Thursday, 28 December 2017

Safe Spaces

A microphone as you would find attached to a speaking lectern.
You hear a lot these days about “safe spaces”, be it from those who are advocating them or those who decry them as an assault on free speech. We hear about “no platforming”, and just recently the UK's Universities minister has warned that Universities could face a fine over such policies, as they should be seen to have a duty to uphold freedom of speech.
This is a really complicated issue, with intertwining concerns and subtle variations of meaning in terms like “safe space”, “no platform”, and “free speech”. It's also a concern for Quakers, as there have been, from various quarters at various times, suggestions that some Quaker spaces should be safe. So, let's take a look at some of the meanings given to these terms, which will also give an overview of the overall politics of the situation, and see what they mean for Quakers, both in our own spaces and in terms of our approach to wider society. Buckle in, it's a long ride.
Let's start with “free speech”. It's a favoured chant of people with unpopular and unsavoury views, that they should have unfettered opportunity to broadcast their rhetoric – however hateful and harmful. Freedom of speech is a very important right, however, protected in Europe by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and in America by the First Amendment to the constitution, and by similar provisions in much of the global economic north – and a fair amount of the rest of the world. It is seen as an essential component of human rights and fundamental freedoms. To my knowledge, however, there is nowhere that the right is absolute. The European Convention allows for restrictions “prescribed by law and necessary in a free society”, with specific examples including the prevention of disorder and crime, protection of the rights or reputation of others, and maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary. In the UK, these allow for laws regarding incitement to violence, libel laws, and restriction of publishing information related to ongoing legal matters respectively – among other things. Constitutionally valid restrictions on speech in the United States are not set out in statute-like form, as in the Council of Europe, but they are reasonably well-established in case law, including “true threats”, incitement to imminent lawless action, “fighting words”, defamation, obscenity, and government is allowed to pass laws that make reasonable restrictions on time, place or manner of speech. In almost all cases, private entities are allowed to restrict speech in places, venues and platforms that they control (some states of the USA have broader protections, though still not unlimited).
Thus, those complaining about forum rules on the internet being contrary to legal free speech are generally completely mistaken as to their rights. Similarly, a pub or club is free to bar people from entry based on their clothing, despite that being an element of free expression. Governments, however, can't generally prosecute people or otherwise restrict their speech unless it violates some specific provision, and such provisions can generally be challenged in court. So holocaust denial or support for Nazism, and casual use of Nazi iconography, are illegal in some countries in Europe, and the Strasbourg court has endorsed the idea that, in these countries, such matters are reasonably prescribed by law and necessary in a free society. Even membership in some organisations, sometimes considered part of the same right as free expression, and sometimes as a separate right of free association, can be prescribed by law when there is sufficient justification.
The important point to realise in the context of “safe space”/“no platform” debates, however, is that these rights only protect people from having their speech restricted, and only by the state (or other public authorities). As already mentioned, it does not require anyone else to permit speech, and it also does not require anyone, not even a government or public authority, to actively enable any given expression. Thus you may not be able to stop someone standing on a street corner and yelling whatever they like, but you are not required to provide to them, on demand, a venue for them to have an organised speech. In the case of universities, which (in the UK) may be considered public authorities, it would seem to me that a case could be made that speakers cannot be banned from campus entirely, but also that it would be unreasonable to prohibit refusal of organised events in non-public areas. Certainly, a given organisation within the university should be free to decide who it is willing to have speak at events. Likewise, protests in advance of or outside an event are also matters of free expression and association. However, a university, or some umbrella within it like a students union, telling all the units beneath it that certain speakers are not allowed – that is questionable. That is one of the forms that “no platforming” may take – a policy decision to deny certain people or organisations a platform, regardless of who invites them and what they would be saying. While I would hate to see the BNP allowed to hold a rally at a university, or Britain First given implicit status by allowing Jayda Fransen to address an event run by a student society, I am deeply uncomfortable with blanket bans that would give the simplest way of preventing this.
A frequent response to no platforming is to suggest that those who impose such restrictions are intending to make universities a “safe space”, and that this goes against the proud tradition of free intellectual inquiry and debate of the university ideal. The idea being that those wishing to prevent, say, Germaine Greer speaking, wish to be kept safe – and keep other students safe – from speech they consider offensive. This is a mutation of the idea of safe space as I first learned it, which referred to spaces where a marginalised group could operate in a position of strength and safety, the space being controlled by that group. This included gay bars, and consciousness raising groups in the women's movement – a space for LGBT people where they could be themselves, or where women could talk about women's issues and gender politics without interjections from men; not only were these spaces controlled by the marginalised group, not only were they areas that it was not acceptable to use language or voice opinions offensive to that group, but also steps were taken to make them physically safe, to reduce the risk of violent attacks or sexual assaults. Where those outside the marginalised group were permitted into such spaces, they were expected to understand that the space was not theirs, and that they would be expected to leave if they did anything that seemed to threaten the safety of the space. Where such threat was physical, they might be expected to leave at great velocity.
This became expanded, with businesses, workplaces and other spaces designated LGBT safe spaces by those controlling them, an open promise that harassment and persecution would not be tolerated in those spaces. Particular classes at colleges and universities might be so designated, indicating that everyone would have their gender identity respected, and that homophobic and transphobic slurs would not be tolerated, that deliberate misgendering would be confronted, and so on. With the idea expanding to other marginalised groups, it might mean that propagation of sexist stereotypes would not be tolerated in the class – though if relevant to the class they might be discussed critically, or disablist attitudes confronted. The choice of texts is important here; where some area of thought, or literary or artistic endeavour, has prejudiced thought as a major component of its history, it cannot be whitewashed, but it need not be celebrated. Attempts in literature to challenge attitudes, current or historical, will mean depicting those attitudes, including the language characteristic of such attitudes. To Kill a Mockingbird gives great insight, and a critical approach, to racism at a certain period and in a certain place in America, but that means it features words not considered acceptable today. Provided that students are correctly prepared and supervised, and their readiness for the material judged, this need not mean such works be excluded from study, even during compulsory education.
The allegation now is that student activism has led to attempts to define entire institutions in this way, thus restricting the free speech of those who hold, quite legally, homophobic, transphobic, racist or sexist views. It is certainly not a difficult argument to make, to allege that such restrictions not only restrict speech, but limit intellectual discourse. I'm not sure if it is student activists or their critics who have misunderstood the idea of safe spaces leading to this concern; a safe space does not require that slurs never be said, the words completely outlawed, nor that difficult attitudes never be discussed. By my understanding, it simply requires that those who are normally the target of such things not find themselves the object of such terms and attitudes. You can discuss the labelling of people with certain impairment as retards or cripples, or examine arguments against laws and policies promoting the inclusion of disabled people, without endorsing those terms or those arguments. I don't pick that example incidentally, by the way; I pick it as the axis of oppression that I find myself affected most by, being white, heterosexual, cisgender and male. If I were attending a university class where such matters were relevant, I would feel unsafe, to some degree, if I were confronted by someone actively arguing that the university should not be expected to make any adjustments to allow me to participate; I would not feel unsafe if we were simply discussing that such attitudes exist, and looking at the nature of their arguments. I also recognise, however, that properly discussing these attitudes in class would be facilitated by allowing students who have that attitude to come forward and articulate them – I would just appreciate warning about when that's going to happen, so I can be prepared and decide whether I can face it.
Really, an important question here is when is open expression of an attitude reasonable speech, and when is it victimisation and harassment? There is a difference between someone holding and expressing the view that people like me should be institutionalised – or that homosexuality is a sin, or that trans individuals are just mentally ill and should be helped to accept the gender they were assigned at birth – and people yelling “go home cripple” at me, or picketing gender identity clinics, or chanting outside LGBTSoc meetings. In the context of a society where the latter happens, it is not unreasonable for people to feel threatened by the former. In this context, no platforming is not simply a case of “we don't like them, we won't let them speak”, nor is it just “we must make sure that they do not say the things we find objectionable”. Even where sufficient assurances are given that a person won't contravene the expectations of the safe space, where a person is closely associated with the speech objected to, such as Germain Greer and transphobia, or Jayda Fransen and Islamophobia, or Milo Yiannopoulos and a dazzling range of alt-right nastiness, simply allowing that person to speak may be seen as a repetition of that speech, and certainly as endorsement of them in general. Personally, I think this can be reasonable in relatively extreme cases, but where a person is no platformed for some relatively obscure thing they said at some point – as opposed to a key part of the speech they are generally associated with – it may go beyond that reasonableness; of course, the context and audience involved are also key in making that determination.
