The idea of a ‘safe space’ – an environment where feelings are protected – is highly subjective, all too often bending to the will of the person laying claim to the most “valid” emotions. Some people are allowed anxieties, other people aren’t. Throughout my childhood “I’m scared of you touching my possessions while I’m not looking” always counted for more than “I’m scared of you smashing my face in.” The former was a neurosis, something special, something not everyone felt; the latter was merely mundane.
I find myself thinking of this in response to the NUS Women’s Campaign’s request to move to “jazz hands rather than clapping” at their conference on the basis that clapping is “triggering anxiety.” That’s a safe space for you: somewhere with arbitrary rules that self-styled experts in the ways of anxiety impose at will. It seems to me far more about control and manipulation than comfort or respect. It’s substituting performance for actual humanity. Would there be this much consideration for women who felt that male people in female-only spaces “triggered anxiety”? Or someone who felt “triggered” by the insistence that male people have a right to purchase sex? I doubt it. It’s quick-win compassion, no discussion, no nuance, hence no compassion at all.
Of course, there will now be people who write patronising lists and draw patronising cartoons explaining why clapping is officially bad. People who feel desperate to demonstrate their “I knew clapping was problematic before everyone else did” credentials. People who appoint themselves the Voice of PTSD, speaking over the trauma of everyone else because theirs is the One True Trauma that counts. And there will be far more people who say nothing, worried that they’ve already fucked up by doing something else that is problematic – I must have done something by now! – only no one’s bothered to tell them yet. There’s nothing like regularly updating the rules – and having a handy list of insults and acronyms for those who don’t comply – to keep the potentially non-compliant in check.
Meanwhile every single day millions of women and girls live in fear of male violence. So they don’t nudge the furniture. They don’t touch the newspaper. They don’t talk about what maleness is, how it is constructed, how it functions, lest they be declared beyond the pale. Every sacrifice they make is considered insignificant, just something they must do to make life easier for others. After all, these are all such tiny demands. If you don’t want to face the consequences, ladies, just don’t fuck up. How hard can it be?