One of the more unpleasant responses to the Labour Party conference (perhaps showing a little desperation?) was journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer’s tweet about the Safe Space. Now there’s a little bit of confusion about the term ‘Safe Space’ so let me elucidate, because safe spaces can mean one of two things. An organisation such as a university or political party can have a ‘safe spaces’ policy which means, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, ‘a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.’ As many people have pointed out, this can result in so-called ‘no-platforming’ of people, such as Germaine Greer whose recent comments on transgender men caused her to be ‘no-platformed’ in a number of universities. I disagree with this: whilst I accept that people can be hurt and upset by the things speakers say, so long as they do not constitute hate speech we have to allow them to say it. This is fundamental to our democracy; that, as Voltaire said, whilst I disagree with what they say I will defend to the death their right to say it.
Of course you can argue about what constitutes hate speech but we have laws about these things; and to ‘no-platform’ somebody like Greer is not at all the same as denying a platform to far-right xenophobes such as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon.
So much for that. However the ‘safe space’ at conference was an actual room: in fact there were several rooms tucked away from the often frenetic activity of conference; a safe space, a faith room and a rest room. One day I went into the faith room and prayed; and on my first day I made use of the rest room as I was completely exhausted. It was wonderful to have a safe and quiet space where I could rest undisturbed and I can quite imagine how others might need it too; autistic people who struggle with too much information, parents with small children (there were at least two babes-in-arms at the conference) the overwhelmed and the just plain exhausted. It was a very valuable thing to provide.
Unfortunately the aforementioned journalist thought it good to sneer at this. I’m not going to reproduce her tweet here as I don’t think it merits it, but here’s the thing: I dislike and deplore her words but I defend her right to say them. Of course, just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should – and as others pointed out, there was no kindness or compassion in her tweet. Everyone needs time out at some point or other; everyone needs rest and safety, everyone needs space. In our homes we can (or most of us can) lock the door and keep the world at bay, but at a busy and crowded conference there’s nowhere to go. So I needed this safe space and I was very glad the Conference Arrangements Committee had thought to provide it. It’s easy to say we should all toughen up, to label people ‘snowflakes’: it’s much harder to put yourself in the position of another person who may be suffering. So I’ll just say this: I’m a snowflake and I’m proud. I’m a proud snowflake. Why? Because every snowflake is unique; every snowflake is a world – and together we make an impenetrable drift which won’t shift until the weather changes.