Yes, people who are marginalised should be able to be safe from persecution, even the casual persecution that has been normalised, so far, by society, when they are engaging in important parts of their life. They should not be subjected to harassment when they are at school and university, and they should be able to engage in civil society and the organs of the state safely, and have access to healthcare without coming under attack. I question who is served, however, by attempting to insulate people completely from these attitudes, at least in terms of things that are physically present, while they are at university. The better argument for preventing speakers like Fransen and Yianopoulos is not that what they might say would compromise a safe space; expecting everything that happens at a university to do so does not serve anyone, as the whole of society is not (and as I explain, cannot reasonably be made to be) a safe space. It is that they are not just engaging in hate speech – they are encouraging it, and they are encouraging people, albeit usually indirectly, to conduct harassment and victimisation. That is what we should be avoiding giving a platform to. It is also giving a one-sided expression of a hateful attitude; it would seem to me to be reasonable to require some degree of balance, of presenting these ideas in a context which contrasts them with more benevolent attitudes. A far-right pep rally should not be an easy thing to find a venue for, and universities should not be a soft touch in this respect.
This is also a question of competing rights; while I do not support active toleration of intolerance, I do support the idea of universal human rights. As a matter of principle, these rights are fundamental and are restricted at our moral peril; as a matter of practicality, it is only by allowing expression of intolerable ideas that we can be sure of protecting those expressions we find desirable, given that there are also those who disagree with us. By upholding universal rights, we oppose selective rights that might be imposed upon us in future. Just as the only way to be sure that political refugees won't be deported to place they will be in danger of torture or death is to also ensure that unarguable criminals cannot be so deported either, the only way to resolutely uphold free speech for any is to uphold it for all, with only very limited restrictions. This clearly applies to a country or society as a whole, and clearly there are absolute imperatives leading to it not being true in smaller spaces, privately controlled, in the interests of allowing those who are marginalised to be and feel safe, to express themselves and to organise to reduce their marginalisation. The wider political question, as in the case of universities, is where does the dividing line between these cases fall. The question specific to Quakers in regards to our own affairs, as Meetings and as Quaker organisations, is what imperatives apply to what situations, what spaces should be safe and to what extent. The wider political question, while something important that should be discussed – by Quakers as much as by anyone else – and I could certainly say a lot more about it, is too deep and broad to handle here and now. Thus I shall, for the remainder of this post, drill down into the Quaker question.
Firstly, I will consider our Meetings for Worship. A key element of these, to me, is that “all are welcome”. That means that we have to respect people before we respect views, and behaviour that makes people unwelcome should not be welcomed. Hate speech of any sort, language that explicitly excludes, a refusal to recognise gender identity – all of these exclude people; shutting down such speech only excludes ideas, and people must take precedence. And yet, in Meeting for Worship itself – as opposed to conversation before and after – is Spirit-led, and we restrict it at our peril. Nevertheless, it is our experience, at least in recent decades, that true Spirit-led ministry will not generally exclude, proceeding from a place of love rather than a place of fear and control. Of course, that has been different in the past, at least in some respects, and we must be aware that it could change in future, however unthinkable that might be from our current awareness of the Divine.
Extreme speech would, I hope, be shut down by an elder or other Friend in Meeting for Worship, as respectfully and lovingly as possible; speech that is simply challenging should be received and examined by all, even if it makes us uncomfortable – and even if that discomfort stems from our own marginalisation. There is a space in between, however, where speech is clearly objectionable and does not fit our understanding of Quakerliness, goes beyond being challenging, but is not extreme. I would urge elders to allow such speech where it is not part of a pattern from a single speaker, or a seemingly organised group of them; address the matter with the individual outside of Meeting for Worship. I would also urge elders and overseers to be aware of those who may be hurt or upset in these instances, insofar as is possible, and provide loving support for them.
Things become more difficult in Meeting for Worship for Business, because while ministry should still flow from the Spirit, practical considerations and the conduct of such meetings inevitably mean that personal feelings and opinions will be aired (some ways to reduce the extent of this are explored in my Improving Business series of posts). It is vital that these be able to be aired, and we should not assume that the Spirit will never lead someone to do so – while the opinions may not come from the Spirit, the speaker may be being moved to share their opinion in their own voice. From time to time, we will be making decisions that directly bear on oppression, as in the not-long-ago (and in some ways still ongoing) series of decisions and steps made to support and embrace equal marriage in Britain Yearly Meeting. There are still those in our Meetings, still those in membership, who struggle with this decision. In making that decision, even in reflecting on it, it was necessary to allow objectionable views about non-heterosexual people to be aired, to expose ourselves to a range of views on marriage equality.
It's hard to think of more things that this could apply to, as we consider ourselves so in tune and socially liberal, so welcoming and inclusive. Where we lack diversity, we don't see it as because we have anything against those characteristics that tend to be absent in our community, and we certainly don't have policies that actively discriminate against anyone (a point that can be argued, but that is for another time). I have a scenario for you, though, that you might like to use as a thought experiment. It is in the area of sexual and romantic relationships, much like equal marriage, and it is an area that does not have any general recognition in the rest of society, not even the movement behind it that equal marriage had for years before it had institutional support. It is one on which I confidently predict Friends would be divided. Let us consider polyamory.
(If you're not familiar with polyamory, don't feel bad or ignorant – it's not exactly a matter of mainstream conversation yet. Polyamory Weekly is a good source, and has a good polyamory resource list. More Than Two is a reasonably balanced polyamory blog, and you can also get a decent exploration of polyamory in webcomic form at Kimchi Cuddles.)
This is not something that there is general consensus regarding, among Friends. It is not even that there is general awareness of, among Friends, though I have heard of Meetings agreeing to hold a Meeting for Worship in celebration of a non-monogamous relationship. I certainly know there are polyamorous Quakers in Britain, and in North America. I also know that attitudes regarding fidelity include, among Quakers – including some LGBT+ Quakers – an absolute and essentialist view, that fidelity means monogamy and it is not optional. It is not hard to imagine, in the coming decades as the idea of polyamory gains more currency in wider society, Britain Yearly Meeting needing to discern a way forward in terms of recognition and celebration of multi-party relationships.
It's also not hard to imagine the kind of language or nasty attitudes people might end up using in opposition to the idea of such recognition or celebration, especially intersectional insults like “slut”. This would be hurtful and excluding to those affected, but at the same time it would be necessary to air such views and attitudes in order to make forward progress. This is because forward progress does not simply involve getting rid of objectionable attitudes; the only way to do that is usually to get rid of the people. It means seeing these views, appreciating them, understanding them, and in a spirit of love finding a way forward together, as a Religious Society of Friends, under the guidance of the Spirit. If that Spirit leads us to consider these exclusionary attitudes wrong, approaching the whole thing in a loving way, not a silencing way, gives us the best hope for changing minds, rather than causing people to feel pushed out due to their beliefs.
So there is a limit to how much our Meetings for Church Affairs and our Meetings for Worship can be safe spaces, but we need not, and should not, generally accept exclusionary attitudes and language. When we look at our national structures, however, we need to go beyond that. We need to look back at the origin of safe spaces, and realise that the Quaker Gender and Sexual Diversity Community (QGSDC, formerly QLGF) fulfils a vital role creating a national organisational space for gender and sexual minorities, that the Quaker Disability Equality Group (QDEG) does likewise for disabled Friends, and perhaps wonder if, as a Yearly Meeting, we give enough support to these groups. The idea of safe spaces as spaces controlled by the marginalised group themselves gives a good reason why they should not be integrated into central work, but that shouldn't preclude them from being given organisational and material support that they might struggle to get. We should also wonder if there are other marginalised groups in our Yearly Meeting that would benefit from such a way to network and a safe space for discussion and organising – and perhaps the potential benefits in terms of outreach to that group outside of the Religious Society of Friends.
In addition, we should be aware of the possible need for safe spaces at our larger events. We can make our whole events places that are explicitly not open to hate speech, but there are subtler forms of oppression and marginalisation that we need to be able to recognise, or at least provide escape from. Women-only or women-controlled spaces for quiet discussion and reflection can be a positive support for equality, rather than compromising equality. LGBT+ spaces are similar, and indeed it is worth spending some time and effort working out what other groups might benefit from such spaces. It is important to remember that such provision can turn into segregation, but its existence in itself is not segregation; those in any marginalised group should be absolutely welcome everywhere, but these spaces would be spaces that belong to that group, rather than a box to shut them away in. As an example, at a lot of larger general events there is a more-or-less organised, more-or-less formal space for young adults (in the sense of people who are legally adults, but at the younger end of that range), which always works best when young adults are involved in running it and get to have ownership. You might argue about whether young adults are a marginalised group within Britain Yearly Meeting, but such Young Friends certainly feel the benefit of these spaces.
Well, that's turned out to be quite a long exploration, but I hope you have found it worthwhile. It's important to bear in mind a lot of detail and history that never seems to come up in discussions about these issues, whether they are the wider societal/political debates or questions about conduct and organisation within the Religious Society of Friends. We should all better understand these matters, and not reduce them to my-rights-versus-your-rights or absolutism in any direction. It's complicated, and nothing is going to make it less so – but we can properly grapple with that complexity and do it justice, if we choose to do so.
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