Eleanor Doward

Those who have never needed ‘Safe Spaces’ need to stop treating them with contempt

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?

stepford student

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.

6 thoughts on “Those who have never needed ‘Safe Spaces’ need to stop treating them with contempt

  1. Are you suggesting Richard Dawkins doesn’t receive threats and harassment online?

    He receives regular death threats for his criticism of religion, and he’s not an advocate for safe spaces.

    What’s more, he has never advocated ‘temples’ for atheists. That is an outright lie. In fact Dawkins vocally opposed the building of one in London which was proposed by Alain de Botton.

    Dawkins was quoted as follows:

    ”Atheists don’t need temples, I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on. If you are going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, sceptical critical thinking.”

    Your article is just yet another example of the ‘Oppression Olympics’. Victimhood has a currency in our modern societies and 3rd wave Western feminists like yourself exploit it for all it’s worth to serve your own circular narrative.

    Enjoy your safe spaces/echo chambers, but don’t try and justify their apparent necessity with unpleasant insults/threats or even mere criticisms that plenty of other groups of people have to put up with as a matter of course on a daily basis.

    No doubt this comment will be removed however as I’ll likely be deemed to have violated this safe space, but don’t mind me.

    Have a pleasantly normative day.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I’m sure Richard Dawkins does receive threats and harassment online. But just because he in particular does not need safe spaces does not mean that no one else needs them either. There are certain kinds of threats Dawkins will rarely, if ever, have to deal with (misogynistic/racialised).

      I have looked into the ‘atheist temples’ and found articles contradicting my own sources, so thank you for bringing that to my attention. However, I’m sure part of the primary aim of building none-religious schools would be to create schools that taught subjects without religious beliefs coming into the curriculum as well as creating spaces in which certain beliefs will not receive space to be aired which is, in essence, a kind of safe space. Thanks for pointing that out – I’m very busy so sometimes mistakes do happen!

      However, I find your claim that I am exploiting ‘victimhood’ to be kind of insulting. Do you think it’s right that people should just deal with ‘insults/threats or even mere criticisms’ on a ‘daily basis’? Do you think there are possibly people less fortunate than you – and especially PTSD sufferers, for whom safe spaces are a lifeline – that might not be able to ‘just deal’ with them ‘as a matter of course’? You talk about ‘victimhood’, but don’t recognise that some people ARE victims/sufferers of experiences you cannot understand and won’t sympathise with.

      No one will remove your comment. Don’t play the victim if you’re going to criticise what you perceive to be a culture of ‘victimhood’.

      • Hi Eleanor,

        Thanks for the response.

        My point re Richard Dawkins receiving harassment online was that by your own criteria he should require a ‘safe space’, he should apparently need one – yet he rejects the concept and doesn’t support them.

        Can you tell me what a “racialised threat” is, possibly provide an example please?

        As a quick aside, are you one of those people who seeks to redefine what racism is? Thus Richard Dawkins could never be on the receiving end of it as he’s white?

        Also, surely there is no worse threat that one can receive online than a threat to be killed, would you not agree?

        I’m glad you acknowledge that your initial claim was incorrect, albeit I have to question how you could include such an oversight in your article when within a minute of searching the keywords into Google you’d find that Dawkins was opposed to such temples. I won’t accuse you of being dishonest but it’s not encouraging.

        Can you define what a ‘safe space’ is please? Because you seem to be stretching the definition broadly wherever you see fit to make a point. I don’t think promoting the idea of a secular schools could in anyway shape or from be deemed promotion of a ‘safe space’. Secular schools exist today, you can consider an ordinary non-religious state school a secular school for all intents and purposes; there are no prayers before lessons, no religious ceremonies. Religious education will be part of the curriculum in much the same way history is for example.

        When Richard Dawkins promotes secular schools he’s not advocating a kind of safe space where no one is exposed to religion, he’s promoting the absence of religious indoctrination in school age children.

        A noble aim, I hope you’d agree.

        Re the use of victimhood, often fallaciously, to serve an agenda, it’s an observation I’ve made before and I make no apology for it. It’s convenient when it serves a political narrative but inconvenient when opposition can lay claim to it.

