It’s a very, very long time since I was a student in the conventional sense. I did have a sort of extended virtual postgraduate moment in the mid-1990s, when I was working on a guidebook for prospective university entrants, but that’s about it. So I’m a bit late in the day when it comes to the concept of safe space and my response to it may be old hat but I’m so astounded by some of the things I’m reading, however belatedly, I’ve just got to respond.
When I first heard the phrase “safe space”, I assumed it was some sort of policy to ensure students didn’t come to physical harm; possibly akin to the reclaim the night protests against sexual violence that I remember from my own university days. Apparently not, though. It isn’t physical harm that safe space seeks to prevent; it’s the emotional harm of that might occur if you happen to hear someone say something you don’t think is very nice. A recent high-profile example came last month when a show at Goldsmiths College by comedian Kate Smurthwaite was cancelled because some people didn’t like her opinions about sex work. As one protestor complained, “They want really controversial speakers to come to campuses, over the heads of students who are hurt by that or disagree with their politics.”
Now, just let that sink in for a few minutes. This person thinks that university students – for the most part, young, intelligent adults, or that’s what we hope they are — need to be protected from controversial opinions with which they disagree because they might get hurt. Fortunately I’m not at Goldsmiths, because I rather suspect its safe space policy would prevent me from explaining what a colossal sack of horse shit such an attitude represents and that that the person expressing it is evidently barely bright enough to be in kindergarten, let alone at an institution of higher learning.
Listen, hurty person. Listen, even if it bruises your flabby, blancmange-like brain. University should not, must not, be a safe space. In fact, quite the opposite. It. Should. Hurt. In your three or four years at university, you should expect to have your political opinions and religious beliefs completely upended at least once a term. You should question your sexual orientation, your gender identity, your musical tastes and your preferred hairstyle. You should have your heart broken, crushed, pulverised, ripped into tiny pieces and blown forcefully into your tearstained face, five times, minimum. You or a person close to you should undergo a pregnancy scare, a bout of food poisoning and a trip to the casualty department. You should go vegan for at least a week. Overdoses are not compulsory but you should go through several ghastly mornings after, vowing never to drink again. If you don’t regularly find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 am wondering what the hell it’s all about, you’re doing it wrong. It’s quite possible that you’ll come out at the close of your university career with the same politics, religion and liver as when you arrived, and that’s OK; the point is the experiences you have on the journey, even if you end up in the same place. And if such a prospect is so terrifying that it puts you off the notion of applying to university, well perhaps you’re not quite ready, emotionally, socially or intellectually, to make that leap just yet and perhaps you never will be. And if you insist on going to university but don’t wish to avail yourself of these productive traumas, then don’t you dare, don’t you fucking dare try to stop other people experiencing them.
|This is me, at university, with unsafe hair. Photo by Susannah Davis|
PS: Via Clair Woodward, by Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times. Play-Doh? Really?
PPS: And now this, also from Clair:
Some delegates are requesting that we move to jazz hands rather than clapping, as it's triggering anxiety. Please be mindful! #nuswomen15
— NUS Women's Campaign (@nuswomcam) March 24, 2015