I came across a quote attributed to Larry Winget (a motivational speaker, self-nicknamed the ‘Pitbull of Personal Development’) which had been shared by thousands on Facebook. It was addressed to ‘College Students’ and said that ‘you don’t need safe spaces to protect your fragile ego’. What university students need is apparently ‘ideas that will offend you, hurt your feelings, stomp on your toes and make you mad’. ‘Stop being the victim’, it said. Being offended is part of growing and learning.
The quote was shared in the context of the battle against what the Spectator calls the ‘Stepford Student’; the ruthlessly politically correct and ever-offended feminist, ready to no-platform anyone with an opinion that doesn’t echo their own in their oppressive ‘safe spaces’. In short, minority groups are being told by certain (usually cis, straight, white) men (and certain women, lest we forget the likes of Germaine Greer) with a whole range of platforms to shout from that being offended is part of a growing and learning process, and that their genuine grievances – backed up with evidence and experience – are merely the signs of pious and aggressive personalities. It is incomprehensible to them that anyone might need a safe space; why can’t you stop being a victim? Why don’t you do everyone a favour and man-up?
Funnily enough, the people that spout these kind of phrases are the first to cast themselves as the victim whenever their opinions are questioned or when they feel their opinion hasn’t been given its due acknowledgment. A perfect example of this: I noticed that a friend on Facebook shared a post about rape statistics and one commenter said that it was demonising men, simply by not explicitly stating that not all men are rapists. Let’s all ignore the incredibly important issue at hand then, shall we, and talk about #notallmen. Suddenly the guy that was telling someone not to play the victim in an earlier comment lays out precisely who the real victims are.
It might be useful to say what a safe space is, or rather, what it can be, as there are various different kinds. A safe space can be a physical space, such as a room in which people belonging to marginalised groups are allowed to come and sit in peace or talk through certain issues affecting them, it can be a physical or online space in which normative and oppressive opinions are not tolerated, it can be a space to discuss political and social issues or simply a place to vent about oppression, or both. These spaces are of vital importance. They are spaces in which marginalised voices are prioritised and views that oppress them/ try to silence these voices are not given room to be aired. These views already have plenty of space in society. We need spaces in which they are not tolerated because, to give just one of many reasons, it is exhausting to have to battle them constantly, as so many have to.
Of course, safe spaces have their problems. Intersectionality is a key one – many feminist safe spaces should but often fail to prioritise voices of POC or trans people, for example, and slip into white feminism. They can be difficult to moderate, particularly when the internet trolls come out of their caves. These are credible problems with safe spaces, but the idea that anyone who tries to create one or is part of one is stunting their own ‘growing and learning’ is not.
Richard Dawkins scoffed at safe spaces on Twitter, but safe spaces are less about being easily offended and upset as they are about being exhausted, it seems to me. Dealing with those privileged enough to be blissfully ignorant of your own experiences if you are a member of a marginalized group, who talk over your experiences when you bring attention to them, who need things explained to them that you don’t have the luxury not to understand firsthand, is going to be exhausting. Safe spaces are spaces to breathe, discuss without having your experiences derailed, give yourself a break. (Also, in an example of delicious irony, the Richard Dawkins Foundation advertised ‘Secular Safezones’ as a ‘beacon of safety for none-religious kids back in 2013).
Other critics throw around words like ‘censorship’ or use the ‘freedom of speech’ spiel. An Instagram user called Womanist.Buzkill (who is an amazing and inspirational woman, follow her) is constantly hounded by people who parrot offensive and/or normative opinions in response to her posts, and then called out for censorship when she removes these comments from HER PAGE, which is a safe space for HER VIEWS and people who share them. Freedom of speech means that the government generally cannot arrest you for things you say, it does not mean that people can’t call you out for being an arse or remove your bigoted opinion from their spaces.
When I see students trying to make their universities safe spaces, and creating safe spaces within them and online, I don’t see political correctness gone mad. To me, it seems that many students simply will no longer tolerate bigoted, oppressive and/or violent opinions. Dawkins tweeted that if one needs a safe space, they should go home, hug their teddy and suck their thumb. But, for example, Dawkins likely won’t receive rape threats for voicing his opinion; ultimately, when he says this, he fails to acknowledge that society is not as safe for some as it is for others.