‘For your Safety & Security’ is a new piece about not-so-new strife, platformed by Plan C. It heavily identifies safer spaces politics with ‘civility’ and ‘securitization’. Having participated in the workshop and read the piece, I disagree—respectfully—with this aspect of this particular partial repudiation, but what follows is not an attempted takedown of ‘For Your Safety & Security’. Actually, I think that what’s potentially dangerous about FYS&S is that it contains more than one argument. It contains, simultaneously, a feminist and constructive engagement with challenges facing current feminist praxis, sincerely aiming to strengthen that praxis, and also at the same time a great deal of rhetoric or imagery that in effect alleges an oppressive motivation (purging, scapegoating, and tumour excision…) and a bad-faith motivation inherent in accountability processes per se, not just the accountability processes that have been recently initiated. The possible slippage this enables between ‘this is what safer spaces politics must take care to avoid falling into’ and ‘this is what safer spaces politics simplys is’ runs the risk of playing into forces of anti-feminist reaction, on account of the absence of any disclaimer to the effect ‘scapegoating is a travesty of the logic at the heart of the necessary utopian struggle for safer spaces’. So, I’ve been motivated to try and write a genuinely comradely critique, together with an attempt to respond to the stated invitation in FYS&S for an open and less fearful discussion. My constant disclaimer is that I am someone very far from the London-based events that most directly inform the author’s experience of safer spaces politics.
The workshop (bearing the same title) that was given at the Plan C festival Fast Forward in September 2014 was kicked off with a version of the piece and developed into a fruitful discussion. I find the stand-alone blog to have a far less plurivalent, far more straightforwardly anti-safer-spaces effect than the workshop presentation had. Reading the published piece, I still recognise that ‘Anonymous Refused’ offers sincere and thoughtful reflections on shortcomings in our development of revolutionary alternatives to state-issue justice. There is something very rich about its eloquent description of the ‘scarred’ subjective terrain we inhabit. In disputing the claims and conclusions that are extrapolated, the following discussion points will hopefully also contribute to moving past the deadening and “righteous” sides-taking phenomenon, which the piece evokes as so all-encompassing of all speech about safer spaces.
FYS&S has clearly grown from a heavy bed of political-personal and interpersonal suffering. It reads as very personal, but the positioning, the situatedness of the author, is not disclosed or discussed. An air of someone who’s been in the trenches, a tone of veteran’s knowledge, inflects certain anecdotal passages that are used to paint a grim picture of an almost mythic phenomenon that needs to be recounted … the phenomenon of safer spaces politics:
“The taboo spreads, farcically at times. Someone can be labelled a rape apologist for being friends with someone who refused to disinvite from their party someone who once shared a kebab with someone who was sighted on campus with someone who… The result of all this is that people are so scared of becoming the next scapegoat that they cannot confront their own faults openly, or can do so only superficially and with ever-increasing bad faith.”
A general law—the taboo spreads—is extrapolated. It’s suggesting one can always know what the fortunes of efforts to make spaces ‘safer’ will be. When writing in this mode, Anonymous Refused contends that the applied politics necessarily imply a righteousness, a panel of virtuous ‘good’ comrades in defence of victims/survivors, and a ‘bad’, even ‘evil’ perpetrator. This panel’s being mistaken about the far muddier facts of social life fates them to fail in perpetuity at excising a tumour from their body politic, which will never, can never be healthy:
“The communal body, unsurprisingly, remains ill, so yet another tumour must be identified and the accountability surgeon called again.”
But safer spaces policies are meant to be all about recognizing the entanglement of all our bodies in the unhealthy body politic we co-compose—and still doing something. As communists or anarchists who want to enact something like (better than) justice together ourselves, we know that not doing something in the face of a sexual assault is just as liable to be a way of reproducing punitive state logic as doing something is. There’s a danger. In the tangible back-story to this piece, the botched “tumour excisions” alluded to, presumably experienced by the author close-at-hand amid a lot of suffering, have been (in the author’s view) travesties of justice, moving them to speak out. In the final sentences, however, the possibility is raised that: “Perhaps they are just examples of safer spaces practices and language being abused, unfortunate lapses in an otherwise healthy project.” If they were as bad as that, then, yes, they were.
