Opinion: Julia Hartley-Brewer's 'safe space' joke got her banned from next year's Labour conference. But nothing should be above poking fun at

Opinion: Julia Hartley-Brewer's 'safe space' joke got her banned from next year's Labour conference. But nothing should be above poking fun at

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

talkRADIO's digital editor Thea de Gallier responds to Julia Hartley-Brewer's ban from next year's conference. These are her views and not talkRADIO's. 

Party season has drawn to a close. It’s been an eventful one - we’ve seen divisions in the Conservatives over Brexit, a ‘funeral march’ protest take place, Michael Fabricant wearing a rather lacklustre disguise - and talkRADIO’s Julia Hartley-Brewer banned from next year’s Labour conference.

Her crime probably needs no introduction, but for anyone who missed it: she mocked the Labour conference’s designated ‘safe space’ in a tweet, sitting inside the room and saying “boo”.

Her post drew immediate criticism from people pointing out the room was for those with autism, anxiety or other conditions that may require them to retreat from the crowd. Labour demanded she apologise, but didn’t deem her clarification tweet satisfactory, and has confirmed she will not be accredited to next year’s event.

“The Conference Arrangements Committee has decided that Julia Hartley-Brewer’s conduct and the considerable distress she caused to vulnerable groups, coupled with her refusal to apologise despite being given several opportunities, falls below the acceptable standards we uphold,” Labour said in a statement to talkRADIO.“Therefore, she will not be accredited for Labour Party Conference next year. We will of course be happy to welcome other TalkRadio employees.”


'A highly politicised term'

Watch: Eamonn Holmes and Saira Khan debate the safe space debacle with Julia Hartley-Brewer

Spiked Online’s Brendan O’Neill called safe spaces “Kindergartens for grown-ups” while Jacob Rees-Mogg said Labour was showing “extreme snowflakiness”.

“It really underlines the fact the Labour party doesn't believe in free speech, and Jeremy Corbyn wants to regulate newspapers because they're occasionally rude about him,” he said.

There’s a lot going on here. Firstly, it has to be said, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Labour providing a place that anyone feeling overwhelmed, ill, or otherwise struggling, can retreat to.

But as Hartley-Brewer pointed out in her responses to the Twitter criticism, this wasn’t made explicitly clear. ‘This area is for use by anyone. It is not monitored’ read the sign, while small print said that emergency services should be called if urgent treatment was needed.

Secondly, ‘safe space’ has become a highly politicised term, largely thanks to the National Union of Students, whose penchant for turning talks and debates into ‘safe spaces’ by no-platforming anyone whose views they find objectionable rather transformed the meaning of the term from a room in which someone can recover, to what some would call an echo chamber.


'A sense of resilience'

I’ve always believed that, within reason, it’s better to give airtime to a host of opposing views in order to understand and challenge them. That isn’t the same as endorsing them.

But what Hartley-Brewer did here can’t be classed as hate speech. At no point did she openly mock people suffering from any kind of disability - the jibe she made (and you’re more than entitled to find it gross and distasteful) was at this culture of insulating oneself from ‘offensive’ views.

Nobody has the inherent right never to be offended, and nothing should be above being poked fun at. Yes, even people’s feelings.

Before anyone chimes in to equate this viewpoint with supporting hate speech, there's a vast difference. Hate speech of any kind - disliking, feeling superior or disdainful towards, or inciting harm to come to anyone because of their personal attributes, be that race, sex, religion or ability - is unacceptable. But jokes and jibes, however off-colour, are generally not made with the same viscious intention behind them that hate speech is. 

I have suffered from mental health issues, including anxiety, since my teens. I’ve had panic attacks in public enough times that, if a quiet room to sit and calm down was provided, I’d have made use of it on several occasions. So yes, I’d have used a safe space if I needed it. Did I find Hartley-Brewer’s tweet a prejudiced attack on my mental health conditions? No.

I also make bad-taste jokes about my issues - I’ve referred to myself as a nutter and a lunatic in the past. That doesn’t mean I think anyone else with mental health issues is a nutter or a lunatic, but neither will I stop joking about myself that way for fear of causing offence.

I don’t expect people to pander to me or refrain from using certain words or behaviour because of my mental health. I don’t expect to go through life never encountering anything I find traumatic. And neither should anyone else - because that’s the nature of life. It’s unpredictable, it’s sometimes horrible, and you won’t agree with everyone you meet.

If anyone truly felt traumatised by Hartley-Brewer’s joke, I’d suggest what they need more than her being banned from next year’s Labour conference is to develop a healthy sense of resilience.

They don’t have to find it funny or acceptable. They’re welcome to shout and tweet and kick up a fuss about how objectionable they think it is. But what a sanitised and totalitarian world we’d live in if nobody’s humour was ever allowed to dip below the belt.