The Majority of Us Have Safe Spaces — Give Some to Minorities Too

Goerlitzer Park

8am Sunday morning in Goerlitzer park, East Berlin. Revellers congregate to carry on the night, lovers wrap themselves round each other, the homeless sit soaking up the last of the year’s warmth. Three medium sized tents housing whole families are erected by the sides of the enclosed grass football pitches.

As I was jogging through, it struck me how different the atmosphere is compared to Victoria Park, East London. I started thinking again about the concept of safe spaces.

A couple of weeks ago The Echo Chamber Club ran a newsletter on safe spaces that can be seen here. This was a particularly special newsletter for me because it really did change my mind on the topic. This is mainly because it is so difficult to access information that promotes safe spaces — despite the fact they are rising in popularity.

Safe spaces

Victoria Atkins speaking at the House of Commons
“Freedom of Speech is a fundamental British value undermined by so called ‘safe spaces’ in universities, where a sense of righteous entitlement by a minority of students who do not want to be offended, shut down debate. University is precisely the place for lively debate and fear of being offended must not trump Freedom of Speech”

Victoria Atkins, MP

“Everyone is finding the concept of safe spaces quite extraordinary, frankly”

Theresa May’s reply, House of Commons 14th September 2016

Like most people, I read the media rhetoric around safe spaces and they did not sit well. A little too nanny state. I didn’t like that idea that certain people would be banned from speaking at universities, because to me that meant that students would not be exposed to different points of view. They risked being molly coddled and to grow up believing they could wrap themselves in cotton wool.

What’s more, the (very few) articles that promote safe spaces are appealing to the converted. They are written for the people who know that safe spaces are already required — which makes them inaccessible for people with an already incredible bias.

Let’s get started on what a safe space actually is:

“The term safe space denotes an area or forum open only to members of a particular marginalised group — who usually share a political or social viewpoint — where they can speak and act freely without fear of being attacked for their views, questioned, or made to feel unwelcome or ignored (as they may be made to feel outside of a safe space).”
Read more in No Fly On The Wall

The Fly Network at the University of Cambridge is for women of colour. Their definition is an excellent one and it shows that safe spaces exist purely for respite and for the pursuit of greater intellectual enquiry.

Safe spaces as places to develop lines of enquiry

Jacob T Levy points out most spaces in society are safe spaces. This is not a recent phenomenon. If you join the Democrats society you expect everyone within that society to have the same root beliefs (presumably that they don’t endorse Trump):

“What you don’t do in a student political community, is let in the person who is going to rant at you and say “You’re Democrats, don’t you know that Democrats are Socialists and trying to bring down America, and let me shout at you for a while about how unpatriotic you are.”

This is true of university departments as well. A chemistry department doesn’t expect to have their methodologies and lines of enquiry routinely attacked. They don’t allow members of the Philosophy of Science department into every enquiry and meeting. If they did have people there questioning whether their methods were correct the entire time they won’t get anything done. They just simply won’t progress.

And this is true of businesses and entertainment. Simon Cowell doesn’t permit non reality TV lovers into his meetings about improving X-Factor. Nor should he.

However, in all of these institutions they accept that when they come out of their safe spaces, they may be subject to this type of discourse. And that is fine. But they also need the room to work without having to deal with low-level debate around their hobbies and businesses.

Safe spaces are an entirely valid concept and one that exists throughout the whole of society.

Safe spaces as places of respite

Most adults have the ability to retreat out of the real world and into a safe space to catch their breath.

Most can go home to your family and friends, who you have chosen, and have by and large the same opinions as you.

Your home is a place to relax and not be challenged. It is your place of respite.

How would you react if someone who challenged your political and social point of views came into your home and started saying you were wrong? Chances are you’d find it incredibly stressful and ask them to leave immediately. Does that mean that you are against freedom of speech? No, it simply means that there is a time and a place to engage in that kind of debate. And that time is not when you’re about to watch the second series of Gossip Girl for the seventh time after a hard day of being in the real world.

De-platforming and public spaces

The majority of news about safe spaces has come about because of de-platforming. This occurs when a speaker who has been confirmed to speak at an event is then dropped, after a campaign against them develops momentum.

Notable names have been de-platformed; Richard Dawkins and Germaine Greer amongst them. It is slightly different to no-platforming, where an agreed group of people cannot speak at NUS (National Union of Students) debates and events. Amongst these are the BNP (British National Party), rape deniers and transphobic speakers.

It is impossible to de-platform nor no-platform someone who is in their own safe space. Nick Griffin can speak at all the BNP events that he likes. The biologists cannot choose nor no-platform speakers at the history department. Atheists cannot choose who will speak at the local church on Sunday. If you are an atheist and you choose to go to church on a Sunday, you will be asked to leave if you agressively disagree with the other people there.

However, when speakers are in public spaces, or funding comes from a general pot, like the NUS, then this is an important issue.

A person can choose whether to enter a BNP conference and hear someone speak, but you can’t choose if they are screaming on the pavement. Unless that particular pavement becomes a renowned place to go for BNP rhetoric, and it can be easily avoided by others.

Goerlitzer park as a safe space

Victoria Park in East London

Which brings me neatly onto Goerlitzer park and the comparison with my normal jog around Victoria Park when I live in East London.

Victoria Park is a safe space for families and sober middled aged professionals who like to use the park as a space of recreation. It gets locked up at night. Nearly every park in London is like this. What’s more, there are many public spaces that these people can go in their spare time.

Goerlitzer Park in the meantime is also a safe space, but it is a safe space for the homeless, the revellers and the young. It is open throughout the night which makes it hospitable for people who do not have homes, and need somewhere to stay.

I don’t mean to say that there aren’t better places for these people in principle. I expect the families in tents in Goerlitzer Park would much rather be in German social housing. However, for now, this is a much better option than not being able to erect a tent anywhere.

Equally, most people I speak to in Berlin dislike Goerlitzer Park. Whereas my network loves Victoria Park.

This doesn’t mean Victoria Park is necessarily a nicer park than Goerlitzer, but instead means that Goerlitzer is a park for whom you won’t meet in the pub. It is a space for people who belong to a different ‘club’ than you, and without meeting these people you’ll find it very difficult to see things from their point of view.

Physical spaces

So, the idea of a safe space isn’t all that extraordinary. What’s more they are required. And quite often, safe spaces for other people are extremely inhospitable for you.

It’s interesting because Goelitzer park may be called anti-social as well. Which is kind of the accusation being levied against safe spaces for minorities in universities. It’s not so much that people worry about freedom of speech, it’s more that they worry that they are not part of a debate that could be against their own social values. It could transform society in a way they don’t like.

When you call something anti-social; like drunk twenty-somethings out enjoying their youth, by removing a place for them to congregate and to go, (like Fabric nightclub…) it does not remove that desire to enjoy their youth. By not giving the homeless free spaces to sleep, it does not mean they will find £20 a night and go to a B&B. It just means they have no place to go.

That, to me, is extremely anti-social.

Alice is Editor in Chief and Founder of The Echo Chamber Club — where you can find different points of view to the metropolitan norm.