There is a difference between protecting minorities and abridging free speech. No minority group — indeed, no one at all — should have to endure physical abuse or discriminatory treatment. We cannot, though, ban offence. Plenty of things offend us all of the time. That does not give us the right to silence whoever has offended us. The controversy surrounding ‘safe spaces’ at universities goes to the heart of this maxim.
Every day, there seems to be a new example of student groups seeking to ban speakers or events that may ‘cause offence’. One that caught the eye was from Oxford University, where two colleges are under pressure to cancel a ‘Great Gatsby themed’ ball in case they upset women and ethnic minorities, by reminding them of less equal times. On this basis ought we to outlaw the teaching of history, lest it provoke upset at eras when life was awful for pretty much everyone save kings and queens?
Student groups that seek to ‘no platform’ polemical speakers or cancel politically incorrect events attract more ridicule than sympathy. It is no wonder the wider public do not take students seriously. When student protestors are heckling and intimidating professors who refuse to ban potentially offensive Halloween costumes, genuine and sincere allegations of institutionalised racism receive less attention than they deserve.
“Plenty of things offend us. That does not give us the right to silence whoever did the offending”
Universities are supposed to be centres of intellectual challenge, which means responding to, not proscribing, points of view that we disagree with. If anything, universities should be safe spaces for free speech. Whether controversial, trivial, or even offensive, speech must be protected because, ultimately, who decides which speech to permit and which to prohibit? There can be no impartial arbiter of acceptability: the risks of governments or universities curtailing free speech are far greater than the risks of permitting unpalatable speech.
Some might not like to hear this, but we need to accept that there are plenty of things in the world that will upset us. The big wide world is a tough old place and the truth is that no space can be wholly ‘safe’. How one deals with this is a sign of one’s strength. It is better to let the bigot embarrass himself than to silence him. We cannot prostitute our liberties for the sake of our internal harmony. If we do, we should await with fear the day when someone decides our own views are to be gagged.
Some people argue that ‘safe spaces’ only act as echo chambers and are therefore useless to discussion, particularly those that live in a liberal, westernised environment. This is because we are taught that freedom of expression is an inalienable right, that we should constantly question everything, and that open debate is of paramount importance. However, in the context of safe spaces, this way of thinking is very problematic.
If you argue against safe spaces because you feel your freedom of expression is at risk, consider this: you have the entire world to express yourself freely, and the Internet as an unmoderated forum for all of your views. Respecting one tiny space that you aren’t allowed to enter isn’t really going to result in a silencing of your opinion. Remember that these spaces are set up to amplify the voices of people who are generally silenced in the wider world, not to silence yours.
Another point to consider is that not all ideas are worth debating, and that sometimes healing is more important. Often people say that debate is of absolute importance to progress, and I agree that it can encourage people to be more thoughtful and open-minded. However, focusing on oppressed groups is important too. Creating spaces for people to heal and support each other is equally necessary for progression.
“Respecting one tiny space isn’t going to result in the silencing of your opinion”
When privileged people enter safe spaces simply because they ‘enjoy the debate’, this becomes a problem for those who the space is for. For the oppressed it is a place for healing, while for the privileged it is an intellectual pursuit.
Though safe spaces may seem exclusionary to some, they actually ensure that a diversity of perspectives are in discussion. These spaces, be they exclusively for women, people of colour or any minority group, allow the oppressed to connect and share their experiences. This means that certain voices, often underrepresented or marginalised, get a chance to speak without fear of hostility or abuse. In non-safe spaces, privileged voices are more likely to dominate the discussion.
Finally, we all live in a giant echo chamber anyway — it’s called the kyriarchy. For the oppressed, the endless echo here is ‘we are not human’. Those of you that disagree with the necessity of safe spaces need to bear this in mind, and ask yourself, what’s actually wrong with an echo chamber if all that is being echoed is that you are human, that you are valued, and that you are worthy of respect?
We near the end of a year that started with the brutal murders of journalists at the hands of those unwilling to accept the most fundamental aspect of Western values: freedom of speech. Yet, this is the same year that has seen social crusaders in the West invent a new human right: the right not to be offended.
If this means imposing restrictions on people’s freedom of speech and, ergo, their thoughts, so what? So what if this new right destroys the ability to reason and educate those who suffer from stunningly ill-informed prejudices? These sterile, patronising,“safe spaces” that have cropped up across the country’s students’ unions – the haven of pint-sized Russell Brands – fail to allow any sort of societal progress to a better, more understanding future.
"By creating safe spaces, you advocate a victim culture for the very people who should feel free about who they really are”
Instead we’ve been gifted with the rise of our very own moral arbiters intent on masquerading fascism as freedom and denial as reasoned criticism. Yet without these people, what would we do? How would we possibly know what is a racist or misogynistic view without referring to the list of banned opinions? Call me a deluded, naïve libertarian but I tend towards thinking that collective human reasoning, discussion and criticism will give anyone observing a far greater understanding of what is right and wrong. This learning process is not one that can morally be made for them by splitting the world into a dichotomy of right and wrong, unquestionably acceptable and undoubtedly unsayable.
For people that have deeply insulting opinions by all means judge them for it, criticise them as vehemently as you wish; but don’t, by any deluded logic, think ignoring them will force them to get bored of their own opinions. By creating safe spaces, you advocate a victim culture for the very people who should be open and feel free about whoever they really are. Censorship and banning is not the cure for a society beset by prejudices, the whole world claimed they knew this in the aftermath of the Hebdo attack, yet ever so quickly they seem to have forgotten it.
I have a very clear idea in my head of where my ideal safe space is. As a first year, adjusting to my new life away from home, there has been many a night where I have pined for my real bed. Being hundreds of miles away from those who understand you and will not judge you is a big adjustment. Coming from such an environment to one where I hardly know a soul it is hard for me, as I imagine it is for many first year students, to feel truly ‘safe’.
The change in environment, as beautiful as Newcastle may be, can also be overwhelming at times. Coming from a rural market town in Leicestershire, to a big city has been both exciting and terrifying for me. Also, as lovely as my flat is, it is a huge shift from what I have been accustomed to.
“Creating a safe space for myself in my first term at Newcastle has been one of my biggest challenges since beginning University”
For me, I could immerse myself in as many societies as possible, go out as often as I wanted to and befriend everyone under the sun, but at my lowest points I could still feel incredibly isolated. I have found that whose company I am in determines whether I feel safe or not. Unfortunately though, the right people cannot always be close by. Despite this, I am finding more and more people at uni whom I am confident enough around to make me able to able distance myself from those attachments at home that I have been reliant on my entire life.
Creating a safe space for myself in my first term at Newcastle has been one of my biggest challenges since beginning University. I have learned that you can make an environment comfortable and your own by embracing it. Although there are nights where I do miss the safety of home (and I cannot wait to go back for Christmas), I am thankful that I have been welcomed by so many since coming to Newcastle and that so many people within the university make it their aim to make students as comfortable and as secure as possible.