        No group of people besides Islamists seem to perpetuate a narrative of oppression or victimhood greater than modern 3rd wave feminists in the West; sometimes justified, many times not.

        Which is ironic, because it wasn’t that long ago the feminist society of Goldsmiths allied themselves with the university’s Islamist society after they disrupted an Iranian atheist feminist’s presentation (http://youtu.be/kl0sI47tVgY) of the wrongs committed against Muslim women in the Middle East, and a general critique of Islam. Apparently she was ‘Islamophobic’ and her pursuit of women’s rights was null and void as a result of her critique of Islam.

        Two peas in a pod. Both appear to despise modern Western society, for different reasons, and both utilise a narrative of persecution or victimhood to promote their cause and to silence critical analysis of their respective ideologies.

        Feminists like yourself need to decide whether your pursuit of equality extends to women who come from regions where they’re regarded as second class citizens and treated as such with often religious beliefs underlining such treatment.

        Back to your strawman; we’re left returning to what the definition of what a ‘safe space’ actually is. Rape crisis centres, women’s shelters? Of course, objectively good things – which probably fit some kind of definition of a safe space.

        Heavy moderation or censorship of vehicles for discussion online, or even those in universities?

        No, that is what I’m against. It’s authoritarianism in a velvet glove. To my mind there’s a ‘safe space’ in the generic term like the former example, and the latter which is a modern feminist/social justice concept.

        I believe in the free market of ideas. No concept or belief should be protected from criticism. No one should be denied the right to express their opinion, and no one should be denied the right to express their opinion on an opinion. Regardless of whom those opinions will belong to or what their content holds.

        Has it ever occurred to you that there are people suffering from PTSD who feel the same way?

        Abuse online is an unfortunate drawback of the openness of the internet, if abuse or insults degenerate into criminal threats then they can be reported as such and dealt with by the police.

        “You talk about ‘victimhood’, but don’t recognise that some people ARE victims/sufferers of experiences you cannot understand and won’t sympathise with.”

        There’s your prejudice speaking.

        Why do you think I’m unable to understand or empathise with victims of legitimately traumatic experiences, do you presume that because I’m a man and you’re tacitly referring to sexual assault?

        Where have I implied that I don’t sympathise with such people?

        That is the ultimate in strawman ad hominem attacks.

        I empathise with people, men and women, black and white, who suffer traumatic experiences; I sympathise with them. I support efforts to help them.

        What I’m against is the cynical use of victimhood, or the desire to claim victimhood as a token where there is none, as a currency to serve a narrative of X,Y, or Z.

        In other words:

        – I’m against the use of examples of women being criticised, insulted or threatened online to promote broad draconian legislation against anything can be seemingly arbitrarily deemed as hateful speech. I’m against issues like the said online abuse, an issue which effects all, being co-opted by feminists and presented almost exclusively as a women’s issue (once more we’re back to the currency of victimhood), when recent Pew poll results show a greater percentage of men than women have experienced threats and harassment online (http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2014/10/PI_2014.10.22__online-harassment-03.png). (However women suffer greater incidences of stalking than men online as the pew results demonstrate, and I’d support efforts to make that more difficult for a harasser to do successfully, or possibly even criminalise it.)

        – I’m against the religious, for example the conservative right of Islam, who utilise a narrative of victimhood and/or oppression of their religious beliefs to silence legitimate criticism of their religion. Particularly, for example, in respect of the rampant abuses and indignities Muslim women routinely face as a direct result of these highly conservative religious beliefs. Like those Islamists at Goldsmiths, who sought to disrupt the presentation of an atheist Iranian woman, and outright intimidate her into silence, in a lecture aiming to bring light to the culpability of Islam in the mistreatment of women from her mother country, and other Muslim majority countries.

        Before I go, may I ask why you haven’t written anything about the recent mass sexual assaults and rapes committed by North African/Arab/East Asian migrants and refugees in several cities across the EU over the New Year?

        A senior police chief from Cologne described it as unprecedented, that he’d never seen anything like it.

        Why are you not using this platform to highlight this issue?

        Do you not want to be seen as ‘punching down’ on migrants? Wary of possibly being perceived as bigoted, or even racist? Women in major German cities are afraid to walk the streets of their hometowns, sometimes even in broad daylight, under the threat of sexual assault and rape, and this isn’t a topic serious enough to warrant raising in your blog?

        I have a German friend who lives and works in Munich, his mother lives in a small German town and was recently approached as she walked the streets by a North African migrant who openly groped her and tried to draw her towards a park in the middle of the day, before she was able to break free and run to safety. This is absolutely unprecedented in such a town.

        Why are you not using your platform to speak for women like that? To oppose the immigration policy of Angela Merkel which is bringing millions of young men from the Middle East and North Africa, who hold highly backwards views about women, particularly non-Muslim women, into the EU?


        Richard Dawkins wrote an insensitive tweet about safe spaces in universities on Twitter, and that takes precedence over a legitimate rape culture being imported into the EU via a highly irresponsible and ill thought out immigration policy?

        Just to illustrate this, did you know that according to an independent study conducted by the Swedish government in 1996, that a Swedish woman is 20 times more likely to be raped by an Iraqi than a native Swede, and 23 times more likely to be raped by a North African (Libya, Morocco and Tunisia) than a native Swede(http://www.pdf-archive.com/2011/05/08/br-1996-2-invandrares-och-invandrares-barns-brottslighet-1/br-1996-2-invandrares-och-invandrares-barns-brottslighet-1.pdf)?

        Did you know that during 2010 in Norway, immigrants from North Africa, the Middle East and Asia accounted for 45.8% of all rapes committed in the country(https://www.politi.no/vedlegg/lokale_vedlegg/oslo/Vedlegg_1309.pdf)?

        My point in respect of my comment being removed was not a claim at victimhood, that’s a lazy jibe. It was an acknowledgement that you’re an advocate for safe spaces, and that such people don’t often take kindly to dissenting or critical voices. And, I’m not sure whether or not you considered this page a safe space of its own, and can you blame me given how vague/broad you’re being with this definition as I mentioned previously?

        I hope you extend the graciousness to this comment also, albeit I recognise it includes several politically incorrect reflections and facts, and that might count against me. This is your blog after all, and while I’d vehemently disagree, I wouldn’t blame you for removing it given you could run the risk of being perceived to countenance it – and that’s the appears the ultimate fear of the aspiring ‘progressive’ Grauniad writer.

        Just recognise that I’m not here to troll, I’m sincere and I wouldn’t have written in such depth if I wasn’t.

        While I’m here, I’m someone who doesn’t buy into the constrictive binaries like ‘left’ or ‘right’, yet believes in Liberalism, and secularism, and I presume you do also. And I believe it’s objectively true to point out that there is a reticence to discuss some of the issues I’ve raised here, particularly in respect of Islam, among people who identify with the former political binary, and if you will, I’d like to suggest watching this presentation by Sarah Haider, on Islam and the necessity of liberal critique:


      • So the lengthy response I wrote to you yesterday wasn’t approved/was deleted, why doesn’t this surprise me?

        So much for an open discussion.

        Like I said, authoritarianism in a velvet glove.

  2. Thank you for the response @ Belle Jar, for some reason I’m unable to find a reply button to your comment at present as I’m browsing on a mobile device, hence my response here in a separate comment, but I’m glad to learn I was mistaken.

    I’d just like to make a quick amendment, or highlight an error, in my second comment.

    I erroneously referred to the attackers in Cologne on NYE as “North African/Arab/East Asian”.

    This is incorrect and an error on my part, I meant North African/Arab/West Asian.

    This is a factually correct observation and is not intended to be inflammatory. It is demonstrated by a detailed report from the police force of Cologne and wider Dusseldorf, which details the nationality and age of the suspects in custody for the attacks, and can be found on the final page of their report here:


    I’d list them individually here, but you can follow the link and see for yourself if you so wish. With the exception of one 16 year old all of the suspects are adult men from between the ages of 18-32, all suspects come from Muslim majority countries within the aforementioned regions.

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