I have insufficient material for judging whether what happened is aptly described as “miscarriages of justice”, as tumour excisions, that can be likened to the Bolshevik purges. What the imagery of health or ill-health reminds me of, though, is Mark Fisher’s piece about a political milieu peopled by comrades he called “vampires”: “What holds them together is not solidarity, but mutual fear—the fear that they will be the next one to be outed, exposed, condemned.”
‘For Your Safety & Security’ makes reference to the organizing process for Afem2014—whose laboriously worked-through and inevitably embattled Safer Spaces Agreement was published shortly before FYS&S was. AR faults the safer spaces policy for banning oppressive language (like “nutter”) on the basis that many people often use that same language in reference to themselves as a liberatory re-claiming mechanism. It’s difficult not to feel that Afem is being mischaracterised, here. The timing of FYS&S suggests, perhaps, a desire to intervene for the common good at a very particular place and time, in order to shape a direction or trend, namely: specifically where safer spaces politics are currently being taken most seriously. Lots of things in this intervention may be useful and thought-provoking to Afem participants. So it is kind of a shame, then, that it paints such an overall disrespectful picture of proponents of safer spaces politics, using terms like “accountability mill”, “in-group power”, because I can’t imagine that the most difficult and controversial part of the piece—the problematization of the maxim ‘believe the victim’—will receive a hearing if hackles have been raised by that language.
“To insist that you are morally obliged to instantly and without question place the accused into the generic category of ‘abuser’, along with Martin Smith and the murderer of Sarah Payne, is to insist on belief being detached from any aspiration to track the contours of what the world is like. Certainly, patriarchal assumptions about what counts as a ‘well-grounded’ belief should be rejected, and our understanding of what constitutes a patriarchal assumption constantly deepened. … But this does not itself settle the issue of what to believe and what to do.”
There’s something in this, but it’s almost lost in unhelpful hyperbole. Who are the people who insist on such flattening categories, who tyrannically demand complete acceptance of judgements of good and evil based on strictly controlled, euphemized, censored accounts of events in the world? Do they really exist? Why is it unconscionable, anyway–if we are all imperfect–to merely believe victims, when they say that someone’s actions have been, like many people’s actions, abusive? That most people have a melodramatic reaction to judgements being formed about them or their friends/lovers/allies should not be an unsurmountable reason for excessive caution, nor an epistemic obstacle to sharing readily in collective responsibility for deciding ethical next steps.
The judgements are always going to be intellectually unsatisfying and incomplete. And the limitations of ‘victim-led’ justice are well-explored in the piece. To its detriment, though, ‘For Your Safety & Security’ does not hypothesize about the way interpersonal harm and anger might be politicized in the complete absence of safer spaces politics. Nor is safer spaces politics differentiated from (for example) feminisms or social movements generally that have not used, or continue to not use, the loosely interconnected set of S.S. practices/idioms—nor does it engage with why such struggles have foregone S.S. practice. Anonymous Refused does not consider examples of transformative, enabling, salutary and liberating effects of safer spaces, nor positive experiences or powerful thought produced by taking safer spaces politics seriously. In fact, it stops just short of saying that, in its operations, safer spaces can be as great a source of harm to people as misogynist violence is in the first place. I’d expect someone who made this kind of claim to have as many years of experience as possible of the many different roles and relations to agreement-forming and accountability processes one can have. But actually, we get few concrete examples. The same self-protective vagueness AR discusses as problematic, with regard to victims’ testimonies is symptomatic of this argument, making at times for a somewhat mystified subject debating an unnamed and nebulous group of opponents.
