The Campus Crisis of Free Speech

Credit: Newtown grafitti

Credit: Newtown grafitti

Do safe spaces fail to prepare students for the real world?

Mac Convery

One by one, today’s universities in the West are dramatically transforming from institutions of higher learning into massively-funded nursery schools. In them, the kiddywinks – er, students – must remain hush-hush about certain subjects, or risk being banished to the time-out corner (or in campus terms, be “no-platformed”). Think that ISIS fighters are in fact Muslim? That’s a trip to the naughty step. Sceptical of the notion of rape culture? Get ready to be ostracised.

In November I, along with a handful of fellow students, organised an event to mark International Men’s Day. Unsurprisingly, one of the first questions asked on its Facebook event page was: will there be a safe space policy in place? Our answer was no – instead, people would be free to challenge views they found offensive. Free speech was not to be stifled. Intolerance would only be exercised if threats of violence were made. This may sound like a common-sense approach, but was controversial nonetheless.

If you truly want to overcome an injustice, the best way to do so is by challenging it directly. In layman’s student terms, this means no more no-platforming, and no more word-banning. Refusing to face a problem does nothing but make you seem incapable and childish; debating it, however, can work wonders. Restricting the freedom of speech will, by proxy, restrict the freedom to debate. Debate, however, would allow both sides to gain a better insight into the other’s points of view, making persuasion easier (provided you have a strong argument to begin with). Common ground may even be found. If a true conclusion is to be reached, this can only be achieved when the strongest arguments are fully explored.

When you choose to ban “controversial” speakers and ideologies, not only are you missing out on an excellent opportunity to challenge them, but you are consequently damaging your own cause. No rational person will ever take you or your movement seriously if you lack the maturity, skills, and willingness to debate your opponents. Typically far-left movements – which incorporate feminist, LGBT+, and racial equality activism – have a reputation for being academically weak and emotionally immature for these very reasons. While they are, in draconian fashion, succeeding in policing language, at best they will achieve only a temporary 1984-esque state in which free thought is repressed – because for every Big Brother, there is a Winston Smith.

I’m not against introducing precaution when extremely difficult subjects are being discussed. Individuals with severe mental illnesses such as PTSD may understandably require a forewarning if the subject of discussion triggers a distressing episode. But the implementation of safe spaces and trigger warnings seen in recent times simply is not this reasonable: instead, we see racist students at the University of California demand spaces exclusively for non-whites, and Edinburgh University’s Student Union ban “hand gestures which denote disagreement” from their meetings. What’s more alarming is that these views are popular. The regressive, college-educated millennial has become the symbol of madness.

We gave up the safety blanket of school when we applied to study at university. We made – or at least, were supposed to make – the journey from our secure bubbles to the real world, where not everyone agrees with us and where we’re not always going to be told that we’re right. Limiting free speech and implementing artificial safe spaces will not only leave students ill-prepared, but in their current forms will produce a generation of young adults with very regressive views. All too often, safe spaces are havens for self-proclaimed “progressives” who are, without realising it, anything but progressive. To some, this is obvious; to others, it is elusive. Nonetheless, don’t let the name fool you: campus safe spaces are harbouring some very harmful ideologies.


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