The campus culture of “safe spaces” and “no platforming” is broadening rather than stifling debate and free speech, writes Emily Hawkins.
The issue of free speech on UK campuses is one the media pounce on whenever they get the chance, and the decisions of student unions across the nation have become the new cause that the “political correctness gone mad” brigade are rallying to fight. It isn’t just a UK phenomenon: in the US similar criticisms have been made. Students are special snowflakes, apparently, afraid to face the outside world and edging towards authoritarian levels of campus censorship. The reality of it is that students are simply responding to oppressive systems in the ways they can.
University is the ideal space for independent debate and autonomous initiative. These qualities are celebrated when applied to academia, but when applied to a concept of liberation politics they are seen as something to be distrusted and doubted.
Those claiming students want to be coddled on campus appear to be lucky enough to misunderstand that those needing the safety of university spaces are those maligned by wider society already. “I will never forget being in a class debate over gay marriage and having a fellow student tell me to my face that I was disgusting for living in such a sinful way. Those comments added nothing to the discussion taking place, but they made me feel terrible for days,” Sumner Brook wrote in February.
“Safe spaces provide a place of brief respite for oppressed minorities in a world where, outside these spaces… these oppressions are the norm. Far from allowing minorities to “hide away”, safe spaces often allow us to organise without fear so that we can tackle oppression together in the wider world,” said Lucy Auger, another student.
Of course, what the term “safe space” refers to can be confusing. As Julia Carpenter described in The Hairpin recently, “[The] “Safe space” has itself become something of a buzzword, online and off. The definition is amorphous, just like many of these spaces themselves.” One student tweeted, “from my experience, there needs to be a better explanation of what [a] safe space is and does, not just headlines of who has been banned.” Largely, a safe space policy can be understood to be a commitment by a student union to protecting marginalised students so that all students feel able to contribute to university life.
However it would be more than generous to say that all attacks of student unions are the result of misinterpretations. Last year, the libertarian site Spiked released a “traffic-light” style evaluation of 115 student unions and deemed 80 per cent of UK universities to be active practisers of “illiberalism.” Incredibly though, actions deemed to be “illiberal” by the site included policies against sexual harassment, including the student unions of Durham, Leeds, Portsmouth, and many more. Spiked also claimed policies against racists and fascists warranted universities to receive Red or Amber ratings. Surely it should not need explaining why young women should feel safe on university grounds.
The “No platforming” of prominent individuals by student unions has particularly been met with furore and scepticism by students and journalists alike. Recent cases have seen students call on feminist writer Germaine Greer to cancel a lecture at Cardiff University after a student petition criticising her “views towards trans women”, and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s invitation to speak at Kings College London withdrawn following racist comments made towards President Obama.
Individual student unions can decide whether or not to “no platform” speakers in addition to the list of six groups that the NUS has officially banned from speaking on NUS-affiliated university student union premises. The NUS list includes racist and fascist groups and organisations such as the English Defence League (EDL), British National Party (BNP), Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), and Al-Muhajiroun.
Christina Worrall, studying an MA in Gender Studies, said to me: “I feel like we can’t have universities that don’t have safe space policies, because so many marginalised groups already face so many obstacles to education. If people didn’t share their views so forcefully or hatefully we wouldn’t necessarily need them, but that’s a moot point because people do.” Worrall continued to say that safe spaces facilitate environments where people can share their views without facing social obstacles, which is beneficial to education and to elevating voices which “may not otherwise be heard.”
“Things like gender neutral toilets and trigger warnings aren’t affecting anyone, it just helps the people they’re meant to,” one anonymous 19-year-old student said to me.
Eve Livingston, currently a freelance journalist writing for The Guardian and The Independent and former Equality and Welfare officer at Edinburgh University, told me she doesn’t think that safe spaces are a new, or particularly worrying, trend for students. “I wouldn’t say there’s been a rise in it since then, more that students are pushing the boundaries a bit more in what they take as acceptable and what they don’t. For example, five years ago the majority of political student unions would have had a no policy against the likes of the BNP for example, but that was largely in line platform with what the rest of society also thought was acceptable/not acceptable. Now students are saying: “Actually things like transphobia etc. are not acceptable, even if the rest of society thinks they are, so the way we’re going to try and challenge that is by shifting the frame of what’s seen as being up for debate”.’” Far from limiting debate, student unions are enabling freer and richer discussions on social injustices than ever before, with more students feeling they can contribute to these conversations in safe environments.
While some are determined to present advocates of safe space policies as a small, deluded minority, the statistics disagree. A ComRes survey found in April that 63 per cent of students believe that the National Union of Students is right to have their “no platforming” policy. Students are creating their own campus environments, ones that reflect their principles and demographics – this should be respected and celebrated.
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“Safe spaces” and “no platforming”: the increasing propensity of many university students to simply shut down and block out views which they disagree with is deeply concerning.