One of the sub-plots of the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall is the story of the English Reformation, with freedom of conscience and expression represented by the Tyndale Bible that James Bainham dares to read out loud in church. Another sub-plot concerns Elizabeth Barton, the "Holy Maid of Kent", whose prophecies and media profile made her the Myleene Klass of her day; that is until her objection to Henry's divorce, delivered on the threshold of Canterbury Cathedral, set in train a process that would bring her to the scaffold. Following her prophecy that Henry will die within a year if he marries Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell questions her in passing and determines that she is, as he cynically suspected, merely a front for scheming Catholic monks. What these two (historically inaccurate) scenes highlight is the relationship between speech and place.
It might seem odd in the age of social media that the politics of free speech should still be tied to physical spaces, but that seems to be the case to judge by the number of media articles in recent years bemoaning the revival of political correctness on campuses and the boycotting of localised cultural events, such as art exhibitions and even film releases (The Interview and Fifty Shades of Grey have this much in common). Some of this is just the banging of an old drum, such as Nick Cohen accusing the academic left of being anti-liberal and indulging religious fanaticism, thereby departing from the teachings of the True Church as laid down by The Blessed George Orwell. But a more interesting angle has been the criticism of the idea of "safe spaces" - i.e. the designation of particular places, such as colleges, as free from prejudice and hate-speech.
The concept of "safe spaces" developed in the womens' movement of the 1960s, US educational desegregation in the same decade, and the post-Stonewall gay movement of the 1970s. The idea was to create refuges from offensive behaviour. This was a particular priority in institutions where different groups came together (and potentially into conflict) and where access was considered a right or even a privilege, such as schools and colleges. The conventional view is that "Safe spaces is a direct corollary of the rise of identity politics. As the essentially economic argument between right and left died down, it was replaced by a culture war in which gender, sexuality and race were at the heart of the discussion". In practice, identity politics are commoditised (you realise your identity through consumption), and the financialisation of education has made students more demanding customers, so the claim that the "culture war" is not an economic issue is dubious.
Some critics have characterised safe spaces as a corruption of the idea of "no platform", claiming that a student union policy originally focused on denying legitimacy to speakers deemed racist or fascist has been extended to a blanket ban on anyone holding views objectionable to any minority on campus. The picture this criticism paints is of independent thinkers being silenced by a powerful, hyper-sensitive thought-police. It is not clear how they have acquired this power. The media coverage makes it look like a much bigger problem than it is, largely because the independent thinkers turn out to be journalists or their media mates who have been called out for sloppy thinking or professional trolling. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen speaks at the Cambridge Union: you can never find a thought-policeman when you want one.
Defenders of safe spaces have tended to characterise the concept as a matter of personal security rather than public speech, focusing on the "microaggressions" than can "trigger" emotional trauma. It is very easy for this language to slip into the realm of the ridiculous, and there is no shortage of "political correctness gone mad" tales to suit every prejudice, but perhaps the telling point is the characterisation of students as "vulnerable young people" who must be sheltered from the world. This has obvious echoes of the academy prior to the 1960s, much as the safe space policies of colleges are reminiscent of the old rules on propriety that were defied in that decade (and which remind us that colleges originated in religious orders). Though the intentions may be benign, safe spaces are inescapably discriminatory: separating the sheep from the goats, the in from the out. The sanctuary becomes an exclusive club, which tells us that what is ultimately being valued here is property, not sensitivity.
It is always worth asking, whenever the topic of "political correctness" comes up, what real power is being exercised. Colleges do not implement safe space policies because the administrators are intimidated by a handful of transsexuals, but because such policies allow them to neutralise dissent and numb students. As one academic put it: "When first-years come in, they’re still quite feisty. But by the time they get to third year they've absorbed the culture". That culture will extend seamlessly to the corporate world in the form of diversity policies, so colleges are clearly continuing to fulfil their role in socialising middle and working-class students. In contrast, upper-class students continue their tradition of rugby and dining club outrages, appropriated "laddism", and the provocative booking of speakers such as Le Pen. The lesson is that the rules don't apply to the ruling class.
Safe spaces have come to the fore as an object of media attack not because they are particularly threatening or growing in influence but because they provide a vector for the liberal assault on political correctness. Though PC was largely an invention of the reactionary right in America, it has become a convenient target for neoliberals as "reform" and financialisation has moved into academia. This is similar to the way that PC has become a bogey in respect of local government. For example, Louise Casey's report on Rotherham Council's handling of child sex abuse has been greeted as an attack on "misplaced political correctness", despite the ample evidence that the failure occurred because of a lack of sensitivity by the council and police, not because of an excess of it (as one senior officer quoted in the report said of the councillors, "They couldn’t be further from politically correct. They were bullies, they were sexist"). The issue in Rotherham centres on taxi-drivers and a lack of empathy by the authorities. The solution is a Whitehall takeover. Go figure.
The liberal assault on political correctness in academia is more advanced in the US than the UK, so it's worth looking over the pond to see what we can expect here. According to Jonathan Chait (a sort of American Nick Cohen), "political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression. Not only is it not a form of liberalism; it is antithetical to liberalism. Indeed, its most frequent victims turn out to be liberals themselves". Chait is only too well aware that PC was developed by conservatives who wanted a deniable means of abusing blacks after the 1960s, so he executes a textbook dual-house-plague manoeuvre: "Actual communists hid their noxious beliefs under the guise of anti-McCarthyism in exactly the same way that actual racists hide their beliefs in the guise of anti-political-correctness". This is a hegemonic argument that insists that extremists are blinded by "beliefs" (liberals are empiricists) and that social equality and repression are barely distinguishable. Liberalism is all, and what that means in practice is conservatism (i.e. conserving our time-honoured liberties).
While the neoliberal order values diversity and tolerance, because they are economically efficient, it has no interest in challenging privilege that is not egregiously inefficient. The American liberal defence of free speech has been a defence of existing privilege ever since the Pilgrim Fathers. Chait's critique of PC builds a strawman in which academia and social media are dominated by Marxisant theory and feminists, which Henry Farrell accurately dismisses as absurd trolling: "University administrations are largely indifferent to the siren call of post modernism and (except where serious scandal is threatened) feminist issues on campus. In contrast, they are exquisitely sensitive to the interests of funders (whether it be the state, large donors, or both) and members of their boards of trustees, very few of whom are concerned with combating racial and sexual injustice ... The turn of the cultural left to Twitter is a reflection of its weakness on university campuses, not its strength".
What I think the attack on safe spaces reflects is the growing commercialisation of universities and colleges of further education. The right not to be "triggered" has become a privilege that you are paying £9k a year for. In this sense, a safe space is starting to look like a Pall Mall club. The neoliberal impatience with safe spaces reflects the desire for university vice-chancellors to start acting like the CEOs they are: dictating policy (after consultation, of course) and cutting through the crap, whether that is antiquated vested interests or "misguided political correctness". The phrase "A Place of Greater Safety", which was used by Hilary Mantel as the title of her historical novel about the French Revolution, refers to the grave. A grave is an exclusive property. Though your freshly-minted degree may not get you a job that pays enough to afford a mortgage, you can at least save up for that one small plot of earth.