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Monday, 7 March 2016

Safe Space or Circling the Wagons?

A Woman’s Refuge is a place where a woman can go and be reasonably confident that she will not be harassed, typically by a violent or intimidating male ex-partner. The need for such Refuges is, unfortunately, indisputable. The capacity of men to behave badly seems to be fairly inexhaustible. In that context, a Woman’s Refuge is most definitely a Safe Space and most definitely a place that deserves public funding because it is a practical way of providing protection to those who otherwise would almost certainly be victims of crime.

This is a clear cut case because the threat is plainly and correctly identifiable and a physical space is the most practical way of reducing the likelihood that the threat will be realised.

Not all cases are so simple for at least the following reasons. First, a physical space may not be a practical option – in a society where all gay men are at risk from public violence, you would need not refuges but a collection of what would be, in all but name, concentration camps - hardly an improvement.

Second, the actual threat may be local or intermittent so that rather than safe spaces what is needed is something like a system of safety alerts and safe behaviour guides combined with pressure on authorities for better street lighting, better policing, and so on, to which could be added agitation and propaganda, consciousness raising and confrontation. Here the real challenge is to find a practical response to dangers which may be hard to predict and hard to police – the dangers come and go and return in unexpected places and so on. Probably, a great deal connected to women’s public safety belongs in this category.

In relation to these first two problems, a possible response is to try to ensure that at least some institutions – a workplace, a study place – are as free of threat as is humanly possible so that at least in those places, everyone can move about fear free. That sounds like a good idea though it should be noted that the greatest threat in the workplace is often posed by insecure and aggressive bosses, who can come in both sexes, all colours and any sexual orientation.

But there is a third problem. In all cases one relies on individuals or groups correctly identifying the threat to which they are exposed. But it’s possible to get it wrong. It’s possible to imagine a threat which isn’t really there and end up circling the wagons against an imaginary enemy. Meanwhile – and this is really a fourth problem – there may be an elephant in the room, a threat you have not noticed or noticed only sub-consciously.

I am trying to understand the current emphasis and enthusiasm in student politics on much-extended and constantly expanding notions of “Safe Space”.  Is the world off campus really so hate-filled that the university has to become a kind of bunker in which one can shelter? Are one’s fellow students really so awful that one has to be on constant alert against them, defensively carving out micro-spaces and offensively trying to repress others? Are Outsiders in the form of visiting speakers whose views you dislike really no better than club wielding thugs?

I rather doubt it. I think there is at least some exaggeration. But I do think there is an elephant in the room. It is the insecurity which arises from the knowledge that there won’t be nice jobs for everybody and neither will there be nice houses. Many students know that their future lies in low-paid work and shitty accommodation. That would make anyone feel that they live in threatening times. I am inclined to think that insecure employment and high rents make the world rather more threatening than the things which now preoccupy organisations like the National Union of Students. Bring back great employment opportunities, bring in cheap quality housing, bring in a situation where people have a bit of money in their pockets and there would be fewer - phobes and fewer people focussed on those - phobes.

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