What we mean by ‘safe space’ is simply a place that enables people to share their experiences, when they may otherwise be silenced. They are cast as the enemy of free speech. But the truth is that they are an important tool for empowering minorities and marginalized groups.
The UK is unfortunately still dominated by voices which judge, degrade and blame women and marginalized people in a multitude of ways, and when brave voices challenge this narrative they often suffer severe abuse for it, being unfairly labeled the ‘snowflake-generation’. They are silenced by accusations of exaggeration, hysteria, over-sensitivity and even lying about their experience.
So how could we have a fair and informed debate on issues where the experts are excluded?
Every University required students to have at least some idea about the subject they want to participate in. We listen to the experts, the people who have first-hand knowledge of their subject, and we expect anyone who wants to contribute to this environment to have done their homework as well.
This does not shut down debate, but enables it to proceed productively. It takes the conversation in the right direction.
This is the same principle upon which we want to work; you should have some experience of street harassment to comment on it. That is not to exclude the many people who support the cause despite not having been victims themselves, but just to acknowledge that the people we should listen to when talking about street harassment, is the people who understand it. Progress is achieved through the honest testimony of the real witnesses to these problems, not the repetition of dominant but ill-informed opinions.
By providing a place where a victim will not be interrogated about their experience, or blamed for bringing it upon themselves, we aim to understand, learn and campaign for change.
Many people would argue that you can’t just take these things on face value, and you can’t just silence dissent. However inexperienced commentators who feel they have a right to throw in their opinion do so without realizing that their point of view has already been heard, loudly and repeatedly, and that it is holding back the advancement of the real debate. Research on the problem of harassment has been undertaken1 (and Hollaback! wholeheartedly supports anyone wishing to do more, especially anyone willing to contribute their stories to help our research in Oxford). But victims of harassment should not individually face this responsibility every time they speak out and should certainly not face an uphill struggle against unhelpful comments whenever they do so.
By allowing commonly marginalized groups a place to speak without interruption, a larger, more valuable conversation can take place. ‘Safe spaces’ don’t suppress free speech, marginalization does, and at Hollaback! we will work to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard.