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In defense of the safe space movement

by Peter Hall-Jones, for the New Unionism Network &


Let's get real. Freedom of speech is a bit of a myth, isn't it? You can be prosecuted for libel, treason, blasphemy, verbal assault, incitement, offensive language, contempt, defamation, breach of promise, breach of the peace, conspiring, perjury, hate speech, "fighting words", harassment, sedition, obscenity and/or slander. Think back to your school days: we all learned very soon that we'd get into trouble if we talked at the wrong time or said the wrong thing. And that's those of us who are lucky enough to live in liberal democracies.

In other countries, in fact in most other countries, you can be imprisoned, tortured and/or executed for what you say. Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 (more), with 67 countries suffering a decline in political rights and civil liberties (more). And no matter where you live, people are regularly disciminated against for the way they speak. Voices can be too posh, too working class, too camp, too foreign or too impaired... open your mouth in the wrong way in the wrong place and you'll get mocked, bullied or even beaten up.

The safe space movement is an evolving response to all this. It's about declaring that behaviour in a particular place or forum (be it physical or virtual) must be free of discrimination, violence or hate. "Safe space" has even found its way into the 2017 edition of the Merriam Webster dictionary (more). The LGBT community has led these developments, especially since 2000, establishing safe spaces all over the world and in some places even developing facilitator training and certification. Inevitably, there has been a backlash. Some people have objected, as we will see below, saying that this represents a threat to their freedom of speech. In fact, it's fair to say some people have got themselves extremely het up. After all, isn't intolerance of intolerance a blatant contradiction? And does any group have a right to demand silence of others while seeking to develop a voice of their own? Among the people who have cried foul are characters as diverse as Theresa May, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry.

A university is not a "safe space". If you need a safe space, leave, go home, hug your teddy & suck your thumb until ready for university.
Academic and writer Richard Dawkins 2015

Conversely, academic and writer Roxane Gay argues (2016):
Those who mock the idea of safe space are most likely the same people who are able to take safety for granted. That’s what makes discussions of safety and safe space so difficult. We are talking about privilege.

freedom of speech cartoonThis is not a new controversy. People usually associate safe spaces with the rise of identity politics in the 1970s; the era in which Marilyn French's The Women's Room generated a furore as women asked for female-only spaces on campus. The '70s also saw the rise of gender caucussing, gay bars, Rock Against Racism, feminist separatism, consciousness-raising workshops and the anti-fascist "No Platform" movement. People were making it very clear that certain views were not acceptable in certain places. Back then, as now, many thought this was all hideously overwrought. However, proponents of the approach countered with a list of those who have been killed for merely expressing their beliefs. It is an extremely long list, though it can be reduced to a few famous examples: Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King, Giordano Bruno, Jesus Christ and Socrates. Thankfully, most people have moved on from the earnest positioning games of the 1970s.

That is NOT to say that the truth must lie somewhere in between the two positions, as set out by Dawkins and Gay above. Donald Trump tried to run an apologist line like this after the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. The racists complained their freedom of speech was being violated and Trump argued there were good people on both sides of the argument. This is neither even-handed nor fair-minded; the same false logic (known as 'moral equivalence') could equally be used to defend the Ustaše or the Khmer Rouge. It tells us nothing about what happened in Charlottesville and rather a lot about Donald Trump.

What Dawkins has missed, in deriding safe spaces, is that we are not talking about a simple, generalised notion. As so often happens in academia, his comment is built around an abstraction conflated to the point of delusion. There are all kinds of safe spaces for all kinds of purposes (as we will see below). Imagine that a child were to ask you: "Is church good or bad?". Unless you were Richard Dawkins, you would naturally ask for more information. What church are they referring to? What do they mean by good or bad? And, perhaps most importantly, why do you ask?

A more apt analogy might be to imagine Dawkins walking into a Wahhabi mosque in Saudi Arabia. Once he has attracted everybody's attention by declaring that God is merely a delusion, he might announce (as he has done in the past): "faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness". In such a scenario it might not be too long before Dawkins comes to realize that a safe space can be a very good thing. A very good thing indeed.

anti safe spacesWe are not talking about alternative universes here. One might argue, as does the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University Everett Piper, that safe spaces represent "ideological fascism". I would suggest that such strident attitudes are part of the problem. The photograph at left illustrates this wonderfully. For the record, it is not staged (more). Safe spaces exist as temporary shelters within larger spaces where (some) people feel unsafe. I suggest you reflect upon the data before calling them wussy snowflakes.

