Safer Spaces Agreement in Detail
This section outlines what we mean, and what we don’t mean, by each of the behaviours defined as abusive.
- Violence and threat of violence: A deliberate action that is likely to cause somebody physical pain, or the threat of such action, made verbally or implied physically.
This does not mean: Acting in self-defence or in defence of others, as a last resort, in response to a clear and direct physical threat.
- Use of force and threat of force: Preventing a person from leaving a situation or forcing them into one, either by physically restraining them, blocking their way, refusing to stop following them or refusing to move away from them when asked. Threat to carry out any of these actions.
This does not mean: Preventing somebody from doing violence to themselves or others, or preventing somebody from damaging a space being used collectively, using minimal necessary force.
- Rape/Sexual assault/Sexual harassment: non-consenting sex or sexual touching, as well as acting in a sexual way towards somebody, invading their personal space or making sexually suggestive moves or gestures to them without their explicit consent.
This does not mean: Telling somebody that you find them attractive or initiating a flirtation, provided that lack of enthusiastic reciprocation is taken as an unequivocal “NO” with immediate effect, and all attempts at flirtation cease.
- Personal insult: This means insulting terms specifically applied to individuals, or criticism made abusive by being shouted or expressed aggressively, with the outcome of causing hurt, intimidation or humiliation. This applies regardless of whether the outcome was intentional. It is not the intentions of the person who made the remark or the offence felt by the person being insulted that is being addressed here, though these issues will be relevant to any resolution or disassociation process that follows. The behaviour is problematic because it is a means of forcing a point through the use of intimidation rather than reason, and this works to silence dissent and stifle constructive and reasonable discussion.
This does not mean: A ban on insults, compliments or personal remarks in conversation amongst friends who know and respect one another’s limits. However, when engaging in such banter, we should always be aware of our context – where we are, who else is around us and how what we’re saying affects the general atmosphere of the space. It is not enough to assume that everybody within earshot knows our intentions, or even to state that we don’t mean anything by our use of insulting terms, or that they are being used ironically. The trust that is being asked by somebody who uses insulting or aggressive language in jest has to be earned and maintained, and is not automatically due to anybody with good intentions.
- Oppressive language: This is language used in general conversation, not necessarily in connection with a specific person, that insults, expresses prejudices or reinforces preconceptions about a group of people that are marginalised, disadvantaged or oppressed by mainstream society. This includes (but is not limited to) any racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or disablist language. The reason for this is not “political correctness” or fear of criticising people’s values. The real problem with such language is that it normalises prejudices and recreates the very hierarchies that we aim to oppose, as well as creating a space that is unwelcoming to anybody outside of a narrow demographic.
This does not mean: Compiling lists of unacceptable words and phrases in order to catch out the unwary – we don’t necessarily need to ban words, we do need to meet challenges to our language without defensiveness, be prepared to apologise for unintentional offence and take the opportunity to reconsider our language, the implications behind it and the impact it can have on others. Free expression ends at the point where it becomes an act of oppression to another.
- Verbal Harassment, sexual or otherwise: This includes making unsolicited and inappropriately personal remarks (complimentary or otherwise) about somebody’s appearance or other personal attributes, or making repeated personal requests of them, sexual or otherwise, which have been previously refused, ignored or not met with enthusiasm.
This does not mean: This isn’t a ban on developing sexual relationships or flirting. However, a bookfair is not a singles club, and persistently using the space to initiate flirtations is not appropriate, and can be objectifying and demeaning to other users of the space. Develop personal relationships at appropriate times and places, where nobody is likely to feel trapped, coerced, isolated or embarrassed, and make sure anybody you are flirting with has ample opportunity to exit the situation or end the flirtation at any time. It bears repeating: always treat the absence of enthusiastic reciprocation as an unequivocal “no” with immediate effect.
- Verbal abuse in writing: The same issues often come up in written communications, whether on mailing lists, forums and social networks or personal e-mails and text messages. It can be easier to both misunderstand written communication and to cross boundaries in terms of abusive language, since the things that would normally hold us back in a face-to-face confrontation (e.g. social unease, immediate negative response and awareness of the other party’s distress) are not as pronounced in this medium. The medium also has advantages for debate – many people find it easier to express themselves clearly and coherently in writing, to think their points through and to find the confidence to put their words into a public forum. But the same rules should apply in terms of avoiding personal insult, oppressive language and harassment, and for the same reasons.
This does not mean: That you can’t discuss political issues or dispute things that people have said by e-mail. Remember the position you are writing from and where the person you are emailing will receive it in terms of privilege. Are you reacting to something because you and your position in society are being challenged? Are you expecting a marginalised person to educate you or debate you in a harmful way? Being defensive when you are criticised will mean you fail to learn or grow. Equally, if something you have said is harmful or dehumanising then don’t be surprised if someone acts with anger or lashes out.
Always address the points that you disagree with, rather than the person who has made them (or the kind of person who you believe makes such points). Don’t assume that you know somebody else’s opinions or motives beyond those that they have expressed unambiguously. You can only argue with what somebody has said, not what they might have been thinking. Argue with a view to developing everybody’s ideas, including your own, rather than attempting to defeat the opposing view or force a retraction. There are no individual winners or losers, only productive discussions and destructive ones. People very rarely back down from an opinion once they have expressed it publicly in writing. Accept that, even when you do persuade somebody to change their mind, they probably won’t admit it publicly, and you may never know about it.