“My dad is a really stubborn man. We debate all the time, and I understand the value of hearing differing opinions. But there have been times when I have come to my father crying, when I was emotionally upset, and he heard me regardless of whether or not he agreed with me. He taught me that there is a time for debate, and there is a time for just hearing and acknowledging someone’s pain.” Jencey Paz, a Yale student
“A university is not a ‘safe space. If you need a safe space, leave, go home, hug your teddy & suck your thumb until ready for university.” Richard Dawkins
In recent years a new madness has been afflicting many campuses in the U.K. Here are a few examples. Oxford University’s Christ Church College cancelled a debate on abortion because protesters objected to the fact it was being held between two men. Both Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer have had problems speaking at universities because of their views on transgender issues. A flying spaghetti monster poster was taken down because it might offend religious sensibilities. Dundee banned the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children from their Freshers’ Fair. Another poster, this time at University College London, was banned. It was from the Nietzsche Club and it stated this:
But it is worse in the U.S.A. Students at Harvard have been asking for rape law to be dropped from lectures in case any students have been victims of sexual assault. Jeremiah True, a 19 year-old Reed College student, claims he was recently banned from lecture-seminar class for his dissenting views on the oft-cited statistic that one in five college women experience sexual assault, and his disagreement over the concept of rape culture. Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to students asking them to ensure their Halloween costumes did not involve offensive “cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation”. Erika Christakis, a Yale psychology lecturer and wife of Nicholas Christakis, the master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s twelve residential colleges, objected, saying that the term cultural appropriation was inherently wrong and would stifle free speech and open debate. This was too much for some. An opinion piece in the student paper The Yale Herald by Jencey Paz responded that “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” The Christakises subsequently resigned. A debate over rape culture 2014 at Brown University led students who feared it would be “troubling” or “triggering” to create a “safe space” featuring “colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” At Oberlin students claimed that listening to speaker Christina Hoff Sommers would give them PTSD. Welcome to the world of the safe space.
Here is one definition of a safe space I found on a website:
“A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability.” It also has an extensive list of what is not acceptable: cultural appropriation, slut-shaming, binarism, heterosexism, trans-misogyny, multiplicity hate, dyadism, cissexism, fat-shaming, monosexism and otherkin hate. This world does indeed have its own language. I have to confess that I had not heard of many of these, so I do not know whether I am guilty of these crimes. There are three other terms that you need be aware of. The first is trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material. The second one is made in England No Platform. This is a policy of that bulwark of freedom, the National Union of Students (NUS) of the United Kingdom which bans any proscribed person or organisation from being given a platform to speak, or indeed any union officer from sharing a platform with them. Then we have microaggression, defined by dictionary.com as “a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other nondominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype”. It was selected by Global Language Monitor (GLM) as the Top Word of the Year in 2015
The idea of a safe space goes back longer than you might think. One theory is that it has its origins in corporate America with the work of Karl Lewin and the invention of sensitivity groups. The idea was to have a group discussion in which members could give honest feedback to each other in an inclusive environment. The idea was taken up by psychologists such as the humanistic therapist Carl Rogers, who called them encounter groups. They were now part of the counterculture and were intended to promote self-actualisation and social change, fitting in perfectly with the California vibe. And it was here that the idea of safe space was adopted by feminist and gay liberation groups. Sexist or homophobic behaviour was banned by mutual agreement. It is only n the last decade or so that it has been arrived on many university campuses.
As a passionate defender of free speech, I view these campus movements with disdain. Universities should be centres of rigorous debate. We live in a time of manufactured outrage and the offenserati. I don’t object to there being safe spaces, where people feel comfortable and supported. As I pointed out earlier, this is really a therapeutic concept. However, it should have no place in the classroom. It is in the words of one critic Judith Shapiro creating a culture of “self-infantalization.” We need to be able to see the world as other people see it. How can people cope if they learn to put their fingers in their ears and close their eyes every time there is an argument? And how are they going to persuade anyone of what they believe? The policy of safe spaces seems to me to be a strange mix of psychobabble and political correctness. There is this quasi-medical language of trauma. I reject that humans are so fragile and vulnerable. They seem to argue that people are so delicate that if they hear anything upsetting, they will be traumatised.
Proponents of safe spaces use some rather other rather dodgy arguments, many of which are Orwellian:
“Debate is important. But it’s also overrated.”
“If people feel they can’t attend, then we’re shutting people out of conversations.”
“We are protecting free speech by making sure that everyone can participate.”
The case of Zineb El Rhazoui, Morocco-born French journalist at Charlie Hebdo, is illustrative of everything that is wrong in campus culture. In March 2015 she arrived at a talk at the University of Chicago, protected by the security guards she has travelled with since supporters of the Islamic State issued death threats against her. In the Q+A session after the talk, Aseal Tineha, a Muslim student stood up to object to the French satirical weekly magazine’s disrespect for Muslims and to express her dislike of the phrase “I am Charlie.” The student, who was apparently constantly interrupting El Rhazoui, argued that she felt threatened, too. I think it is pretty obvious who is facing the more palpable threat. In an odious editorial in the student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, Xin Tian Yong. The subtitle of the piece was Zineb El Rhazoui champions her own free speech while discouraging that of others. She had according to Ms. Xin, made it more difficult for “other members who felt marginalized to freely voice their opinion without fear of dismissal.” She pointed out that El Rhazoui’s “relative position of power” allowed her a “free pass to make condescending attacks on a member of the university.” I like the response of the vice president of the University of Chicago French Club, which had invited El Rhazoui to speak:
“El Rhazoui is an immigrant, a woman, Arab, a human-rights activist who has known exile, and a journalist living in very real fear of death. She was invited to speak precisely because her right to do so is, quite literally, under threat.”
It is Ms. El Rhazoui who is in need of a safer space.
As I have stated many times before, I do not believe there is a right not to be offended. Free speech should be protected, it is not overrated. Of course it will be abused, but this is a price we have to pay. It is easy to agree if the speech is reasonable. It is when the ideas are outrageous, that they require defending.