FYS&S argues several different things, but notably, it hopes to “open up a more free and nuanced discussion” than its author says they were capable of, while ending a spell of “hiding in a corner”. I believe this all to be sincere, although I also interpret this motivation in the text to be in tension with a self-protective, almost allergic affect in the author, manifesting as tangible antipathy to all things safer-spaces related (again, the ‘objective’ justifiability of this antipathy I cannot assess). I feel sympathy for the author even as I find myself—on balance—unpersuaded by large parts of the case mounted.
Is it the worst thing in the world if something partially unfair happened to someone partially in the wrong?
In the most obviously context-specific, allusional passages, what is basically being said is that specific implementations of internal, interpersonal political action that have recently been carried out, under the auspices of “anti-oppression”, have failed dramatically in their aim of redressing oppression. Specific accountability ‘campaigns’ have been in bad faith—perhaps because they were divorced from a truly ‘mass’ safer spaces politics that could generate authentic, meaningfully formed and digested agreements. They have been prosecuted hypocritically against comrades “not so much worse than anyone else”. More than that, it is clearly felt that instances of such processes have been straight-up mistaken, grievously so.
Obviously, that’s sad and bad. And the thing is, I have hardly any interpersonal stake in this. But, controversially: I’d like to ask AR, through all the pain and despite all the suffering, whether it is the worst thing in the world if something partially unfair happened to someone partially in the wrong? Is such a failing of justice so severe as to discredit safer spaces politics, indeed the entire epistemological framework as something ‘authoritarian’?
For an otherwise uninformed reader, though, there’re also questions to be asked about how lightly, self-reflexively and openly—or defensively and recalcitrantly—those who perceived themselves to have been wronged conducted themselves. That’s always the massive challenge, after all: conducting yourself fearlessly while being judged. Keeping hold of the bigger picture and staying willing to change, while faced with the full monstrosity of all the contradictions involved in aspiring to consequentialize a demand for basic psychic and bodily safety within conditions designed to devalue and destroy you. What I’m basically saying is that I feel there’s at minimum something missing from the piece about the responsibility of recalcitrant and unself-reflexive abusers for their own social misery. I’ll repeat again that I have utterly inadequate amounts of information about the events prompting A.R. to call for a questioning of, and a distancing from, safer spaces politics.
To explain how something that was actually designed to improve democracy in organizing allegedly turned authoritarian, we need a detailed story evaluating the political desires and impacts of many parties. For there to be generalizable applicability to the claims made about safer spaces approaches—for example “it is often happening that people who have been raped are being publicly denounced as rape apologists”—there needs to be more explicit extrapolations, from the specific to the general. I mean, ‘often’? What are these instances, people, structures, contexts, groups? Where people are allegedly say things like ‘you love rape’ to each other, why would there be broad enough social credibility for them to be able to enforce ‘social death’ on the individuals they decide upon—and cannot be dissuaded from—stigmatizing? What’s in it for them? How did they get so powerful? Where does it all go so disastrously wrong?
(Are individuals caught up in accountability processes in the UK really getting wrongfully ostracized as a result of their class or race position?)
Anonymous Refused is concerned that protocols and policies are short-circuiting and foreclosing the dissensual forming of collective judgments. Indeed, appropriating the authority required to territorialize or make safe a space can easily lead to us reproducing a kind of sovereign, a mini-state, with its own justice system, and system of policing transgressions. Yeah. It’s a knife-edge. Isn’t this a danger of all alternative or transformative justice projects? Or is it something inherent to ‘safer spaces’ politics, seen as a kind of monolith that can’t be misapplied and distorted? FYS&S oscillates between the claim that there are dangers, and a much firmer kind of claim, for example: “In appearing to give an actually applicable formula for how to be ‘right on’, and therefore appearing to [be] relieving us of (at least some of) the burden of judgement, the contradictory policy makes whatever line of action is pursued in its name appear to be based on some kind of communally decided… law” (this last emphasis added).
Getting on the wrong side of the law is mutilating, and although the spirit of safer spaces is about boundarizing participants’ exposure to the Law of capitalist society—filtering, buffering out the daily onslaught, as it were—I’d well believe that that spirit has been grotesquely caricatured and recuperated by some group or other who, making a travesty of its origins, have used safer spaces as the name for a set of rules with which to police ‘hysterical’/uncivil/trans*/poor/brown people. FYS&S invokes Christina Hanhardt’s new book Safe Space in order to talk about how suspect it can be when spaces are ‘made safe’. (The crucial always-political, always-subjective question being, safe for whom? As AR asks later: “Who is ‘with’ us? Who are ‘we’?”) In San Francisco, it sounds to me like a textbook case of neoliberal recuperation occurred, revealing “who, for reasons of class and race, continues to be constructed as a threat to safety and targeted for removal from newly claimed LGBT areas”. It’s a great book to have highlighted, but I don’t really see how it does more than point to a distortion of safer spaces politics which it is very important for us to be aware of. There does not seem to be any claim that recent experiences in the UK involved individuals getting wrongfully, erroneously ostracized as a result of accountability processes deployed because of their class or race position.
The concern that is raised, which might have a lot to do with race, is that applied safer spaces politics ironically re-privileges an often middle-class, articulate subject who is privy to the civil vocabulary and idiom of a specific understanding of trauma (trigger warnings, etc.). It’s a concern that safer spaces ‘bulldogs’ mobilize ‘campaigns’ in the defence of already-secure white women, basically. I think this important criticism isn’t a criticism of safer spaces, but of a movement’s limitations. Already-secure white people compose the vast majority of the UK left, because our movements are not attractive to (or safe for) people of colour. Within that already-racist environment, it is not surprising that expressions of suffering that are couched outside a technical idiom around safety, silencing, apologism, victim, and survivor, can become coded as ‘wrong’ anger, as threatening, as ‘unreasonable’, and so on, in a classically patriarchal-bourgeois-white-supremacist manner. But if this has happened, it should be recounted explicitly. Otherwise it performs precisely the recuperation of minoritized subjects it critiques, since it is used as a foil for other cases which, as far as I know, sought to render white people accountable for their actions.
We’re not worse than our accusers, sure, but let’s admit harm we’ve helped do anyway
What is very tangible throughout FYS&S is the terror, insecurity and misery that comes from receiving deep challenges to the self and the self’s social world. There is nothing glib about noticing that this critique of the importance of “the concept of safety for the oppressed” is worked through from a position that everywhere hints at the desire for safety that comes from experiencing seemingly ‘enforced’ and unfair isolation, isolation experienced as politically sinister, or as a misrecognition of oneself. The text is threaded through with what sounds like a direct appeal, a kind of sub-text: I’ve been scapegoated by the accountability mill, denounced and hated; yet we are all in some ways bad apples; (please) believe me; I’m no more in the wrong than you; I’m also a survivor and my politics aren’t your politics; I’ve experienced abuse in turn; where on Earth was I supposed to go?
It’s visceral, this sub-text, so to put it mildly, there seems to be a heavy amount of ‘context’ to this reflection, and as such, it is a piece that at times seems to mobilise the narrative style of disclosing abuse. By discussing how an anti-oppression politics can itself feel oppressive, its claims about safer spaces politics are similar to the type of claim analysed: that a given person has perpetrated abuse.
Can we go on, together, and even take safer spaces type steps, even when we disagree over whether we know that one of our peers has abused somebody? Considerable epistemological doubt is cast in FYS&S on safer spaces as a mode of knowledge production. The reasons for affixing the word “known” to words like “abuser” in activist circles, the author is well aware, are the understandable imperatives of countering patriarchal obfuscation on these points, and lending credence to networks of trust-based communication that are patriarchally discredited as ‘rumours’, ‘gossip’ or ‘spreading the word’. An aporia is identified around determining “whether” in a given instance “someone is experiencing oppressive behaviour and [is] therefore privy to the exemption [in the House of Brag policy] from the broader policy of enforced civility”. There aren’t straightforward examples given of this kind of aporetic scenario, however, so as a scientific problem it remains speculative.
In instances where there is dissent over whether oppression is happening, or in which direction, and how, AR describes experiencing a quashing of that dissent. FYS&S refers to the parts of safer spaces policies/agreements which, commonly, explicitly refuse to condemn retaliatory anger in people finding themselves at the butt-end of oppressive dynamics. What is emphasized, because it is deemed dangerous, is the corresponding condemnation of anger arising in the face of being called out; for instance: “consider taking some time out from the session to reflect on what happened” (Afem2014 again). While standing united with the ‘good place’ these recommendations are ‘coming from’, FYS&S asks, urgently: but what if you got the wrong guy! which would be of life-or-death importance, if we do in fact live in a world where (anarcha)feminists, avowed proponents of liberatory struggle, can and frequently do for no good reason ruin people’s lives forever. Even if it really is a case of quid-pro-quo, of ‘you’ve literally got the wrong guy’, the terror of not being believed surely dwindles if we can become more comfortable collectively with forming and receiving more numerous and more nuanced judgments about each other.
At the far end of the spectrum of our fears about not having our self-defense believed, about being judged politically deficient, are the visions of Bolshevik executions of fellow revolutionaries. Around 100 years later, though, the “worst” I’ve ever heard of, in the radical politics that surrounds me, is that someone accused of perpetrating sexual assault, at the end of a messy accountability process, felt he had to uproot himself and so moved cities. This is a guy I know who, despite thinking himself not guilty of what was claimed, is (perhaps surprisingly) magnanimous and contemplative about the whole thing. While it is extremely difficult to countenance taking one’s own non-permanent exclusion from revolutionary politics at all happily or lightly—it is usually where all one’s friends and support networks are—this goal also, I believe, is a correlate of believing that “we need to be making more judgements, more complex and nuanced judgements, and resisting the tendency to think (hope) that the world is going to divide neatly into victims and perpetrators.” Combating the victims/perpetrators tendency surely means endeavouring to relax a little bit more about—even to welcome (?)—the small injustices we might personally suffer within a larger, heterogeneous process of collective learning in which we’re attempting the unwriting of layered scripts of multi-axial social oppression. A bit of victim, a bit of perpetrator is, yes, obviously in every one of us. But, obviously, there are still lines we draw. We draw them mainly in language, and they are hypocritical—always—and incomplete—always. I think we know in theory that it can be very generative to admit harm we’ve helped do anyway. Particularly when it seems really unfair to be asked to admit it, in light of—well, what everyone else has also done.
Few of us are advanced enough in our subjective journey of revolutionary self-love and self-abolition to respond well in the face of being called out for oppressive discourse or behaviour. At the end of that spectrum, the proportion of us who, having abused a person, agree that we abused that person, in the absence of a rude education by that person and their allies, is infinitesimal. This won’t be news to anyone: though rape and abuse are rife, you don’t get remotely comparable stats when you survey, even anonymously, asking those rapists and abusers to identify themselves, and that’s partly a problem of the essentialization implicit in terms like ‘rapist’ and ‘abuser’. The author makes it obvious that they know it makes sense to recommend, in safer spaces agreements, that if someone calls you out, you should do everything possible to listen and to defuse your defensive response instincts. It’s probably a good rule of thumb to assume there’s every chance—particularly if you trust, as we must (!) people who say they are comrades—that the judgement being formed about ‘you’ (your felt, interpreted and perceived actions) is truer than you know. Obviously, dissent within the devising of safer spaces agreements and deciding on responsive actions shouldn’t be quashed, but it can also be interesting in some contexts, i.e. being implicated and judged, to question your urges to dissent. Everyone will have a sense of where an imperfect accountability process crosses a line into being something else than a collective action response to a collectively-agreed judgement.
