Safe spaces: two words that can conjure a whirlwind of controversy, outrage, and often just confusion. The decision of many university campuses to implement safe spaces appears to be a worthwhile and progressive action. The idea of safe spaces stems from a desire for campus environments to be free from anti-LGBTQ+ violence, harassment and hate speech. However, this has spiralled from a well-intentioned defence of minority rights to a genuine threat to free speech.
This has been accentuated by the adoption of ‘no platforming’. Plainly speaking, no platforming is the obstruction of certain speakers from giving talks at colleges and universities. This means no proscribed person or organisation can address students, due to their attitude being deemed the ‘wrong’ one to have. This, in effect, has forbidden controversy. When the whole campus of a university becomes a safe space, anything deemed an ‘unsafe’ idea must be policed and prohibited. The lengths to which students will go to attack free speech were best exemplified in the violent protests against prominent conservative Ben Shapiro speaking at UC Berkeley in September 2017.
You do not have to be a Ben Shapiro fan to accede that he deserves the same basic rights to free speech as any other member of society. You do not have to agree with everything he says. In fact, you do not have to agree with anything he says.
Nobody is being forced to attend a speech where they disagree with the speaker on every level. What we all must do, however, is allow speeches to take place peacefully, and allow objections to be raised in a non-violent, democratic manner. To do otherwise would compromise the tool with which our countries have propelled human rights and fought bigotry for centuries: free and open debate.
The dangers of silencing open debate cannot be overstated. Controversy is key to fostering discussion and creating new ideas. An argument can be made that some views are so intolerably extreme that they have no place in a civilised discussion. However, it has been shown time and time again that extremist opinions do not go away when stifled. Rather, they are driven underground. In our modern age of online instant communication, this is where the dangers lie.
Consider, for example, Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in an attack in 2011. His radical views and mindset alienated him from those willing to discuss ideas, and instead pushed him further into isolation and violence. Similar tales of rejection and marginalisation crop up surrounding many other violent extremists. Peace activist Bjorn Ihler survived Breivik’s attack and is part of the ‘Extremely Together’ organisation that talks to students in schools about extremist ideas. He calls for more critical thinking in schools and engaging in sharing different ideas, no matter how unpleasant. Perhaps if Breivik had his ideas challenged and reformed through open discussion, the massacre could have been averted.
We live in an age where terrorism is an ever-present possibility on a global scale. The stakes have never been higher. But, just as importantly, our rights to free speech are under threat. Measures that seek to protect students are insulating them from challenging realities. Campuses should not be safe spaces. Our ability to debate, to formulate opinions, to challenge and be challenged – these are all vital parts of being a student. To assume that being exposed to other opinions is to be harmed or oppressed by them is patronising in the extreme. We are students. We can think for ourselves. Unless no platforming is challenged, that ability may too be under threat.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr