THE BLOG

Why Our Student Unions Can Never Be a 'Safe Space' for All

23/03/2016 10:48 GMT | Updated 24/03/2017 09:12 GMT

The shutting down and silencing of ideas is on the rise within our student unions and across our campuses. The language of the NUS's 'Safe Space' policy effectively gives our student unions the green-light to 'no-platform' arbitrarily. Censorship, wrapped up in language of liberalism and inclusivity, has embedded itself in our university campuses and communal psyches of our student unions. The fundamental principles of the Enlightenment, of free inquiry and open discussion, are under threat.

But it's easy to miss all this if you're not involved in the bubble of student politics. You may have heard the phrase 'safe space' bandied about before; read something somewhere about blurred lines, or sexist greeting cards, being banned by righteous students. It all seems rather harmless, or even amusing to us onlookers.

On paper, 'safe space' policies sound caring, utopian, almost cuddly in their inclusivity. University of Bristol Students' Union for example say "The principle values [adopted from the NUS' 'safe space' policy] are to ensure an accessible environment in which every student feels comfortable, safe and able to get involved in all aspects of the organisation free from intimidation or judgement".

But try and enforce this code and these principles, and you'll soon find it's fraught with hypocrisy and contradictions. Put simply, nowhere can be a 'safe space' for all. Take for example the introduction of gender-neutral toilets (GNTs), something that is supported by the NUS. While GNTs may be welcomed by many transgender students, they could be offensive to certain religious or cultural groups. So whose sensitivities takes priority in this 'safe space'? Should we point-score on someone's identity to find out whose feelings are more valid and important?

If I want to wear my shirt with an image of the Prophet Muhammad on it, I will be banned from most student unions, because my shirt may offend some Muslims. And as I've argued before, if I am barred from a union for wearing the wrong t-shirt, it is not a safe space for me?

If we are to ban all images of the Prophet Muhammad, for the benefit of the religious-Right and fundamentalists, where do we go eventually go with this? Should homosexuals be banned from student unions, because their presence may offend religious fundamentalists? Should we ban people from taking the God's name in vain, as it may violate a religious conservative's safe space?"

As so often with calls for censorship, there is the spectre of mission creep -- one ban on one form of objectionable speech can easily lead to further demands to outlaw other speech. The net that surrounds what is defined as 'problematic' speech gets thrown further and further, until debate is trapped and choked.

If our unions truly want fight what they see as bigotry, then they need to tackle these ideas head-on. The current wave of no-platforming and censorship does nothing but create a further disconnect between our campuses and the beliefs of our wider society.

What will happen when these mollycoddled students, who after the graduation leave their 'safe space' and find that there is a whole world of people out there who do not share their exact beliefs and values? What will they do when they hear 'problematic' tunes on the radio, or a copy of The Sun blows into their path?

The 'Safe Spaces' concept, in its very essence, is not about challenging or defeating views you do not like. It is about the self-indulgence and self-preservation of your own world-view. By attempting to create 'safe spaces' through censorship, our student unions have created the type of environment they set out to destroy. In the name of 'safe spaces', pro-Israel students have had their meetings raided by anti-Israel activists. In the name of 'safe spaces', LGBT and Feminists societies have expressed support for thugs who attempt to intimidate human-rights campaigners.

Safe Space and No-platform policies are in essence pessimistic and defeatist. Their advocates see mainstream society as something to be feared and to be disengaged from. Our student unions are not challenging or defeating prejudice in wider society, they are simply cowering from it. And in doing so, they are letting down most the minority students they claim to be fighting for.

We make progress through free thinking and intellectual risk-taking, not conformism. Those who believe in free-speech should join us and call on the NUS to reform their 'safe spaces' and no-platforming policy. Let us hear the arguments, let us dare to know, let's fight for free speech.