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COULSON Rebecca

Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

Professor: Hi there. I’m giving a lecture on abortion tomorrow.

Person-on-the-street: Cool!

Professor: Sure. But, suddenly, I find myself concerned that some of my students might have had experiences that could make this a difficult topic for them.

Person-on-the-street: Oh, wow. I hadn’t thought of that.

Professor: Neither had I! Don’t you think I should do something about it? I could email them, maybe. Warn them in advance. Wouldn’t that be…well, kind of me?

Person-on-the-street: Yes. Yes, I do! I think you must, in fact. It’d be wrong if you didn’t.

Who doesn’t want to feel safe? Safe and secure – secured in a safe. Risks might be fun, but risks are uncertain, and uncertainty leads to offence. So, safety first. It’s a big bad world, and only we – those of us who know what’s best – are able to make it safe. Of course, to do that, we have to decide who is most deserving of this safety: in our neatly delineated society, affording safety to undeserving groups precludes us from helping those truly in need. Some places are leading the field on this; some spaces are super safe. Those safe-house spaces are spaces we can learn from.

Here’s a well-meant list of some of the safest spaces out there:

1. Law lectures

Last week, it was reported that Oxford students have been struggling with the disturbing content of their criminal law lectures. Lecturers have begun to issue trigger warnings, so that sufferers can leave before the nastiest cases are discussed. Initially, you might think that this could mean you’d be in trouble if any of those students ever ended up representing you after, say, you’d been raped, or accused of rape. That thought would probably leave you feeling like a bad person, however – or upset you. It’s not very nice to talk about these things, so let’s move on.

2. Places with statues

Continuing with the Oxford theme, the RMF brigade (the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign’s clubbable acronym) are safety champions. It turns out that Cecil Rhodes – the nineteenth-century man on the spot whose endowment has long provided for overseas scholars – was a bit of a racist. Instead of engaging in boring intellectual discussion about absolute and relative moral values, helpful reactions to this news have included investing in signage to explain the statue’s  ‘clear historical context’, making a waitress in Cape Town cry, and searching out other dead offenders. Good times!

3. The National Union of Students

Speaking of students, the NUS definitely deserves a space, here, thanks to its well-crafted policies in this area (although they’re surprisingly hard to find on its website). OK, universities’ students unions usually write their own policies, and run events based on those. But the appointment of its new president has brought the NUS, once more, into the public’s non-visored eye. Students at particularly unkind universities are even seeking to disaffiliate from it – something that should be discouraged on the grounds of prejudice.

4. Other students’ unions

On the topic of students’ unions’ individual approaches, Edinburgh University’s showed safety solidarity last month, by clarifying its rules on hand raising. As the Daily Telegraph pointed out, its union’s safe space requires participants to  ‘“refrain[…] from hand gestures which denote disagreement”, or “in any other way indicating disagreement with a point or points being made”’. This is important, clearly.

5. Debating chambers

Next, and sharing the safe space’s conceptual/physical ground, is the ‘platform’. Or, more significantly, the elusive ‘no-platform’: the rescinded speaking invitation beating at the heart of student safety. Sadly, this hasn’t been entirely shored up yet, though. When speakers drop out of their own volition, or when private institutions choose not to invite someone (or almost all of the potential billions of panellists on Earth), we’re not necessarily talking about no-platforming, are we? More’s the pity.

6. The campus

For reasons that are  too nuanced to go into here, it recently became necessary for a Yale student to remind the head of her college that universities are homes, not places of challenging debate. You might think it a shame they can’t be both, but don’t be greedy! Campus leaders need to crack down on uncomfortable argument, rather than wasting time addressing underlying problems.

7. The class room

An American girl has been banned from setting up an Amnesty International society in her high school, because Amnesty, it seems, sometimes promotes views on certain places that could be offensive to fans of certain other places. This case is an especially nice example of a safe space, since the people this space is protecting (supporters of Israel) are often ideologically eschewed by classic safe spaces. This is a safe space ejecting safe spacers. (Yes, it’s all somewhat tricky to unpick.)

8. Facebook

Apparently, Facebook has been tacitly advising us on reading material. Rather than simply displaying the stories that have been most widely read among our extended ‘friendship’ groups, FBHQ has actually been shrouding the output of the evil right-wing press, and promoting petitions about the one per cent. Thank goodness for that.

9. YouTube

And what about YouTube? If it weren’t becoming increasingly policed,  Nazi puppies could continue to win uncriticised airtime, and none of us would know to avoid biased educational videos such as this. That said, the puppy can still be watched — more work to be done, here, too.

10. Scotland

And, finally, we now have a whole country to protect!  A legal challenge has been made against Scotland’s ‘named person scheme’. An essential part of the  Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, this scheme’s aim is to provide every Scottish child – regardless of their family situation – with a state-sanctioned guardian. What could be safer than that?

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