Staying Safe and Actual Privilege

Stay safe! Each time I’ve heard those words I shuddered without understanding why. There’s nothing wrong with being safe of course. So what is it about the phrase? Perhaps it’s more about who says it?

It might just be me but I tend to read and hear it most from the types who from their platforms at Oxford University or as Guardian columnists tell everyone else that they are privileged. But that might just be my imagination.

This morning the local paper was telling people to “stay” safe in the snow. Then it struck me, as mates trudged off to work in the perilous conditions. They have no choice about being safe.

Privileged safety

Workers have never really had a choice. From weavers to miners, from conscripted soldiers to builders they’ve never been safe.

My animosity toward the term began to make sense. From childhood on I’ve been beaten with a mallet, stabbed, punched, jumped, robbed and burgled. I’ve been mugged more times than I’d care to remember – once I got mugged three times in one night, such that the last muggers had a row about it and gave my remaining belongings back to me.

The last time I was mugged was only a couple of years ago after my drink had been spiked (I presume) and I’d spent the night sleeping in a doorway in a foreign city. The last time I was assaulted was a couple of months ago – I got sucker-punched after helping a man get away from someone who was starting on him in a bar.

Stay safe? I bear no ill to those who are already safe and wish to stay so, but it would be nice to extend the concept beyond the privileged.

I was discussing such matters with one of the interviewees from Injustice a few weeks ago. She told me about when she was a child on an estate. “My Mum told me that if a man flashes at you, just laugh at him and keep walking”. That was her lot.

As she put it to me just this morning “for the privileged (staying safe) typically means remaining where they are – it’s a condition they wish to preserve – for working class people its an aim –its about change- it’s a process of becoming – of finding some way of being safe.”

Safe spaces are no different to gated communities designed to contain privilege and keep out the riff raff.

Working class safety

Working class communities have never been particularly safe. Threats may come from the work they are forced to do, the pollution they have to endure, or the social problems that are dumped on them. If they “stay”, it is anything but “safe”.

Of course working class communities are quite capable of organising and protecting themselves, as history has shown. But this is not to “stay”. It is to “become” in spite of how they are treated systematically. And so often they are mocked for doing so.

You might recall the vile, disgusting coverage of the “paedophile hysteria” in working class communities in the late 1990s, early 2000s. Such communities have always been the dumping ground for social problems. They lack the cultural and political capital to lobby to have prisoner and addict resettlement in the posh parts of town, so have to put up with it.

And when they try to protect themselves, they are mocked. Plonk drug rehabilitation and homeless centres, a prison and refugees in Mayfair and see what happens. Do the same in a working class area, and objections become intolerance. Mistaking a pediatrician for a pedophile says all there is to say about the thick working class “vigilante mobs”.

When being safe doesn’t matter

137 workers were killed in industrial accidents last year, yet bosses aren’t hounded out of their jobs, and corporate manslaughter still isn’t really a thing. I mean, a company got a half million pound fine a couple of years ago, but, well, who cares? If you’re dying of asbestos poisoning, or your family members were killed after being herded into cages by the police at a football ground, or if you can’t hear because of industrial noise, you might be able to sue someone at some stage if you campaign for a few decades.

But millionaires remembering being made to feel uncomfortable 15 years ago, and you’d have to blind and deafen yourself not to know. A woman dying of the cold in a tent in Cardiff? Doesn’t matter. A mother dying of the cold on her sofa? Who cares? They’ve never been safe so staying so isn’t a thing. I can’t say it another way, but staying safe seems to be the same as retaining privilege.

For those who really are not privileged – even, you know, white men growing up in poor, violent households with little education, no prospect of work and long criminal records – real safety is about social change, not preserving conditions they benefit from.

In this sense, safety means different things to different groups of people. Preserving the safety of the Oxford academic or the Guardian columnist means banning, ostracising or imprisoning those who make them feel unsafe. The overall outcome isn’t a common good but a maintenance of privilege.

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