Safe spaces?

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The cancellation of feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s gig at Goldsmiths College in February — possibly out of fear of protests by other feminists over her views on sex work — has escalated into a row over who is allowed to speak on campuses and who decides.
Different examples are being lumped together with little clarity. A recent article in the Guardian is a good example:

“Oxford University cancelled a debate on abortion because protesters objected to the fact it was being held between two men; the Cambridge Union was asked (but refused) to withdraw its speaking invitation to Germaine Greer because of her views on transgender issues; officials at London Southbank took down a ‘flying spaghetti monster’ poster because it might cause religious offence; UCL banned the Nietzsche Club after it put up posters saying ‘equality is a false God’, and Dundee banned the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children from their freshers’ fair. The Sun is banned on dozens of campuses because of Page 3. Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines song has also been banned by many student unions.”

With the first example, you have to wonder why anyone would want to hold a debate on abortion without women — until you discover it was organised by the anti-abortion Oxford Students for Life and the pro-choice voice was to be the vile journalist Brendan O’Neill.
The second is a non-example as Greer was not excluded. But the final four are cases in which “safe spaces” policies have been employed — and socialists would back most of them.

The media have lumped together a protest against fascist Marine le Pen at the Oxford Union and the controversy over Smurthwaite, blurring the distinction between “safe spaces” and “no platform”. But this blurring has already occurred in practice on campuses over recent years.

The no platform policy of the anti-fascist movement is clear. No Nazi should be given a platform because they aim to build a force that wants to wipe out, as Hitler did, the workers’ movement, any group which doesn’t meet “racial” requirements, and any democratic bodies which might get in their way. This is different from discussions about who to invite or who to protest about because of their views. And when a student union’s primary means of tackling oppression is through bureaucratic means then problems arise.

The motion to ban the Nietzsche Club at UCL was debated not by a large, democratic union general meeting but by a small union council meeting made up of elected representatives. They were grappling with a set of logical steps flowing from this kind of bureaucratic student politics. The thought process is presumably along the lines of: Nietzsche and the other philosophers to be discussed, including card-carrying Nazi Martin Heidegger, held views that were racist, sexist and homophobic and had links to the fascist tradition; such views are a threat to our diverse body of students; creating a safe space means not allowing these views to be discussed.

The desire to run a student union as an inclusive space is transformed into banning discussion of ideas we don’t like.

“Safe spaces” arose from the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. US students protesting against the Vietnam War fought for “safe spaces” without military recruiters, while the women’s movement set up women’s centres to be free from what they saw as the root of their oppression. “Safe spaces” today means that universities should be places free from violence, harassment and abusive language. But how do we decide what constitutes oppressive language, or even violence?

Some of the recent controversies are arguments within feminism about the status of trans people and sex workers. Some object to Smurthwaite because of her support for the “Nordic model”. They argue that this view, because it wants to clamp down on the sex trade, seeks to “eliminate sex workers”. Others have argued that Greer and Julie Bindel commit violence against trans women by denying they are “real women”. Many radical feminists certainly do need to be challenged on their exclusion of trans women — but do their views really count as violence?

“Safe spaces” ignores the contradictory consciousness that arises in all of us as a result of living in a society which is fundamentally divided. The ruling class is able to pump out ideas that bolster the status quo, as well as largely determining the material circumstances in which we relate to each other. It is not surprising that many people hold some views that uphold the status quo. If “safe space” means free from any people who may express ideas that are perceived to uphold the system, then that’s impossible under capitalism.

If it means spaces where the ethos is consciously anti-racist, anti-sexist, challenging homophobia, transphobia and all other forms of oppression, then this is what socialists should fight for on campus. But it should not be used to clamp down on dissenting views on, say, sex work or trans politics. These ideas should be openly debated.

Fighting oppression means organising events to welcome refugees, pulling together a fight of staff and students against the government’s Prevent strategy, challenging raunch culture. It means solidarity in action.