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Safe Spaces and Cosseted Childhoods

safe spacesThe Head Teacher at St Albans High School for Girls, Jenny Brown, has spoken out recently about the current trend for safe spaces at Universities across the UK, for which she blames the cosseted childhoods our children now experience in comparison with the tough times of the past. She says:

Is there a teacher or parent left in the country who doesn’t decry the sprouting of the safe-space movement in universities?

“The movement . . . comes with a language that alone alarms: no platforming, safe spaces, trigger warning . . . But why are we surprised? We’ve created this. These undergraduates are some of the first children brought up in health and safety heaven.

“These children of the millennium didn’t play unsupervised, they didn’t play outside . . . they didn’t climb trees, grub up or get back for supper with torn jeans and wet wellies.”

Yup. I’m one of those who is horrified by all this self-indulgent protection from the world that some young people need, it seems to me that there’s a crucial stage of development being missed here: your young adult life is a time when you should be coming up against new ideas and opinions which anger, challenge and even disgust you.

Just as toddlers need to test themselves against the physical world and its dangers, like trying to climb stairs or eating dirt, and teenagers need to test themselves against society by taking risks in their social behaviours, young people need to test themselves against the frightening world of ideas and politics. Otherwise how is that teenage brain supposed to mature into an adult one?

I don’t think this is the whole story though; what I observe in the behaviour of the young proponents of safe spaces and no-platforming at universities is not young people who are timid and afraid of the world, but bullies.

There is a self-righteousness, nastiness and rigidity about the way they impose their world-view on others, and the tactics used are straight out of the Playground Bullies Handbook – name-calling, gaslighting, rumour-spreading, and personal attacks on character. They remind me of a clique of powerful kids at school, the ones who are always right and who manipulate every other child with rewards, favour and acceptance into the gang if they go along with their rules, and slander, social exclusion and contempt if they break them. These are the kids who have the power to decide whether you are popular or unpopular amongst your peer group, the ones all the other kids are afraid of.

Just as in the playground, I suspect that there are many young people at uni who disagree with both the views and the tactics of this bunch, but stay silent, either out of fear, apathy or the feeling that it’s really not worth it. I imagine there are many who, on the quiet, search out, read and listen to the views on the currently Not Allowed list and form their own opinions. I don’t think we should judge All Young People by the actions of the ones who shout the loudest.

I agree that children are far more protected and controlled than they used to be and that parents need to devise ways to counter that (manufacture a bit of hardship for your kids if it’s lacking in their lives!) but I think it’s the general parenting culture which is more of a culprit here: that parenting dogma which encourages us to both over-protect our children’s delicate feelings (as if they are emotionally fragile) at the same time as believing and agreeing with everything they say and do (as if they are little despots who need constant appeasement).

I think it’s the combination of those two factors which creates emotionally fragile despots, and the employment of controlling, bullying tactics in order to create “safe spaces” is a perfect embodiment of that inherent contradiction.

  1. Deborah Peifer
    | Reply

    A very thoughtful piece. I hadn’t made the connection to bullying but when I read your piece, I thought, of course. Thank you for putting words and concepts to my inchoate thinking.

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