Musings on safer spaces and free speech

Trigger warning for homophobic and racist violence and bullying.

I remember being told as a kid that I should be grateful that I lived in a country where there was freedom of speech. No-one would be arrested for writing a book or newspaper article, and no-one had to fear being arrested for criticizing the government. We were free to say anything we wanted.

Even as a kid, I knew it wasn’t really true that you could say whatever you wanted. I had already learned that if I mentioned the not believing in god thing to anyone other than my parents, the person would likely get extremely angry and upset. (And it was best not to tell my parents that I sometimes went to church with my friend’s family on Sunday after a Saturday night sleep-over, because it would lead to a half-hour grilling to determine whether or not I was being indoctrinated into Christianity).

There were so many secrets that hiding things was second nature. If I’d told my school friends that I secretly wasn’t that attracted to Corey Haim*, but thought Micheal Jackson was cool, I would have been punished with social exclusion. Micheal Jackson was considered to be ‘gay’ among my friends (who I suspect had only the haziest idea of what the word ‘gay’ meant, and mostly used it as a synonym for ‘bad’). And then there was the fact that I spent large amounts of time making up elaborate stories in my head, completely ignoring the world around me – I always knew that there would be trouble if I revealed that to anybody.

A few years later I was in high school, and the punishments for saying the wrong thing were even more severe. I witnessed a boy in my class coming out as being gay. He didn’t make a big deal of it, he simply informed a few of his friends that he was gay, and it spread through the grapevine. I remember being impressed by his courage and dignity. But when another student told me ‘that guy is gay’ in the tone you’d use to say ‘that guy eats his own feces’, I didn’t feel safe enough to say what I really thought. And my fear of punishment was justified: my classmate was beaten badly several times as a punishment for being gay, and within a week he transferred to a different school. I also witnessed vicious, sometimes violent racism against some students, and though I felt ashamed about it I never spoke out against it, because of my fear of social exclusion, and possibly physical violence.

What about my freedom of speech? I wasn’t going to be arrested for saying what I thought. Men in black trench-coats were not going to smash in my door at 4am and take me away for questioning. Nevertheless, I was not free to speak.

As a kid I remember telling myself that my unfreedom was just because I was a child, because my freedom of speech didn’t matter very much yet. I told myself that all the constraints on my ability to speak my mind would fade away once I became an adult. Of course it didn’t work out that way. The constraints are a lot more subtle than they were when I was a teenager, but they are definitely still there. And as an adult I’ve realized something I at least suspected as a child: the fact that there are topics that it’s not safe to talk about is not trivial or random, in fact it’s important and deeply sinister. It’s part of how oppression works and reproduces itself.

I wrote in a previous blog post, about Hegemonic Reality, a sort of shared reality and understanding of the world which is overwhelmingly dictated by the tiny fraction of society that holds the most power. To be a feminist is, on some level, to contradict Hegemonic Reality, to understand the world in a way that conflicts with the official version. When I think about the things that I am not free to talk about, it lines up fairly closely with my feminist worldview, and in particular with my awareness of oppression.

The unsafety, the social punishment and exclusion for contradicting Hegemonic Reality, happens even among people who are progressive and genuinely very nice. I know that, among some of my friends, if I said that we live in a rape culture, or that there is sexism in activist circles, or that one of the people present had said something sexist which upset me, there would be push-back. At first I would be ignored – people would literally act as though I hadn’t said anything at all. If I persisted in talking about it they would turn it into a joke and change the subject. If I still insisted, if I said: “please take this seriously, this is important to me”, there would be even more joking, followed by defensiveness and anger. I would be told to calm down, even if I was already perfectly calm. I would be accused of hating all men, of being prejudiced against men, or of creating oppression by talking about it. I would be accused of making people feel bad. And of course, of demanding attention, and of ruining a perfectly good social occasion for no real reason. And so on and on and on. I have a feeling most of the people who are reading this have probably been through this process many times.

We tend to think that this push-back isn’t ‘real’ oppression. Real oppression is being arrested, or losing your job because of your political beliefs, or government agents breaking down your door at 4am. And yet this low-key, everyday silencing, this push-back that doesn’t acknowledge its own existence, is exactly what allows some forms of oppression to continue.

Something I’ve heard several different feminists say at numerous points in my life, which has stuck in my mind, is: “I can’t describe my experiences, I don’t even have the language to describe it.” The language we use to describe our lives comes from Hegemonic Reality / Power / Patriarchy / Kyriarchy, whatever you call it. The further our stories are from the stories that Power wants to tell, the harder we will have to work to find ways to express them. It’s easy to see why Power doesn’t want us to tell our own stories. In order to fight oppression, you have to first be able to name the oppression.

(As an aside, I don’t actually think the powerful elite are part of some global conspiracy, when I say Power ‘wants’ something, I really mean that the current extremely unequal political and economic set-up is in some ways self-perpetuating, for instance: the elite control the media -> they use the media in ways that benefit their political cronies -> the political cronies in return set policies which benefit the elite -> the elite get even more money and power -> they use this money and power to get even more control over the media.)

There are lots of possible ways to define ‘safer spaces’. Certainly they are places where everyone strives to avoid oppressive behaviours, but there’s more to it than that. For me a large part of it is that in a safer space I am free to talk about my life as I truly experience it. It’s a place where it is possible reject the worldview that is imposed from above and instead to build an understanding of the world based on our lived experiences.

Seen in this light, the process of creating safety, of increasing the amount of safer space, is revolutionary. It’s not ‘just’ consciousness-raising or ‘just’ something we do for ourselves. When we create safety we are stealing something away from Hegemonic Reality and claiming it for ourselves.

And that explains why Power pushes back so hard.

* Yes I am really old.

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