“Where on Earth are they supposed to go?” (what are safer spaces politics anyway)
Exclusions and individual plunges into despair are surely signs of the breakdown of a safer spaces process, not of its triumph. It is these breakdowns that foster the ‘foreverness’ of exclusions, not the attempts to craft a process in the first place. Stepping away from organizing shouldn’t be catastrophized, and wouldn’t be such a shameful matter or even such a big deal to people, if we took structural violence seriously and genuinely assumed ourselves, in a serious way, to be always-already vectors of e.g. racism and misogyny. Where exclusion does happen, the poignant question emerges for AR: “if a person [according to the judgement of a safer spaces process] makes every space they enter unsafe, where on Earth are they supposed to go?” Indeed. This is a question that opens up the crucial importance of emphasizing, in practice, the non-permanence of exclusion measures, and the longue durée of mediated or unmediated pathways to rebuilding trust and reintegrating/rehabilitating estranged comrades into a safer space—returning them to comrade status.
The hopefulness of this relates heavily to how involved the unwillingly held-accountable person felt to the safer spaces politics in the first place. One thing jumped out at me right away on reading ‘FYS&S’. Safer spaces having been defined as a loosely interconnected set of anti-oppression concepts and practices, the list that describes this set does not include the word ‘agreement’ or even the word ‘policy’. Top of the list is “accountability processes/panels”, which effectively jumps straight over the most everyday and laborious component of these practices directly to the worst-case-scenarios. What’s left out is the composing, writing, debating and forming of the group- or struggle- or venue-specific agreement in the first place. The list continues on with: “mandates for the exclusion of people”, followed by “less formal campaigns”. (Here the implication is that accountability processes/panels are themselves campaigns against people and have some kind of positive logic that is autonomous from responding to those people’s actions.) Then, “use of trigger warnings”, “the idea of safety”, “concepts like silencing”, etc. Yet I’d guess that the most common and relevant embodiment of, and association people make with, safer spaces politics is not ‘panels’, but the process of formulating and pinning up policies that boundarize a space for organizing—the process of reaching an agreement. This is a project that should combine the different elements of radical intolerance for abuse, the goal of radical self-reflexivity and vulnerability, a radically fluid conception of identity, and also, I’d argue, the Black Panther invitation, Let us all grow thick skins.
‘Let us all grow thick skins’ is absolutely not to say, let’s not take things personally. Taking things personally is precisely what’s required, but not in the doubling-down, butt-hurt sense of taking-oneself-too-seriously usually meant by the phrase “don’t take it personally”. Instead, struggling “against becoming what we hate” (a beautiful phrase in FYS&S) means a lot of things, but in this context probably means letting go a little bit of the entitlements we harbor that are based on scarcity. Safer spaces tries to give meaning to everyone’s entitlement not to be abused or oppressively treated in ‘comrade space’. But to be needed, to be valued, to get forgiveness or understanding, to be heard no matter what, to be loved by those who don’t understand us, to be respected and liked—these aren’t entitlements that one can wring from comrades who currently think, without knowing the half of it, without even considering most things you’d care to argue, that you’ve fucked up in some way, big or small. It’s important to point out that abusive behavior can sometimes be piled in ‘righteous’ retaliation on top of perceived abusive behavior, and perhaps even require accountability process all of itself. Still, maybe we could even consider contemplating our own exclusion as a non-catastrophe. I don’t know, though—I’ve been making slow headway on this whole self-love thing for over a decade.
But safer spaces is surely never more distorted and perverted than where it is associated with a desperate discursive ‘oppression olympics’, a competition for protection, that encourages everyone to isolate and brandish isolated underprivileged parts of themselves in the hope of being heard and valued. In ‘Exiting the Vampire’s Castle’, the fear of this kind of scarcity was very clear, the fear of being denied protection by the collective and instead receiving criticism—which is so binarizing in its implications that cannot but be disputed and so always escalates to the point of ostracism. FYS&S is quite different from the Vampire’s Castle polemic. But for both Fisher and AR, there are serious accountability concerns around accountability processes, formal or informal, and these concerns actually amount to indicating that the motivation behind those processes is something completely other than what they say they are, namely, an attempt at anti-oppression, anti-violence, redress. These processes aren’t about revolutionary justice: they’re a tribal cleansing ritual that can’t be reasoned with. “Though … denunciation …the forcible excision of the unsafe tumour in the communal body, everyone else attempts thereby to purify themselves. This is the definition of scapegoating.”
Scape-goating, purging, tumour excision … or just the ever-present danger of getting recuperated?
Prior to levelling the charge of ‘scapegoating’ as the driver of safer spaces ‘campaigns’, AR stresses the possibility and even probability that in any given case, two or more parties are claiming to experience (and really are experiencing) oppression at each other’s hands simultaneously. The problem is stated as though it were extremely difficult to answer, because: Who decides if it makes sense to demand accountability from one person in the revolutionary collective, rather than another? It is really difficult to have a perfect process of ‘who decides’, but this is common to all politics, politics is always difficult. AR evokes the key determinant of having “certain friends”, and thus, the sinister scope for unilateral prosecutions that unreflexively vindicate whoever is most persuasively the victim. Prosecutions that are vested—via safer spaces’ alleged might-is-right logic—with a false veneer of democratic mandate. AR says that the damage and injustice inflicted by abused mandates for exclusion is serious: “this is not just misogynist rape apologist evil-doers crying into their glass of privilege: boohoo I hurt too”. Part of the argument seems to be that exclusion is insufficiently reserved for ‘last resort’ scenarios. Another part of the argument seems to be that, paradoxical as it is, the damage and injustice caused by attempting to bring perpetrators of ‘minor’ abuse/assault/domination dynamics to some kind of justice, independently of capitalist courts, outweighs the damage and injustice caused to the avowed victims. There’s probably something (though nothing that trumps the need for safer spaces politics) in both parts of this argument. It may actually be that, when you try to change the world by making it so that sexual assaults have some kind of consequences, things feel worse for some people before they feel better.
For many people who are vulnerable to multiple forms of abuse and violence, who want to wage the revolution, it’s pretty clear that some kind of safer space is a sine qua non for being together, i.e. for politics. Sometimes the scars inflicted within experiences of ‘accountability’ are suffered by people who usually are not vulnerable to many forms of abuse and violence; sometimes it’s ‘everybody’ including survivors in their own right. It would be misleading, however, to point to the fact that ‘everybody is suffering’ as though it might have been better for the initiators of an accountability process to have kept their suffering separate by staying silent. Indeed, i places, FYS&S isn’t sure it wants to repudiate safer spaces politics at all, which “has done a lot to challenge oppression”—and only wants to repudiate its distortion. At one point AR actually even frames the experience of implementing the safer spaces approach—in recent memory and in the UK and mainly in the author’s experience—as emblematic of the cautionary tale of recuperation.
“The perpetual danger of utopian projects … is that they replicate what they set out to oppose.”
But this phrasing of a ‘danger’ of getting recuperated and replicating oppressions is a much weaker version of the proposal, made in FYS&S in its final section ‘Solidarity Forever’, that anti-oppression practices are usually in themselves a repressive imposition of something like neoliberal reasonableness on the collective. This goes considerably beyond stating the hist-mat truism that all of us (our micro-structures included) are determined to some extent by our time, that we are “created as subjects” by “modes of domination, exploitation and violence”, or that “our relations with each other are scarred”. It goes so far as to propose, in fact, some kind of sinister kinship between activists’ safer spaces practices, on the one hand, and neoliberal workplace control norms, on the other; between radicals’ anti-oppression guidelines and capitalist-managerial regimes of behavioural appropriateness; between the desire for safety within a space of ‘comrades’, and biopower’s logic of securitization.
“The liberal demand that you go about your dissent in a ‘reasonable’ manner seems worryingly to be mirrored in the demand that you go about your dissent in a way that does not make anyone feel ‘unsafe’.”
This is a pretty big claim. I see the liberal and patriarchal logic of ‘reasonableness’ to be about anti-politics, and the principle of embodying safer spaces to be about a bare minimum for doing politics.
In any case, as the author clearly knows, it’s fairly audacious to characterise—no matter how speculatively—anti-oppression guidelines as a form of political correctness, a hegemonic and repressive doxa that appropriates state-like legitimacy to police the way we all can ‘do’ dissent. If something called safer spaces operates like this, then it is probably because white bourgeois activist milieus have managed to obliterate its meaning by fetishizing it as an end in itself, in the process of forgetting where safer spaces came from, namely, Black feminist and intersectional organizing (as well as LGBTQ, which FYS&S names), i.e. movements closely informed by transformational struggles in which separate and boundarized spaces played an important part.
Who among us actually disallow dissent?
‘For Your Safety & Security’ specifically does not argue that “no one, and no opinion, should ever be excluded”. Not all cops “wear a uniform”, AR points out, and in fact, there’s one in your head. However, the instances where useful, comradely, radical opinions have been banned within something, or on-balance ‘safe’ individuals excluded from something, and for what wrong reasons, are left to the imagination. AR notes something in a parenthesis in the final paragraph that is extremely important to the whole piece: “alternatives need to be collectively determined in the course of transformative struggle, not decided on by a small group in advance and then imposed upon others”. AR states rightly: “If it is to remain revolutionary rather than sliding into authoritarianism, it must allow for internal dissent”. AR is right, here, though it is unclear who would disagree. But it does address one of the most challenging questions facing safer spaces: if you’re a person already being accused of something, your dissent about the politics informing how you are to be treated has a tricky–but interesting–status. Rather than capitulate to a model of total exclusion (which AR indicates is the most common outcome of these processes), the challenging thing (to use a phrase of Donna Haraway’s) is to “stay with the trouble”, to make it through, and to re-make the collective disputes procedure for the future. As there will always be anger and disagreement, there will always be ample opportunity to get better at it.
When something like leaving (necessarily a temporary kind of leaving, but grave all the same) is demanded of you, claiming yourself to be a victim of the collective is always an option, but it’s a rather boring one. And there are even scarier (braver) other options, like moving from ‘victim’, past ‘survivor’, to something beyond. The prior, and ideally living agreement, the stated condition of possibility for comradeship, matters. If someone abusively and fallaciously accuses you of abuse, and somehow, they prevail against you, to the point that you get “thrown out of political and social spaces” because of the collective’s confidence in safer spaces politics, that sucks massively and it shouldn’t have happened. Yet even the assertion that this happens ‘often’ may not disprove the value of safer spaces as heterotopias, enclaves of attempted salutary difference to the rule.
Safer spaces is a condition (necessary but totally insufficient) for being together, achieving political subjectivity together, an agreement to try to sustain autocritique, to listen, to give self-reflexive collective care to the eradication of dynamics of structural violence. It is about radical empathy, and becoming-human. Safer spaces, unless it’s fetishized beyond recognition into a law that shortcircuits politics, conjures an aspiration towards, and a subjectivity learning to be capable of, something like autonomous communist justice. It makes use of a boundary, within which anti-violence is striven for. The spaces themselves are always surrounded by and undergirded by a world structurally built on various types of violence, fast and slow, and on victim-blaming, whereby (as AR says) abuse is “not prohibited but regulated”. Safer spaces isn’t everything, it isn’t even much, it makes loads of people uncomfortable at first (good) and it can’t claim any monopoly on suffering. But I reckon that, despite the suffering it causes, it stands for a utopianism of constantly striving to fail again, fail better, at an anti-violence on which everything else depends. I hope that those damaged so deeply by their experiences of ‘accountability’ can maybe dedicate themselves to a much, much better way of collectively forming safer spaces agreements—and correspondingly re-wiring our social relations in such a way as to prefigure, as far as possible, the liveable world we wish to create.