Neither side understands what a safe space is

People of a particular political persuasion love to stick one into safe spaces. They are, apparently, the epitome of the tyrannical left, the battle-charge of its crazy student vanguard and the death-knell for liberal values (ironic perhaps, given that last November many of them probably voted for the return of the Sith in America).

But to look at the examples they point out, you would think they actually had a point. Safe spaces are a good idea, but neither the people who claim to be their proudest defenders nor those who like making ‘triggered’ memes have understood what a safe space is.

Consider things from the other side. Conservatives (and those bigots who often appropriate the name) see a left which has made great advances in recent years: gay rights, women’s equality, immigration. They see some of these changes as bad; and they see a left which wants to cement its apparently controversial changes by totally shutting down debate, even when its ideas have enabled terrorism, family breakdown – or a reduction in institutionalized discrimination against transgender people (angery react, amirite?)

Everyone who suffers from discrimination knows it exists and is likely to be familiar with its rationalizations: stopping someone from saying them at your university won’t change that.

And the problem is, that’s how some proponents of safe spaces see it too. Some opinions are apparently too dangerous to be let through: they will cause great trauma to certain groups, who shouldn’t have to put up with self-evidently stupid bigotry. But it’s not as if everyone isn’t aware of these people and their ideas. Transgender people might protest the coming of Germaine Greer to the Oxford Union, but they already knew about her before. Everyone who suffers from discrimination knows it exists and is likely to be familiar with its rationalizations: stopping someone from saying them at your university won’t change that. Yes, they are given a platform, but anyone who gets invited to speak at the Oxford Union probably already has one.

A safe space is somewhere students can be without having to listen to Ms Greer; or Peter Hitchens, or Nigel Farage, or Katie Hopkins. (All past speakers at the Oxford Union.) The point of it is to be an escape route, a place of rest in a nasty world. That isn’t a particularly radical concept – or even a new one. Does anyone really think it’s unreasonable to be able to go to a particular society or gathering and not have to listen to bigoted garbage? Does anyone really think it’s unreasonable to have somewhere without politics, where you can ignore Trump and Brexit? It’s the equivalent of telling people not to drink at Alcoholics Anonymous: this is our space, you can find another one.

But the Oxford Union is not an appropriate place to construct a safe place. It is explicitly devoted to debate and opinion and its obligation is to fulfil this mandate, not to create a safe space. People will know what to avoid and are able comfortably to attend many more events than they will miss. Making an entire university into a safe space is impossible and undesirable, because rather than removing poison from our discourse it is merely channelled elsewhere. You might be fine reading the Union’s term card, but as soon as you go on the internet a world of hate is a button away. And the advantage of the former is that it can have trigger warnings.

That’s not to say anything goes outside of a strictly designated safe space. Cecil Rhodes is not proclaiming a profound opinion from the walls of Oriel, and taking down his statue is neither an attack on free speech nor erasing history. The campaigners who supposedly want to ignore the past have done far more to raise it than the people fighting to keep the statue, the presence of which is inappropriate because it actively celebrates a man known for the mass-scale exploitation of non-whites. Very few would protest the demolition of a Hitler statue on Broad Street, or accept the allegation that doing so is a rejection of the fact of his existence.

But using the idea of safe spaces to justify the prescription of a compulsory way of talking and acting across a whole university is a departure from the concept. We rightly criticize those who dismiss us as snowflake students, and we should apply the same treatment to all who misunderstand or misrepresent ideas designed to protect us.