Can Safe Spaces and Academia Co-exist?

25/01/2016 12:19 GMT | Updated 24/01/2017 10:12 GMT

There is an important yet depressingly polarised debate raging across university campuses on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment. It concerns a plethora of policies ranging from no-platforming certain groups and speakers, banning certain university societies, demanding trigger warnings for a range of issues in lectures and in general extending the philosophy of safe spaces and the reverence of personal feelings into general university life.

On one side we have those that hold aloft the feelings and concerns of certain groups as paramount, and on the other those that view free speech and academic rigour as sacrosanct. You'd be forgiven for thinking that these things are inherently opposed in a debate defined by its extremes and usually missing a nuanced and thoughtful middle ground. To display a desire to alleviate unnecessary suffering for fellow students is, if one is to believe some participants in the 'debate' thus far, to be 'narrow minded', an agent of the 'Thought Police' or perhaps even a communist (what centralised ownership of the means of production has to do with trigger warnings continues to elude my comprehension). Equally those that express concern for potential erosions of free speech and the undermining of academic rigour are often conflated with proponents of hateful ideologies, or seen as aloof and uncaring residents in an out of touch Ivory Tower, or simply just 'bigots'.

Have a read of this piece by the deputy-editor of online-magazine Spiked earlier this week that reveals the hysteria and insensitivity that at times emanates from the 'free-speech camp'. In it he bizarrely suggests that Students' Unions seeking to look after their students was the main reason for students not engaging with these institutions, displaying zero understanding of the motivations of those that seek to ban speakers or enforce trigger warnings (as well as zero ability to provide evidence for his claims). Such hostile and unsubstantiated polemic helps no one, and both sides of the debate can be equally culpable, leaving a debate that is so nasty that at times it might be worthy of a trigger warning all on its own.

Yet both sides have valid points and admirable histories behind them. Recognition of the plight of minority groups and how society has often been an ignorant and hostile place for them has been a driver of equality for, and at least partial liberation of, many. The majority of the people wishing to ban speakers or societies, or enforce trigger warnings for lecture content are not motivated out of hatred or ignorance but out of concern for wellbeing and at times even safety of marginalised or vulnerable individuals. Yet ironically it is those that in the past have defended the right to free speech and advanced the ideals of democracy and academia that have enabled us to reach a point in society where we can begin to imagine a world that celebrates, rather than persecutes, diversity and allows such conversations about prejudice to be possible. These are not two groups that should be at odds with one another.

J.S Mill, in his most famous work 'On Liberty' reminds us that the best way to reveal the ineptness of an idea, be it stemming from logical fallacies, lack of empirical evidence or even moral depravity, is for it to have its day. Let it be shouted from the rooftops, suggested Mill, and bring it crashing back down through challenge and debate, not censorship and intolerance. It is not through complacency or lack of caring for offended groups that free speech advocates fight against banning unsavoury speakers or societies: allowing repellent ideologies a platform is often the best way to reveal how hollow their arguments and reprehensible their prognosis' are. Debating ugly or offensive ideas is not to somehow legitimise or sanctify them, but it is rather the best way to lead them to their downfall- debate is an ally to minority rights, not an impediment.

Defenders of free speech would do much better to highlight this point to would-be censorshipers, and capitalise on a shared rejection of the offending ideology, incorporating the experiences of the offended group in order to enhance their arguments too. And many of those who leap to the nuclear option of banning anything remotely offensive need to realise that their often hostile and divisionary politics could do everyone some good if it was a little more open to collaborating with those that seek to debate, rather than delete, an idea, and recognise that hateful ideologies do not go away by simply trying to ignore them.

It is also important for both sides to recognise that safe spaces do not have to be an all-or-nothing game. At certain times, in certain contexts, safe spaces can be very beneficial to individuals, and certainly offer no threat to free speech or academic progress. If a group of individuals with a shared experience wish to get together, be it physically or online, to discuss sensitive and at times traumatic issues specific to their group and denote this meeting a safe space, this doesn't harm anyone else. Safe spaces can also be a useful place where people not yet ready to have the debates can grow in confidence in a place of mutual respect and trust- these spaces can be used to build people up that might not be comfortable with or ready for intense debate or ideological scrutiny. Surely growing people's sense of confidence and security first, rather than thrusting debate on them at all times, is actually better in the long term for free speech and academic rigour?

However, adherents to these spaces should also be under no illusions that they should be a permanent home for anyone, and nor should they seek to encroach on the rigour of academic life in universities. Safe spaces adhered to in isolation, devoid of the academic pursuit of truth through free debate in the long run can lead to groups becoming mere echo chambers, unable to challenge opposing views, defend their own stances coherently, or handle disagreement very well. The hostility and aggression many men have met from (what I believe to be) an unrepresentative clique of feminists over relatively minor and quite polite disagreements over 'women's issues' that have subsequently driven away what might have otherwise been allies is testament to this. The metaphor of a head buried in the sand is apt: someone in this position will be open to attack, unable to see the world in any other way, and likely to be pretty angry most of the time.

It is easy for such 'Ivory Tower' concerns to be dismissed as academic indulges that pale in comparison to the feelings of individuals, but this is to deeply misunderstand how we have come to be the society we are. Particularly within a university context it is absolutely vital to have nothing beyond the realm of debate: everything should be questioned, meticulously, every idea explored and critiqued. If this leads to a man debating the principles and values of feminism- so be it. If this leads to someone questioning a certain approach to liberation- good. Whilst there should be a responsibility on all those taking part in such debates to be respectful and recognise the feelings and experiences of fellow human beings (a point many free speech advocates are guilty of ignoring), questions, critiques and rebuttals should be allowed free reign. We are literally unable to progress as a society unless this principle is held as paramount in our universities, a point often ironically ignored by self-defined 'progressives'.

University is supposed to be a place where we grow, explore, question and learn. To ignore or shut down debate and ideologies is not helpful, but nor is to demand debate in all quarters, at all times whilst disregarding the experiences and feelings of our fellow scholars. A modern democracy is judged on the rights it gives its people, including free and open debate, but it is also judged on how well it cares for its most vulnerable. If we really are living in a society that is unable to recognise and reconcile these two imperatives, then we truly are in desperate times.