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By Jason Michael

Everyone is laughing at the “safe space.” We have been told it is where the weak and the snowflakes go to hide from reality – to get a free pass. But we all need safe spaces, and, as the storm clouds gather, some need them more than others.

We all have guilty pleasures. Mine is that I quite enjoy watching the most horrendous right wing channels on YouTube. It started with Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro and quickly descended into the abyss of Paul Joseph Watson and finally into the whole world of rage and paranoia that is Alex Jones. Thanks to Google’s insistence on herding us all into polarised echo chambers, my recommendations list on the site has become an endless scrolling menu of race baiters, anti-feminist trolls, with a smattering of Sargon of Akkad, and Scotland’s very own Count Dankula.

This is my world of online procrastination. It’s the very best of car crash entertainment, and I – ladies and gentlemen – am perhaps the worst rubbernecker I know. On Joseph Addison’s principle that ‘even a stopped clock is right twice a day,’ I tend to think that all of these commenters have the odd nugget worth our attention; they certainly have massive audiences. Clearly there are many who believe these people are speaking to and addressing their concerns.

Where I see them to be right is in their insistence that the antics of the lunatic fringe of the social and political left is causing many on left who do not consider themselves “progressives,” or the “new” or “radical” left to disassociate from “the left,” thereby defecting to the centre and even to the right. There’s more truth to this, I am sure, than we might care to admit. Identity politics, what the right has come to idiotically identify as “cultural Marxism,” has become the bane of traditional, sensible left wing politics. Rather than striving for class-based solidarity, the so-called new left has splintered into a plethora of increasingly chaotic and inarticulate camps demanding the recognition of the most absurd and hyper-individualistic rights.

Of course, all of this has become grist for the right wing’s mill. A new and emboldened right has been on the offensive for at least the past decade, and its efforts are bearing fruit right across the West’s geopolitical map. Time and again it follows the same pattern; pushing a sometimes coded sometimes overt racist and xenophobic agenda under the smoke screen it creates in its demand for “freedom of speech.” It asserts ever more aggressively that “offence is never given, it is only taken” – a phrase that has been taken up by those on the right who now demand the right and the freedom to say what they want to others without consequence or recrimination. Apparently they want the targets of their rights and freedoms to simply put up and shut up.

One response to this has been the creation of the “safe space,” a concept that routinely excites these right wing vloggers into apoplectic frothiness. What right, they ask, do these “snowflakes” have to a space of their own where they do not need to put up with our constant stream of vitriol and bile? They have misrepresented the safe space as some sort of spatial free pass within the academy, the college, and the university, where the delicate can ride through towards graduation without anything they might find upsetting, offensive, or “triggering.” But the safe space is nothing of the kind.

We all have our safe spaces, whether that is the family home, the golf course, or the gym. For some it is church, temple, or the mosque; a physical space where we can get away from the pressures of other people and their ideas, where we can be with our own thoughts and like-minded people. Technology has continued to eat into our traditional safe spaces, and youngsters brought up with and indeed on instant and pervasive accessibility, the cell phone, and the internet have in large part been robbed of these psychologically important dens and caves. The rediscovery of the safe space is nothing more than an effort by many students and young people to reclaim a place for well-being.

Surely a right that wants more freedom should have no problem with this? All sorts of safe spaces should and must exist. Places for recovering addicts, for example, to be with others going through similar struggles. There should be such places for LGBTQ students, religious students, and students of racial, cultural, and ethnic minorities. There really should be a space for anyone who feels the need to get away and be with others like them.

But our friends on the right could not have a bigger problem with this if they tried. We keep hearing the same refrain: “What about the whites and the straight? Where are the white and straight safe spaces?” As a white straight man I feel pretty well placed to answer that question – Everywhere! Here in Europe or anywhere in the West being white and heterosexual is to be part of the majority. Everywhere we go we are in a safe space. If this is how we identify ourselves, then there is nowhere we can be where we are not the majority and perfectly safe. Sure, if some other signifier about us – like religion or addiction – makes us odd then we can seek the comfort of others like us in a safe space.

The assault on the idea of the safe space – and interestingly only the safe space of the socially othered – strikes me as a particularly pernicious attempt on behalf of an emboldened and militant right to bully and further harass and victimise its targets; giving them nowhere to hide. The freedom rightists demand to use offensive language – racial and homophobic slurs for example, coupled with the mantra of offence not being given but taken, and the ongoing attack on the safe space, looks very much like a plan to position victim groups and individuals in a location where they are always exposed to insult and ridicule – yet denied the right to be offended.

Boiled down, this is the desire to have the Other permanently exposed to the gaze and language of the angriest eyes and voices of the dominant group. That is an open-air prison. It is clear that right now the Overton window is shifting to the right, even – in some places – to the extreme right of fascism and racial supremacism. Now, more than ever, those who are not part of the majority need safe spaces and we in the majority who are their allies ought to be doing more to support them and protect what few shelters they have.

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South Park – Safe Space – “In My Safe Space”


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3 thoughts on “We Need Safe Spaces

  1. I concur with everything you’ve written here. But…

    A question that I constantly ask myself is, ‘is the world becoming a less safe place and more right wing than it was when I was a child (25+ years ago) or does it just feel like it is?’. Part of my confusion is that I grew up overseas and therefore can’t really tell if Scotland (and rUK) is less tolerant now of ‘the other’ than it was under Thatcher in the 80s as I wasn’t there to see it. Similarly, I am no longer in the country of my childhood to see if they are any more or less tolerant to those who are not white and English speaking than they were then.

    The danger is that social media provides a platform for extremists of all sorts to voice their views and others to access them. But are there more extremists in existence or are we simply able to hear them now. But then, who hears them? I don’t because I rarely go looking for them and it could be the case that those with a social awareness who look for the extremists think there are more of them or they are more of a social force simply because of being immersed in their worlds.

    But what about in my world? My world (as I live it on a daily basis in a small village near Scotland’s largest city) is one of smiling, friendly, welcoming people. I see more ethnic minorities freely living their lives in the supermarkets, gyms and other public places I frequent. In 2002 I moved from Glasgow to Aberdeen and was struck with the absence of people of colour having spent much of my time in Glasgow living in ‘Asian’ areas and being surrounded by Glaswegian sounding, Urdu speaking, traditionally clad men, women and children of Pakistani origin. And then there were my Glaswegian-Sikh neighbours. In Aberdeen, none of these people were visible. Then something changed and over the years, until 2016 when I retreated back to the Central Belt, African faces everywhere and eastern European languages being spoken in the streets. Now, back in the Glasgow area I see that is normal here too and the POC are not just members of the ‘Asian; (by which every Glaswegian means Pakistani/Indian) community.

    Twenty years ago it was rare to see obviously gay men or women in the streets being openly gay. Now, my gaydar is not the best and never has been, but even I can spot gay men or women if they are holding hands with their significant others. In my childhood – both in Scotland and New Zealand – that NEVER happened. I remember it starting to happening ten plus years or so ago and being startled by the sight; now it almost seems normal. And, much more importantly, others obviously see it as ‘normal’ now as well. I remember how much resistance the media suggested there was for the very concept of gay marriage in Scotland but after the laws changed nobody seems to care anymore (if they ever really did).

    None of this is to say that minorities of all shapes, colours and persuasions are not still targeted by hateful extremists or offered abuse in one form or another but it does suggest that extremist abuse is no longer as normal as it once was. Perhaps our world is not quite as doomed as sometimes it appears to be. Just a thought.

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    1. That is a good question, and I’m not sure I have an answer. All I would offer is that you’re right, social media has made it more apparent. The swing to the right in politics has also definitely emboldened right wing attitudes.

      Liked by 1 person

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