"Wow unable to stop smiling because something so black, wonderful… just happened," Oxford law student and Rhodes Must Fall co-founder Ntokozo Qwab wrote on Facebook last month. He’d been in a cafe with friends. The waitress – a white woman – came over with the bill. Instead of giving her a tip, they took the piece of paper and wrote: "We will give tip when you return the land."
The waitress "sees the note and starts shaking", he wrote. "She leaves us and bursts into typical white tears."
On the face of it, the casual cruelty of Qwab's story is odd. After all, anti-sexist, anti-racist movements like Rhodes Must Fall are constantly framed in the language of therapy: trigger warnings, safe spaces, the equation of emotional with physical harm. So why the harsh brutality of the language, the simmering hatred, the bullying? Why the blindness to any other form of disadvantage – economic for instance – that this woman might have suffered from aside from her race?
Claire Fox's remarkable new book, I Find That Offensive, tries to get to the heart of the contradictions in the movement. It starts with her own experiences facing the full angry vitriol of the easily offended, in this case school children. In the first case she failed to include the word 'prophet' in front of 'Mohammed' when addressing a predominantly Muslim school. "Some of the girls in the front row were close to tears," she writes. In the second, she makes the point during a school debate on the footballer Ched Evans that rape "was not necessarily the worst thing that could ever happen to an individual". A similar response ensued. "The room erupted. The audience shrieked. Girls were hugging each other for comfort."
Fox is well known for her combative debate performances and tough public demeanour, so it's interesting that she takes a sensitive, generous approach to trying to understand these reactions. "What struck me was how distressed they were by my remarks," she writes. "This was not a feigned response or an affectation; they had been genuinely hurt."
Most accounts of the safe spaces movement (Fox calls them "generation snowflake", which I find too dismissive to be useful) are fundamentally political, seeking a through-line from post-structuralism to identity politics in which identity overrides objectivity as the operating principle of political debate. Fox instead looks at the behaviour and searches back for personal explanations in the upbringing of safe-spacers.
She is commendably clear-sighted in singling out the most pernicious elements of the new political dialogue. Chief among these are the seemingly innocuous words "as a" – as in "as a female/Muslim/person of colour/trans person…" The function of this device is to establish a hierarchy of virtue and grievance, creating a perverse sense of authority from victimhood. It is almost always followed by "…I find that offensive", which, as Fox correctly translates, actually means: "Shut up."
But Fox also highlights the flip side of this approach, which is that it is systematically dismissive of the reality of people’s lives if they do not fit the strict confines of this virtue hierarchy. She highlights an attack on historian David Starkey by Lola Olufemi in Varsity, in which she points out that he never "had to question his own profound privilege", presumably on the basis that he sounds posh and is a white man.
“Is this the same Starkey who was raised 'in an austere and frugal environment of near poverty'?” Fox asks angrily, "Whose parents were often unemployed, whose mother was a cotton weaver and a cleaner? Is this the same Starkey who was born with two club feet, who suffered polio as a child?"
Those who demand others check their privilege have very specific assessments of what counts as privilege. Anything else doesn’t count, whether it’s a working class white waitress or a club-footed historian. This is the bullying dichotomy exemplified by Qwab: If you're on their side, the safe spaces movement is proudly, almost laughably, sensitive. Tales abound of student union meetings banning clapping because it might be triggering, or law students unable to read about cases involving sexual assault. But if you're on the other side, you will be bullied into submission.
"For someone who has been on the receiving end, there certainly seems little evidence of fragile wimpishness when you are being shouted down by those demanding you shut up and respect their safe space," Fox writes. A classic case study in this behaviour is provided by the treatment of Nicholas Christakis, Yale faculty head, whose wife sent out an email suggesting students should be able to work out what costumes were morally tolerable on Halloween without university authorities stepping in. It prompted an extraordinary backlash, with some students claiming they couldn’t sleep they were so upset. Christakis’ attempt to debate with the students, seen in the video below, sees them round on him and scream abuse.
