I grew up in a household in which there were a lot of rules. Not just the usual ones – don’t fight, brush your teeth, do your homework. There were others: don’t nudge the furniture “off position.” Don’t touch the newspapers or remote control. Don’t unlock the back door. Don’t do anything that makes me feel unsafe. These rules were subject to change without notice. If you broke them, the consequences were severe. Tantrums, shouting, worse. Sometimes you’d end up barricading yourself in your room, wishing you’d just not bothered to move at all. It was unbearable. But then again, if someone is anxious and says they feel unsafe, what can you do? Especially if their anxiety is presented as unknowable and resistant to change. You have to do what they want, regardless of your own desires.
After all, how hard can it be not to touch a newspaper? Not to nudge an item of furniture? Not to talk at the wrong time or pick up the wrong item of cutlery or shut the door too hard? None of it is that hard, is it? And if it makes someone feel better, why, it’s inconsiderate not to follow the rules. On the other hand, how hard can it be not to make so many demands in the first place? And how hard can it be not to react with violence and aggression when your needs are not met? Turns out it’s impossible. It’s impossible to control your feelings and needs when you’re making demands of others. It’s only those who fear actual violence who are expected to hold themselves in check.
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?