Unions across University campuses in the UK. Promoted by the National Union of Students (NUS) this policy operates as a form of protest against supposed discrimination, hatred, exclusion and essentially any form of disagreement. Originating within the Women’s Movement as a space in which women can form a sense of community without feeling judged by men, the safe space now branches out to groups like LGBT and Women’s networks and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups. The safe space idea has been implemented to provide an environment for those who would feel more at ease in communicating experiences in isolation from certain stimuli which causes trauma. Therefore the safe space can, in some circumstances, prevent distress and encourage constructive interaction. Yet, it is still the case that the internal dynamics of these groups’ views and opinions is complex and in danger of being generalised by the policy, favouring the simplified narratives presented by those deemed to be representative of the group.

By insisting on this policy, Student Unions’ are in danger of glamorising the idea of opposition; rooted in their hopeless obsession with implementing rigid ideas of equality and diversity. A space for one set of people is automatically a rejection of anyone who is not of that group, therefore creating disparity. The safe space risks students becoming intellectually stunted, wary of boundaries and isolated from real experiences of real difference. As Louise Richardson, the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University has stated, that students ‘must be open-minded and tolerant…must engage in debate rather than censorship.’ Open-minded debate cultivates a vigilant, unbiased outlook which comes from a place of human kindness; it’s far from safe to supress this.

The function of this policy is to supress negative behaviour and provide spaces for minority groups. The intention is positive. The reality, however, simply can’t be, as this patronising attempt to provide for misunderstood groups is creating collectives who subsequently demand and revel in an insecurity which is glorified in the safe space. A safe space therefore harbours rather than alleviates insecurities.

So what is expressed within these locked underworlds? Language is under surveillance. Certain ‘label’ words are prohibited and you are encouraged to think before you speak. Cultural practice and religious belief will go unquestioned. The campaign issues which are given attention in these spaces adhere to the view of that forum and rarely meet disapproval.

The difficulty for AHS societies arises when the safe space policy is used against them and their Union has no policy with which to support their position. This was the case at Goldsmiths University in November of last year when the Union’s Islamic Society (ISoc) created social unrest at an AHS external speaker event hosting Maryam Namazie. She was repeatedly disrupted during her talk with attendees shouting out, walking in and out of the room and eventually switching off the projector displaying her slides. Despite being a women’s and human right’s activist, Goldsmith’s Feminists organisation, in the aftermath of the event, sided with the ISoc claiming the AHS society, by inviting and allowing Namazie to speak, was attempting to radicalise people and incite hatred.

In order to prevent this situation from occurring again, AHS societies must review their Unions’ policies surrounding external speakers and Freedom of Expression. Safe space policies will align in favour of any group, or individual, who disagrees with the views of an external speaker. Speakers have to be reviewed by Unions before their invitation can be made public. Many Unions with strict safe space and No Platform policies will take their time with this process and will encourage, if not demand, security is present when the speaker is in action. Student Assemblies are the time when societies can propose new motions or offer amendments to existing policies which do not defend them. I would encourage societies to attend these gatherings anyway, to engage in the democratic process and better understand the mechanics of their Students’ Union; where it both succeeds and fails to represent them.

Moreover, it is important that AHS societies collaborate with other groups on campus. Especially these supposed minority groups who ironically have a great deal of power within Unions, many have their own representative officer. To enter these censorship zones will also be useful to understand the unresolved requirements of their advocates, and to gather evidence to support future change to the policy. By having comprehensive bridges with these networks, AHS societies will have the support they need when trouble occurs; furthermore, they will have others’ votes if they decide to propose new motions. This starts at the basic level of attending other society events, supporting their campaigns and getting to know their committees. It is exposure to disagreement and not hiding from it which develops compassion and tolerance, and ultimately complements the university experience.

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