Background to the Safer Spaces Policy

This section outlines what the policy is for.

What are safer spaces and why do we need them?

A safe (or safer) space is somewhere where people can feel that they’re not likely to face violence, harassment, intimidation or bullying. It is not about having to adhere to a dominant ideology, but it is about not tolerating the use of violence, harassment or intimidation, even in the name of “free expression” or “open debate”. Safer spaces are not about trying to forbid or suppress conflict, they are concerned with allowing it to happen constructively, while ensuring that it doesn’t lead to people getting hurt, marginalised or silenced.

When we organise non-hierarchically, we’re working in an environment that we haven’t been socialised for, and we need to think about what that means for the ways in which we control our own behaviour or influence each other’s. We live in a society that imposes limits on conflict from above, allowing only state sanctioned violence and characterising as aggression only resistance to state laws. Capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, disablism and a multitude of other interacting systems of oppression are all a part of the world we live in. We’ve been shaped by these systems, and our conscious rejection of them is not enough to make them disappear from either our organisations or our own attitudes. We need safer spaces, not because we think that we can build a little slice of utopia free from oppression and hierarchy, but because we know that we can’t, and so we need ways of recognising and dealing with those oppressions when we find ourselves facing them from friends and comrades.

Since we reject state laws, we need to set our own benchmarks for reasonable behaviour and for dealing with unreasonable behaviour. The safer spaces policy and the conflict resolution/disassociation procedure are our means for doing this. The safer spaces policy is a set of definitions of behaviours that should be avoided and that, if they occur, may require the use of the conflict resolution and survivor-led processes. These are sets of guidelines agreed upon as a means for dealing with situations that have made the space in which we organise unsafe.

But don’t we already know what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour? Can’t we just be sensible?

In reality, once a conflict is underway it is difficult for anybody involved to talk about the behaviours displayed in isolation from the people who displayed them. We end up defending or attacking individuals rather than talking about why an action was, in itself, right or wrong. A pre-agreed set of definitions allows us to look at our conflicts a little more objectively.

When somebody is angry, they tend to feel justified in whatever they’re doing – that’s one of the side effects of anger. Another is that people witnessing it often feel intimidated. It is easy to take a reasonable criticism as a personal slight if there is no pre-existing policy to justify the criticism. It is also easy to be intimidated out of making a necessary challenge to somebody’s behaviour without some pre-existing objective policy to justify your concerns.

These guidelines are not designed to prevent disagreements, shut down normal argument or any kind of constructive verbal confrontation, but to discourage situations in which people are intimidated out of such discussions.

The point of naming these behaviours isn’t that anybody who displays them in any way at any time can be instantly banned; the conflict resolution and survivor-led processes should make sure that responses to conflicts are proportionate. We name these behaviours in the Safer Spaces policy so that we have an agreement on what we can feel justified in challenging, so that anybody challenging these behaviours doesn’t have to feel alone or risk dismissal of their concerns, and so that those who might be tempted to use these behaviours as a shortcut to making their point will think twice about the possible negative consequences.

This does not mean that any behaviour not specifically covered by this policy cannot be challenged. If a behaviour is problematic, it should be dealt with through the same procedures as a breach of this policy, and if we are all agreed that the behaviour is problematic we should expand the policy to include it