A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech

On 23rd March I was delighted to take part in a debate at Goldsmiths College, hosted by the Goldsmiths Student PEN society, on the subject of ‘safe spaces’. It was an opportunity for me to iterate an argument I have been putting forward for a while: that perhaps ‘safe spaces’ are not the anti-intellectual, anti-free speech innovations that many free speech advocates take them to be.

You can listen to a recording of my speech on the player below, or on SoundCloud. The Goldsmiths PEN Facebook group carries photos of the event and full audio.

I will append the text of what I said to this post when I get a chance. I also plan to write a short summary of the debate and where I think it takes us. Despite my arguing, on this occasion, for the principle of safe spaces, I think the other speakers’ critiques of the particular wording of the Goldsmiths SU Safe Space policy was very persuasive. Continue reading “A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech”

#KillAllWhiteMen? You must be joking

Bahar Mustafa, the welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths, is facing a petition for her removal after she allegedly used hate speech on social media.  Apparently she used the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen.  Critics say this is inciting violence:  “Too befuddled by theory to know that killing is wrong“.

Obviously, someone elected to a position of authority and responsibility should be more diplomatic in their use of language so its probably right that she should be asked to step down.  But the story is a useful way to restate a point about ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’ that I touched on a while back when Diane Abbott was accused of racism.

Its this: My white male privilege is such that when someone tweets #KillAllWhiteMen, I assume is a joke.  I read the hashtag and my natural reaction is that she’s indulging in hyperbole.  Banter. I get to make that assumption because I don’t live in a society that demeans or belittles me because of my race or gender.  Nothing in the mainstream culture or media undermines me or makes me insecure because of my phenotype or chromosomes.

Black people do not get to make that assumption.

Women do not get to make that assumption.

LGBTQ people do not get to make that assumption.

When any of these people see comparable hashtags (posted, usually, by white men) the threat feels real, and their outrage in response to such message is real and justified.  Conversely, when there is an angry backlash against people like Mustafa on petition sites and newspapers like The Daily Mail, the outrage seems (to my mind) quite false: a mask donned in order to better fight the culture war.

None of this is to defend Bahar Mustafa or to suggest that routinely posting antagonistic messages is admirable.  Rather, its just to point out that context is important.  While laws should be blind to race, gender and sexuality, our society and the interactions within it are not.  Words that bite in one context may be toothless in another.

Indeed, changing contexts mean there will be situations where white men would indeed feel menanced by a hashtag.  For example, if it were tweeted in Paris on 7th January, right after the Charlie Hebdo murders, messages like #KillAllWhiteMen would take on on a whole new meaning, and I’d think again.