Thomas Swann is a Research Associate at Loughborough University working on an ESRC-funded project examining rule-making and constitutionalising in anarchist politics. He has a PhD in management and a background in social and political philosophy. His research explores the connections between anarchism and organisational cybernetics, aiming to develop ‘anarchist cybernetics’ as a framework for understanding radical left social movement organisation. His is the final post in the series:

Ethics in Academic Events

As theorists of justice and professional ethicists we are used to scrutinizing the practices of others. Is it not about time that we turned our analytical skills and discerning moral sensitivities on ourselves? Inspired by discussions at the closing of the workshop ‘Global Justice and Global Health Ethics Exploring the Influence of Iris Marion Young’, this series of posts seeks to examine our own actions and practices and explore the moral dilemmas of the academy.


Do safer spaces stiffle or enable debate?

In September of this year, the Anarchist Studies Network (ASN) conference agreed upon a draft safer spaces policy for future events. Among other things, the safer spaces policy, called for participants to avoiding making assumptions about people’s gender, be aware of being part of a privileged group, make sure discussions of traumatic subjects are entered into with care and reject racist or sexist language.

Documents like this that are designed to govern behaviour in academic spaces have become controversial over the last year or so. Claims are often made that safer spaces policies (‘safer’ rather than ‘safe’ because insecurity can never be eliminated entirely) are akin to censorship and that they wrap people in protective cotton wool.

Andrew Anthony, writing in The Guardian in January 2016, described safer spaces as follows: ‘The phrase refers to a zone, both geographical and mental, in which threats to a student’s identity, be they cultural or sexual, are not tolerated but banned or removed. It’s a concept that in practice is much less about physical security than psychological sensitivity.’

If this is taken to be representative of the case against safer spaces, then it can be said that it comes down to, on the one hand, the safety at stake in safer spaces applying to self-image and a subjective appreciation of identity and, on the other, the issue being one of sensitivity rather than security. Rather than protecting individuals from being hurt in a visible, physical way (e.g. being punched or kicked), safer spaces policies are intended to protect people’s subjective feelings.

This is a straw man argument, and what it does is obscures the fact that harm can come in different forms. As I’m sure those who oppose safer spaces policies would agree, people can be harmed psychologically as well as physically. Violent behaviour doesn’t need to cause actual damage to the body to have lasting effects. So if we can all agree that students, academics and others should never be harmed physically in attending conferences or having discussions, why is it controversial to assert that they shouldn’t also be harmed psychologically?

Rather than being about censorship or exclusion of views that challenge those of the safer spaces advocates, one argument for safer spaces can be made on the basis of trying to prevent harm, both physical and psychological. Research ethics is built on the liberal foundation that no harm should come to participants, so why is it considered an affront to extend this to all aspects of academia?

More than that basic liberal commitment to do no harm, however, safer spaces policies actually provide a concrete way of addressing entrenched privileges, hierarchies and power imbalances. Not only is the avoidance of harm central to safety in academia, so too is finding ways of challenging those (often unconscious) biases and structures that act to exclude people and groups, based on characteristics like race, gender, sexuality and disability among others, from academia. By ensuring that those doing the challenging cannot be shouted down, dismissed, discouraged or otherwise attacked (in ways that may often cause psychological harm), safer spaces allow academia to be pushed in the direction of greater equality and equity of access.

Roxanne Gay, writing in the New York Times, put it well: ‘As a teacher, I think carefully about the intellectual space I want to foster in my classroom – a space where debate, dissent and even protest are encouraged. I want to challenge students and be challenged. I don’t want to shape their opinions. I want to shape how they articulate and support those opinions.’

Creating a safer space is not about censoring certain topics or opinions. On the contrary, it is about finding a safe way for everyone, regardless of privilege, to be able to debate all topics and all opinions. Excluding someone who uses racist, sexist, classist, ableist or transphobic epithets, for example, is not aimed at excluding the reality of racism, sexism, class inequality, ableism or transphobia but is a way of making sure that someone who may cause harm, intentionally or not, is not given space to do so.

Safer spaces policies are relatively recent additions to academic work and they may take some time to adjust. It is no surprise then that opponents have a handful of (well-worn even by now) examples of the results of policies that seem contrary to the common sense of how academia should operate. Aside from the fact that challenging prevailing common sense is an essential element of what safer spaces polices aim to do, and that some of these examples may be taken out of context, it should be expected that there will be teething problems.

That is part of the reason why the policy passed by the ASN conference was considered a draft, open to revision over time. It is vitally important that this process of finding ways of making academic spaces safer is embraced and encouraged. If academia is to be open to all and to allow for critical debate, then it needs to be a space in that does what it can to avoid physical and psychological harm to students, staff and everyone else with whom we should be having conversations.


For details of the conference for the workshop “Global Justice and Global Health Ethics: Exploring the Influence of Iris Marion Young”, go to: