Occupy London really are Blair’s babes
Judging by their Safer Space policy, the occupiers are big fans of Blair-style, PC petty authoritarianism.
Occupy London tends to make a virtue out of having no specific political proposals. At a recent Frontline Club debate in London, spokesperson Naomi Colvin said: ‘[W]e’re not putting together a proposal for the society we want to see. We’re setting an example by actually building a society we want to see.’
To get a better understanding of the kind of society Occupy would like to see, then, it’s worth analysing their rules of engagement, the living processes they have adopted in their tent city. One of the most striking examples is their 13-point ‘Safer Space’ policy, which they use to regulate debate and discussion in the camp. Here it is in full.
1) Racism, as well as ageism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, ableism or prejudice based on ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, gender presentation, language ability, asylum status or religious affiliation is unacceptable and will be challenged.
2) Respect each other’s physical and emotional boundaries; always get explicit verbal consent before touching someone or crossing boundaries.
3) Be aware of the space you take up and the positions and privileges you bring, including racial, class and gender privilege.
4) Avoid assuming the opinions and identifications of other participants.
5) Recognise that we try not to judge, put each other down or compete.
6) Be aware of the language you use in discussion and how you relate to others. Try to speak slowly and clearly and use uncomplicated language.
7) The group endeavours as much as is feasible to ensure that meeting spaces are as accessible as possible to the widest range of people.
8) Foster a spirit of mutual respect: listen to the wisdom everyone brings to the group.
9) Give each person the time and space to speak. In large groups, or for groups using facilitation, raise your hand to speak.
10) Respect the person; challenge their behaviour.
11) If someone violates these agreements a discussion or mediation process can happen, depending on the wishes of the person who was violated. If a serious violation happens to the extent that someone feels unsafe, they can be asked to leave the space and/or speak with a person or process nominated by those present.
12) While ground rules are collective responsibility, everyone is also personally responsible for their own behaviour.
13) Occupy London is an alcohol- and drugs-free space.
The reason the occupiers give for adopting such an extensive list of rules is that they want to ‘operate and conduct our discussions in a safe anti-oppressive space – whether offline or online – that is welcoming, engaging and supportive’. They see this as paramount, because they believe that the more ‘inclusive’ debates are, then ‘the stronger and more representative the results will be’.
Really? In truth, by imposing such officious restrictions on what can and can’t be said, on what can and can’t be consumed, and even on how people conduct themselves physically, Occupy London has inadvertently produced a surefire recipe for strangling the life out of political debate.
Instead of simply saying what they think, Occupy protesters have to go through a massive mental checklist of rules and restrictions before uttering a word, lest they commit a ‘violation’ and face being ‘asked to leave the space’. The checklist itself is extremely restrictive. Let’s leave to one side the officious political correctness (what does it even mean to be ‘ableist’?) and the patronising instructions to speak slowly – the rules reveal three backward attitudes on the part of the Occupy movement:
— Firstly there’s the idea that people can’t be trusted to negotiate their own relationships without strict guidelines. Sometimes, quite naturally, people jump into debates and are keen to impress their point. Waiting your turn doesn’t always make sense. Also, in making a hard-and-fast rule that one must ‘always get explicit verbal consent before touching someone or crossing boundaries’, Occupy calls into question the ability of people to navigate both physical and emotional exchanges by themselves.
Sometimes you want to give someone a hug – maybe they’re crying or you’ve been having a passionate exchange. Is Occupy really suggesting that you need ‘explicit verbal consent’ before doing so? Such an approach can drain all the warmth and spontaneity out of interactions, leaving them cold and frigid and preventing people from trusting their instincts.
— Secondly, the emphasis on not passing judgement effectively renders any constructive debate, or really any debate whatsoever, impossible. How can you debate if you can’t pass judgement? Judgement is essential in terms of establishing whether an idea is good or bad; otherwise you end up lapsing into relativism, where everyone’s ideas are treated as ‘equally valid’.
But everyone’s ideas aren’t equal: some can give you an outstanding insight into the world; some have potential but need development; others are half-baked. If you foster a climate of ‘mutual respect’, where all ideas are deemed worthy of respect, you will go nowhere. It’s only through the cut-and-thrust of debate that the truth will out and ideas can develop.
The kind of ‘respect’ promoted by Occupy London is actually deeply disrespectful. If I say something naive or incorrect, I rely upon my friends and colleagues to point it out, so I don’t keep making the same mistake ad infinitum. A true climate of respect is one of criticism, where you don’t just celebrate someone’s failings, but instead believe in that person enough to criticise them and help them become better thinkers.
— Thirdly, these kind of rules simply zap the fun out of everything. Some of the best debates I’ve had have been complemented, even fuelled, by alcohol. The insistence upon being an alcohol and drugs free-zone (and no smoking signs are also scattered across the St Paul’s camp) is both unnecessary and puritanical.
Judging from the ‘Safer Space’ rules, the kind of society Occupy London wants to live in is that which was created during the New Labour era: one where our behaviour is strictly monitored and regulated; where we cannot speak our minds freely for fear of giving offence; where competition and robust debate are outlawed; and where we can’t even drink or give people spontaneous hugs. That is, a very closed, illiberal, backward and cold society.
An earlier version of this article was published in the Free Society on 19 November.