Let's start by looking at the wider picture. The LGBT community in China is a good example of a community with extremely good reasons for feeling unsafe. A group in the city of Ningbo recently created a map of safe spaces within the city. Similarly, the NGO Church World Service has set up safe spaces for the LGBT community in Kenya and South Africa. The United Nations Women's group and the Population Council have set up safe space programmes for women and girls in Ecuador, Egypt, India, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Guatemala, Ghana, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burkina Faso and other countries. The Muslim Public Affairs Council is using the safe space model to combat violent extremism. There are safe spaces for homeless people in Australia, gay teenagers in Korea, survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the UK, children and women at evacuation centres in Fiji, heroin addicts in Canada, vulnerable adolescents in Bangladesh and India, Syrian women in Turkey, and illegal immigrants in Texas. There is even an online safe space system for people who want to talk through workplace issues, as well as a host of other forums for victims of bullying and domestic crime.

To be fair, these examples were probably not what Stephen Fry had on his mind when he said: "no one's going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself" (more). Here, Fry was referring specifically to safe spaces on university campuses. It is these that are drawing the most heat. Author and activist Julie Bindel puts it this way: "There’s no such thing as a safe space. This is the work of privileged, moneyed, over-educated, pampered, middle-class liberal idiots" (more). Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is not so polite (trigger warning: contains irrational bombast):

Safe space culture is just another term for fascism. Hitler and Mussolini sought to create safe spaces in which only their views could be heard. Safe spaces aren’t therapeutic. They’re not the outcry of the oppressed. Instead they are sanctuary spaces for fascism. Fascism begins with claims of oppression. The Nazis insisted that they were the victims. So did all their allies. But everyone can be a victim in their own narrative and victimhood provides unlimited license for abuses... College administrators have turned over campuses to weeping thugs and social justice crybullies who screech about their pain even as they smash windows and wield hammers against their opponents."

Your Pulitzer is in the post, Dan. Safe spaces have also been parodied in song by the South Park crew (more), and comedian Adam Carolla is currently fund-raising for a documentary and a national tour to launch a full scale attack against them ("No Safe Spaces" is due out in 2018, more). I mean, after all, how can we tolerate such blatant oppression on campus? Hmm? You may have detected a trace of irony there.

Writing for the New York Times, editor and critic Judith Shulevitz ran a similar argument to the ones above but in a rather more sophisticated manner: "Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer" (more). Such fears are based on a simple fallacy. If a bar declares 6:00pm to be 'happy hour', the other hours aren't thereby deemed unhappy.

The safe space movement is not conspiring for world domination. We are talking about young women who have been victims of rape; gay kids who have been bullied all through school; immigrants who can't "just go back home"; muslims who are exhausted by a climate of suspicion and hostility. Fortunately for these folk, they seem to have an increasing number of allies. Those who are offering support are good citizens, not imperial storm troopers.

Whether it be in developing countries or in liberal democracies, there are a lot of people who have very solid reasons for feeling unsafe. There are times when they want to talk things over with fear of aggravation. At heart, that's all that the safe space movement is asking for. There will always be those who regard this as a threat to their liberty. Such a response does not make such people champions of liberty. It simply shows they have never felt, and probably never will, the slightest need to sympathize.

Peter Hall-Jones is a developer with the safeSpace project, which seeks to bring the safe space approach into workplace discussions. Himself a victim of PTSD arising from workplace harassment, Hall-Jones is also founder of the New Unionism Network. He lives in Porirua, New Zealand.


To date, the public discussion around safe spaces has been deeply, deeply shallow. If that sounds harsh, try googling "safe space". Instead of discussions about power relationships and how these may or may not affect social dialog, you will find squillobytes of serial posturing from those with the least to fear. Sadly, what minimal serious research there has been tends to focus almost exclusively on safe spaces within the U.S. education system. We look forward to being able to update the list below over the next few years with a much broader selection of contexts and subject groups. Please contact us ( if you would like to suggest a paper or link we can add.

Dr Barbara Mae Gayle, Derek Cortez and Raymond W. Preiss (2013)
"Safe Spaces, Difficult Dialogues, and Critical Thinking"
International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 7: No. 2, Article 5.

Barbara Stengel and Lisa Weems (2010)
"Questioning safe place: An introduction"
Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29, 505-507. doi: 10.007/s11217-010-9205-8

Janina Montero (1995)
"Safe Space or Separation? Mediating the Tension"
Educational Record, v76 n2-3 p37-40

Jonathan Garcia, Caroline Parker, Richard G. Parker, Patrick A. Wilson, Morgan M. Philbin, Jennifer S. Hirsch.
"You're Really Gonna Kick Us All Out?" Sustaining Safe Spaces for Community-Based HIV Prevention and Control among Black Men Who Have Sex with Men.
PLOS ONE, 2015; 10 (10): e0141326 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0141326

Lynn Holley and Sue Steiner (2005)
"Safe space: Student perspectives on classroom environment"
Journal of Social Work Education 41.1: 49-64

R. B. Boostrom (1998)
"Safe spaces": Reflections on an educational metaphor
Journal of Curriculum Studies, 30(4), 397-408.

Daniel W. Drezner (2015)
"Why free speech on campus is not as simple as everyone thinks"
Washington Post March 23, 2015