Silencing and self-censorship

The tyranny of safe spaces

We cannot start from the premise of exclusion, argues Yassamine Mather

Socialists should be in the forefront of the battle for the emancipation of the oppressed. So they should and do struggle against misogyny, racism and homophobia - not just as an integral part of the struggle for socialism, but also in support of women, minorities and gays against the burden of double oppression under capitalism. How can we do otherwise, given the obvious fact that 50% of the population are women and we live in multinational, multicultural societies?

So the debate in Left Unity and our disagreements with so-called ‘safe spaces’ has always been about one issue: how can we best achieve this aim? How can we find revolutionary ways of confronting misogyny, homophobia, etc within our own ranks and in society? Such a task cannot be undertaken if we limit ourselves to formal, often ineffective, forms of gender equality proposed by neoliberal capital - policies that are an integral part of ‘cultural capitalism’. In other words, ‘global capitalism with a human face’. We cannot rely on capitalist legal frameworks, regulations and ‘safeguards’, often produced to do the opposite of what they claim.

Most of the lengthy legislation in the health service, schools, universities, social services, care homes regarding ‘equality’ and ‘safety’ ... is written to protect the relevant organisations from prosecution for neglecting their duty to those in their care or in relation to legislation regarding formal equality. Very often they are not worth the paper they are written on. They are long, complex documents earning money for lawyers, but they rarely relate to real work conditions and should not be duplicated by organisations of the left.

In her speech to LU conference the Communist Platform’s Tina Becker, arguing against the proposed ‘safe spaces’ document, said it was patronising and bureaucratic. What did she mean by these two adjectives?

The idea that women in leftwing organisations need ‘protection’, as opposed to ‘empowerment’, is what is patronising. No doubt Felicity Dowling’s extensive work in dealing with child abuse cases and fighting for children’s rights is commendable. However, time and time again when she speaks about safe spaces she starts with abused children, before moving swiftly to the need for safe places for women, gays, blacks in society and, by extension, in the organisations of the left. I disagree with such a classification of women, gays and blacks as weak creatures - actual and potential victims who constantly need ‘protection’ from the rest of society.

On the contrary, as adults they need a progressive culture that encourages them and everyone else to challenge sexism, homophobia and racism. Comrades in Left Unity are not weak creatures: they are conscious individuals who recognise capitalism as their enemy - that is why they are in politics. They do not need protective legislation of the type social workers use when dealing with vulnerable children.

Here the example that comes to my mind is the struggles of Iranian women over the last 35 years. They had to fight misogyny not only at home, but in every aspect of social, political and economic life. The state claimed that their ‘safety’ was best maintained by segregation - in the home, or beneath the hijab in the street. But women rejected this from the first days of the Islamic Republic. They took to the streets and fought against misogynist legislation and, although there are still many battles to win, they have made great strides against all odds - to such an extent that the women’s movement in Iran is by far the most significant social movement of the region. Would they have been able to achieve this if in their battles against misogyny they had retreated to ‘safe spaces’? Of course not. On the contrary, it is precisely the ‘safe spaces’ provided by the clerical regime that they are rebelling against.

On the left the most effective way to fight sexism and racism is to make sure we battle against privileged positions and the abuse of power, against secrecy and cronyism. It was not lack of safe spaces that led to the disastrous situation in the Socialist Workers Party. It was secrecy, the power of those in authority, their ability to use ‘confidentiality’ to suppress reporting. A ‘safe spaces’ policy cannot protect women from a ‘comrade Delta’.

Serious approach

In fact there is nothing new or innovative about ‘safe spaces’: they have been practised in postmodernist US campuses since the late 1990s, drawing serious criticism both in academia and elsewhere for being impractical, obsolete, dangerous … Let us be clear: these criticisms are directed at academic institutions (ivory towers) that are actually practising ‘safe spaces’.

Those of us who want to change society must take a much deeper, more serious approach to this issue, precisely because of the points raised by Simon Hardy speaking at the Left Unity conference last weekend. If we had adopted the proposed ‘safe spaces’ document we would have been legitimising the exclusion of working class activists who exhibit any hint of sexism, homophobia, racism or Islamophobia. What is more, the ‘pure’ Left Unity envisaged by some would have had to constantly make difficult choices on precisely who to exclude. If there were a dispute between the championing of the hijab as a cultural religious demand by activists of Muslim origin and its rejection by feminists, ‘safe spaces’ officers would have to choose between the priority they give to fighting Islamophobia and fighting sexism. Where are we going to draw the line? Who is going to decide which minority’s oppression is worse than the others’?

If you don’t believe my prediction that this will be lead to vicious, anti-socialist, postmodernist battles, I suggest you take a look at the dead ends produced by existing ‘safe spaces’-type policies on university campuses.

On October 26, Edinburgh University’s Feminist Society held a meeting to discuss the future of Fem Soc member Kirsty Haigh following allegations that she had violated its ‘safe spaces’ policy. The existing regulations are as follows: “Members of the society are expected to conduct themselves in an orderly manner, and respect the right of all society members to enjoy Edinburgh University Feminist Society as a safe space environment, defined as a space which is welcoming and safe and includes the prohibition of discriminatory language and actions. Where a member violates these guidelines, the committee and/or welfare and accessibility officer shall have the right to deny access to the society’s physical and online spaces to the offending member, either for a prescribed period of time or indefinitely.”

Note the similarity with the tone of the defeated ‘safe spaces’ policy at LU conference.

In her defence, Haigh told the student paper: “I believe this is an abuse of the safe space policy to deal with political disagreements, something which I hasten to add I think is very rare but very damaging for the feminist movement. Never once have I been told what I have done wrong or given any opportunities to address complaints, but merely some members have pushed for it, to jump straight to trying to throw me out. In addition, at this public meeting I am meant to make a statement defending myself, again, without having heard the accusations.”1

In another example in the United States, Jewish high school pupils are given advice by the Anti-Defamation League on how to create ‘safe spaces’ when they enter university campuses, so that they can be ‘safe’ from anti-Zionist, anti-Israeli rhetoric, whereby the language of anti-Zionism is defined as anti-Semitic. The Anti-Defamation League’s ‘Words to Action’ are clear: “To diminish anti-Semitic speech, attitudes and behaviours on college campuses, to create a safe space and open up a conversation among students around issues of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias.” At the same time, Arab-American and Iranian-American students are creating ‘safe spaces’ to protect themselves against Islamophobia - a clear recipe for segregation and division.

An even more bizarre example is the story of Amira Hass, a brave, anti-Zionist journalist working for the Israeli daily Haaretz, who was asked to leave a Palestinian university on the grounds that her presence violated its ‘safe spaces’ policy. This is what Amira Haas wrote about the incident: “One of the lecturers explained that it is important for students to have a safe space where (Jewish) Israelis are not entitled to enter; that, while the law is problematic, this was not the time or place to discuss amending it ... She also told me that professor Ilan Pappe, author of the book The ethnic cleansing of Palestine, among others, had been invited to deliver a lecture at Birzeit, but, owing to the law, gave the talk off campus.”

Academic debates

Safe spaces or echo chambers? According to Wikipedia, an echo chamber in the media is “a situation in which information, ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an ‘enclosed’ system, where different or competing views are censored or disallowed”. Others have described echo chambers as spaces where people repeat and agree with certain ideas, congratulating each other rather than discussing new, conflicting ideas.

In an echo chamber nobody learns anything new or expands their perspectives. Similarly if women, blacks or LGBTQ activists refuse to confront their opponents, ‘safe spaces’ risk becoming ‘echo chambers’. A 1998 study by Robert Boostrom questions the ‘safety’ aspect of ‘safe spaces’ in universities as counterposed to the mission of higher education to promote critical thinking. If critical thinking is desirable in higher education, it is essential in a political organisation of the left.

One of the most informative studies about ‘safe spaces’ in universities has been carried out by Betty J Barret, published in the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Under the title, ‘Is safety dangerous?’2, Barret points out a number of theoretical criticisms relating to the construction of educational communities as safe spaces for students, in support of her claim that they may indeed be counterproductive to student learning. She refers to an empirical study by Holley and Steiner (2005), which found that students overwhelmingly “placed the responsibility for the creation of safety on instructors, listing 387 instructor characteristics that defined safe space. Indeed, the number-one characteristic that students reported as defining a safe learning environment was that the instructor was perceived by students to be non-judgmental and/or unbiased.”

As you know, the BBC makes a very similar claim. In a class society faced with many contradictions, how will we identify these figures, so essential to the maintenance of safe spaces, these responsible adults who will remain “unbiased”? How can we guarantee against abuses of power by such figures themselves in the proposed ‘safe space’?

Stay at home

‘Safe spaces’ must have rules to ensure that the participants know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. If the participants violate these rules, they are usually warned, removed or blocked. Safe spaces by definition do not tolerate certain ‘oppressive’ views, but who defines what is oppressive? There clearly cannot be much of a debate about an issue deemed to be oppressive - hence the accusation by some feminists in the US that “Safe spaces are silencing sisterhood”, valuing “safety over debate” and “leading to a tyranny of silencing and self-censorship, a policy of shutting up debate, keeping any dissent out of their little world.”3

The exclusion of trans women from feminist ‘safe spaces’ has also led to a number of debates challenging the concept of safety:

In reality, you are only ‘safe’ from things that might make you uncomfortable or triggered if you stay at home, where you have absolute control over everything that happens (and even then, not always). Each person’s idea of ‘safe’ is different, and therefore a group space cannot possibly be ‘safe’. ‘Safe’ isn’t real, and as such I believe it’s not worth investing energy in. It’s much better, in my opinion, to create spaces where there are a few clear rules for acceptable behaviour (which does not depend on identity or status of any kind, gender or otherwise), a stated expectation of kindness and goodwill, and one or several people who are in charge of smoothing things out if they go wrong.4

We are told safe spaces are places or communities - either online or off - where bigotry and oppressive views are not tolerated. As you can see from the examples above, such a policy creates contradictions, even when applied in a feminist caucus, a classroom, in social work. At best one can say the policy might work for a small sect trying to live in isolation.

Our task is quite different: we intend to change society and we cannot hide from reality. As many comrades pointed out at the Left Unity conference, we are socialists because we believe we can change society. We are not in the business of creating cocoons to protect us from evil - we intend to fight and destroy evil. If Left Unity is serious about recruiting from the working class, with all its prejudices, we must confront its homophobia, its sexism and its racism. We cannot start from the premise of exclusion.



1. http://www.studentnewspaper.org/femsoc-to-vote-on-removal-of-kirsty-haigh.

2. http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1005&context=cjsotl_rcacea.

3. http://quietgirlriot.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/safe-spaces-silencing-sisterhood.

4. http://sexgeek.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/if-trans-women-arent-welcome-neither-am-i.