Similar attitudes were on show when students activists got University of Missouri president Tim Wolffe to resign after demanding he "admit to white privilege". They then turned on the press, pushing and shoving reporters and cameramen while holding up placards reading: 'No Media, Safe Space.'
These contradictions are better identified than they are explained. Fox lays most of the blame at the door of a society which treats children too preciously, whether with health-and-safety rules, the elevation of 'emotional abuse' to a form of neglect in civil law, the prevalence of "extreme parental oversight" during childhood and the breakdown of traditional authority structures, such as that between teacher and pupil.
Against that coddling instinct, adults engage in a form of "catastrophising" about the dangers of the world – "always anticipating the worst possible outcomes to any number of situations". What began with newspaper scare stories about paedophiles and germs and bullying morphed into hysterical parents creating clinical childhoods, which morphed into the weird therapy-speak politics of the safe spacers.
It’s a tempting explanation and one feels there must surely be some truth in it, even if – like me – you never had much time for complaints about health-and-safety and think most anti-bullying initiatives are rather a good idea. But there must surely be something more to it than that. The standard political explanation – basically blaming Foucault and feminism – also seems inadequate. And even a combination of the two isn’t fully satisfying. One wonders whether there isn’t a nativist tinge to this movement, a sort of progressive Ukippery phenomenon in which the marginalised nature of the protected groups provides some of the fanatical emotional force we see in its adherents. Regardless, Fox correctly observes the symptoms, but we're not quite at the point of isolating the cause.
There's a similar problem with the way Fox addresses the safe spacers. A section at the end of the book addresses itself directly at them, and then at their critics in schools and universities – the fellow students challenging their dogma.
The first section is badly misjudged. Fox engages in a lengthy patronising attack which is unlikely to get anyone to come on board. She demands they "grow up" and "sod off", berates their "whining" and attacks the “emotional incontinence” and “unreasonableness” of young activists. It’s a sad turn for a book which started with a seemingly open and genuine attempt to comprehend the emotional core of the movement.
But she follows it up with something remarkable. Her letter to those on her side – those taking on the safe spacers – should be torn out the book and stuck on the wall of any student taking up the challenge of this new political culture. It is a manifesto for fighting according to your values.
"Don't just be an un-PC rebel lashing out," she warns, pushing students away from the responsive anti-gay, anti-black, anti-women rhetoric coming from some student societies and online commentators. "Don’t give them a taste of their own medicine," she adds, rejecting tit-for-tat bans on "feminazis" or demands for the resignation of figures like Goldsmith student union diversity officer Bahar Mustafa, who tweeted "kill all white men".
Fox offers a lucid, level-headed warning to safe space critics to conduct themselves according to the values they hold: free speech and intellectual engagement. Chief among these is the requirement that you never let anyone shut you up and you always stand with those who are being silenced, regardless of whether they’re on your side or not. "You need to build a proper movement that can demonstrate its solidarity with everyone who faces censorship," she says. "That even includes those SJW’s [social justice warriors] right to argue reactionary, anti-free speech positions."
It might all sound obvious, but for many of the intended recipients of Fox’s message, it will not be. The keyboard warriors of gamergate, a movement which pretends to be about journalistic ethics but spends a disproportionate amount of its time harassing and threatening young women, would struggle with what is being said here. But Fox is doing precisely what she did not do when speaking to the safe spacers – talking on their own terms, supporting where virtuous, discouraging where pernicious. Making it clear that total political agreement is not a precondition of debate. She is likely to have far more effect with her words than those, like myself, who instinctively attack gamergate and its methods.
We’re in the game of talking now. The debate is not really about content, but about whether one can speak to the other side at all, what words one might use to make that possible, and the manner which might make it more likely. We're aspiring towards positive engagement rather than a shouting match based on self-affirmation and moral superiority.
Safe spaces makes that kind of engagement literally impossible, but reaching beyond our tribes and trying to have something constructive to say to those on the other side offers the best chance for getting rid of the most dangerous aspects of the new political activism.
Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners