As Generation Y enters the world of higher education, it lays down for itself rules of good behavior. Below are the “safe space policy” rules of the Edinburgh University Student Association, as updated in 2014. They stipulate good behavior at student meetings. From a cursory review of the press, the rules do not seem to be outside the emerging norm.
EUSA safe space policy
- Members are expected to respect the right of all students attending Student Council (and related meetings) and staff to enjoy EUSA as a safe space environment, defined as a space which is welcoming and safe and includes the prohibition of discriminatory language and actions.
- EUSA operates a Zero Tolerance Policy towards discrimination based on:
- Gender and Gender Identity
- Marriage and Civil Partnership
- Political Affiliation
- Pregnancy and Maternity
- Race and Ethnicity
- Religion and Belief
- Sexual Orientation
- EUSA does not discriminate against anybody on the grounds that they are a sex worker (whorephobia).
- All Council meetings shall be conducted with an assumption that the meeting shall constitute a ‘safe space’ for the conduct of debate, discussion, and decision-making.
- A meeting shall be deemed to be a safe space where no-one is disadvantaged or discouraged from contributing, so long as they respect others’ ability to contribute; and where the principle of equal opportunities is respected.
- All members are expected to conduct themselves in a manner which is respectful and considerate of the contributions of others. This isdefined as:
- Allowing Council members to speak when called upon by the chair.
- Refraining from speaking over, interrupting, heckling, laughing at or otherwise distracting from the speaker who holds the floor.
- Refraining from hand gestures which denote disagreement or in any other way indicating disagreement with a point or points being made. Disagreements should only be evident through the normal course of debate.
- Avoiding using gestures which are not generally known or accepted by Council.
- Gestures indicating agreement are permissible if these gestures are generally understood and not used in an intimidating manner.
- Applause is acceptable when a motion is passed only, not if a motion fails to pass. Otherwise, the agreement should be made clear within debate contributions.
- Where any member of the meeting (including the chair) is violating safe space policy, any student can call for a vote on their expulsion from the meeting.
- In the event that the expulsion of a member is called for, a vote shall be held amongst those members present.
- In the event that this vote passes by a simple majority of those in the room, the member shall be required to leave the meeting, and the meeting shall not resume until the member has left.
- Such an expulsion will not last beyond the particular meeting concerned unless the procedures laid out in the Good Conduct Regulations are invoked.
Members are asked to pay attention to the effect that use of social media can have on whether EUSA and EUSA-related meetings constitute a ‘Safe Space’ for all members.
While social media is of necessity partly a ‘private’ space – someone’s Facebook or Twitter account are their own space, and therefore cannot be regulated by EUSA’s Safe Space policy in the same way as meetings; they also are ‘public’ spaces in that, particularly in the case of Twitter, they are publicly available and searchable.
Social media messages, whether sent directly from meetings or related to what was said in those meetings can have the effect of making meetings regulated by the safe space policy feel unsafe to some members. Members are, therefore, asked to bear in mind the following guidelines:
- Members in a semi-public forum when discussing matters relating to EUSA are also representatives of EUSA.
- Disagreements should be aired in a respectful manner: it is often good to disagree; it is rarely productive to be disagreeable.
- Disagreements, where they are to be aired, should focus on differences of opinion and not on individuals.
- When posting on social media sites, consider whether what you are posting would be something that you would say in a meeting regulated by the Safe Space policy, or directly to the person(s) affected. If not, consider the impact that this may have on other members and whether you really wish to post this comment in this way.
Passed by Student Council on 25 September 2014.
A Zero Tolerance Policy and its consequences
“Zero tolerance policy imposes automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct. Zero-tolerance policies forbid persons in positions of authority from exercising discretion or changing punishments to fit the circumstances subjectively; they are required to impose a pre-determined punishment regardless of individual culpability, extenuating circumstances, or history. This pre-determined punishment need not be severe, but it is always meted out.”
This kind of policy is categorical,
even when it is not draconian. The lack of discretionality, however, may in itself be perceived as draconian (I would).
Seriousness of purpose is matched by the severity of the punishment: expulsion. Immediate ostracism is the rule – by majority vote. The motion to expel can be tabled by “any student” and not just the alleged victim (point 7 above). In fact, there may not even be a victim.
“Unacceptable conduct” is not defined through verifiable actions (e.g. “broken window”) but behavior (and words): we are away from the pro-active XIXth century adage:
Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me.
Gestures, sensory cues, and words (symbolic signs) are an intrinsic part of the adaptive capacity of any living being and a strategy for its survival. Consciously or unconsciously, communication of provisional or emergent intentions takes place in infinite ways (we are just beginning to explore this world). Mimetism is the alternative strategy (nature is never categorical).
In higher social groups, signaling is intensified as a means to offset the tension from closeness with the benefits from collective action. There, signals are useful if they are ambiguous, leaving the recipient free to choose among many options rather than react in automatic or mechanical fashion. Ambiguity facilitates adaptive pentiment and saving face.
For, forming an intention is a complex and time-consuming process. In each new situation, we need to strike a corresponding balance between emotions and rationality. This is a process of discovery in the situation which relies on trial and error. Ambiguity serves us best. The same principle applies to developing collective intentions among a group of humans.
Social life then is a dance of ambiguity. We employ signs and words straight; at times, we rely on a shared silent complicity. We can use “dog whistle” sentences that rely on absences or e contrario statements to make points. A Zero Tolerance Policy (ZTP) would tend to hamper or disallow ambiguity.
There is more. Expressing inchoate and even destructive emotions in a group helps in taming passions and coming to a considered yes. We shout each other into reason. Group dynamics should lead to an emotional and rational convergence – disrupting this process through ZTP leads to brittle agreements.
ZTP would have collateral effects: (a) it distracts participants from the task at hand by imposing on them ongoing multi-dimensional self-control; (b) it forces participants preventively to second-guess the reaction of the many “others;” (c) like Damocles sword, it threatens to disrupt the dialogue at any time. Enforcing ZTP goes at the expense of substance.
ZTP tends to ignore the context. Students are free to choose between participating or not. They will join in a cooperative activity only is it yields a reasonable satisfaction. This experience depends on both endogenous and exogenous factors, but it must be gratifying. ZTP might be gratifying to the stigmatized minority, but severely constrains even innocent behavior of the others.
ZTP, finally, easily becomes prey to partisanship. ZTP motions can be tabled by anyone at any time to intimidate opponents, since violations are inevitable. Majorities are easily gathered as no one wants to be shown up as being soft on ZTP. A loose majority on procedure might oppress a minority arguing substance.
A right/obligation to feel discriminated?
Ten areas of “non-discrimination” have been listed. The list is incomplete, and in any case open-ended.  Ironically, any affirmative action in favor of victims is in itself a form of discrimination – only at a higher level. A “club of all victims” does not eliminate their status as victims, it just creates a larger pool and amplifies the guilt feelings of the perpetrators by making them collectively responsible for all. Consequently, the approach is itself paternalistic: it stigmatizes the victims as unable to fend for themselves. If ascertaining the stigma is a prerequisite, it is not the core challenge ahead. We need to enable the victim to overcome the stigma and no longer feel victimized.
The list grants the persons concerned an unassailable right/obligation “to feel offended.” It creates a rent. People readily abuse the situation, as one observes at football (Italian) matches. As a rhetorical tool, claiming victimhood is very effective.
Under point 6 we have a list of inadmissible gestures. Following instructions to the letter, participants would be deprived of any spontaneity – what is expected is perfect mimetism. One wonders: is reading the paper, filing one’s nails or even nodding off an infringement of ZTP? The inevitable outcome is participation as a zombie.
Eliminating all “negative” gestures fosters a climate of contrived consensus based on tolerance. To a speaker, however, the live interaction with the audience is critical. The speaker does not simply recite – unless he is speaking to TV-cameras – but adapts his message to signs that the audience understands or supports/rejects the point. Ironically, this victimizes the victim most: the right to speak codes to a right to be ignored.
I doubt finally whether ostracism is the right tool in dealing with stigma. We do not change people by shutting them up, rather by giving them safe experiences that show a possible way forward. If change is to occur, it must not be threatening. Socially validated experience changes us, isolation makes us extreme. Ostracism – the deliberate exclusion from social intercourse – denies the target its fundamental dignity.
Is Generation Y less able to deal with direct social intercourse?
Generation Y is the first generation to have used iPhones, tablets and PC for interpersonal communication. A screen and (often rudimentary) written texts have to a significant extent replaced or at least supplemented direct contact and interaction. One wonders whether enough experience has been accumulated, or whether the interposing of the screen has not dulled, or even crippled, the ability to interact socially.
Poorly written, overlong yet vague and hapless, the Safe Policy Rules of Generation Y hint at a set of people who are insecure in a social setting and desperately try to hide their ineptness in bureaucratic jargon.
ZTP aims for mimetism and its intellectual correlate hermetism – not heightened social interaction. The ZTP logic intimates at the elimination of a meeting altogether. A structured social media chat on a virtual platform would do just as well. ZTP is harkening back to the safe cocoon of the screen in one’s den, which allows ostracism by zapping.
More fundamentally: ZTP treats stigmatization symptomatically, by suppressing it, rather than addressing the root causes. It is an admission of collective impotence.
Octopus are perfect mimetists, very clever, and very solitary.
 Originally, ostracism was a complex and semi-religious procedure. It was an extra-judiciary ritual that demanded no justification: it was the naked expression of the people’s sovereignty. At the same time, it was limited to one person per year – making him a sort of scapegoat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostracism
 See e.g. Amotv ZAHAVI – Avishab ZAHAVI (1997): The handicap principle. A missing piece in Darwin’s puzzle. Oxford University Press, Oxford. This for mammals – but it also applis to “lesser” beings. We now speak of “socio-microbiology:” See: Carl ZIMMER (2015): A weakness in bacteria’s fortress. Scientific American CCXI, 1
 Albert O. HIRSCHMAN (2002): Shifting involvements. Private interest and public action. Princeton University, Princeton.
 It behooves students, who do not work, to ignore occupation as a source of discrimination – except in the case of whores (but not gigolos) as in point 3.