In the past 24 months, there have been a spate of media outlets decrying the ‘weaponisation’ of Safer Spaces policies (SSP) as the infantilisation of ‘today’s youth’, and as a result, the end of critical inquiry. This has resulted in a public debate where hyperbole and mischaracterisation rule, and individuals who have never read an SSP are proclaiming that all SSPs, regardless of content, are antithetical to free speech. There are a lot of misconceptions about what a Safer Spaces policy (or Safe Space policy) actually is, and in this article I will attempt to explain what an SSP is, what they do, and why you should probably read one.
What does an SSP actually look like? There can be a huge amount of variation between SSPs in terms of structure and content. Some simply deal with general principles of behaviour, and others go into a huge amount of specific do’s and don’ts. As some of you may know, I occasionally shill as the ANUSA Disabilities Officer, and had the great privilege of drafting our interim SSP. The Disabilities Student Association (DSA) SSP contains three broad sections; general principles, specific behaviours that are encouraged/discouraged, and dispute resolution/mediation. You can go take a look at it here – https://goo.gl/FZ2NyQ.
To quote the DSA SSP, “we use the language of Safer Spaces because we believe that spaces are not safe simply because we designate them as such – it’s a goal that requires the constant and unceasing effort of the community.” Far from trying to ensconce ourselves in a bubble, SSPs are about confronting the fact that we live in a society where racism, sexism, ableism, queerphobia and other forms of discrimination occur on a daily basis. Societal change starts with us as individuals, and that extends to the communities we participate in. Confronting the prejudicial attitudes and behaviours we’re socialised into believing from birth can be tremendously challenging, and a Safer Space ought to facilitate that. Safer Spaces policies are not meant to shut down discussion – they’re meant to facilitate it in such a way that everyone has the opportunity to participate equally, as well as critically reflect on how we can grow. Positioning ‘free speech’ and ‘safer spaces’ as complete opposites is a false dichotomy.
Are there flawed SSPs? Absolutely. There isn’t some universal SSP that all us marginalised/minority groups secretly copy ours from – some SSPs are better written than others. Like all policies, the success or failure of an SSP comes down to implementation – and there have certainly been instances where that has been done poorly. They also require regular review, and a willingness to critically examine what has come before. If you’re interested in examining some of the challenges with SSPs and inclusivity, take a look at the work of Julia Serano.
Ultimately, SSPs are all unique documents that serve to set the tone for what a community expects of itself, and those who would participate in it. They serve to facilitate reflection and growth, and are about opening up the discussion to more people rather than shutting it down. So to all those who have concerns about SSPs, give one a read – you may be surprised.