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The ‘safe space’ must be revised for its own safety

Image credit: artpaintingartist.org
Image credit: artpaintingartist.org
“A Rest Well Earned” by James Clarke Waite, depicting a space of warmth, comfort and safety. Image credit: artpaintingartist.org

There are few policies that are more infamous on university campuses than the ‘safe space’. The safe space is a recent turn of phrase, but the principle of creating an environment in which every resident would feel comfortable and welcome is covered in dust and cobwebs. In this ideal space, no one would get to the door of the debating chamber, the bar or the library and be told by an attendant, “We don’t let your type in.”

Safe spaces have been interpreted differently, dependent on who wishes to use them. For some people, a place should be known as a ‘safe space’ if it is a place in which discrimination on unfair grounds is not welcome. For others, a ‘safe space’ constitutes a designated location on campus or elsewhere – a room, a building, a park etc. – in which members of a persecuted social group can meet in peace and safety. Obviously this can make discussion about safe spaces a little difficult, so I should clarify that, for the most part, I’m writing about the former.

I have mixed feelings about safe spaces as they stand today. I think that the architects of the safe space had good intentions. The safe space is about ensuring that people feel welcome, just as a good party host would ensure that their guests were happy; it is also a statement that a society or institution does not discriminate on personal grounds e.g. against someone’s sexuality or nationality.

But overzealous commitment to the welfare of residents can cause the safe space to become something more than a dedicated pleasant environment. To keep everything under control, some student unions have taken it upon themselves to implement restrictions on what can be permitted to exist inside a safe space. The Sun, particular songs such as ‘Blurred Lines‘, pro-life societies and UKIP aren’t welcome in many safe spaces.

These safe space enthusiasts have gone too far in their quest for comfort, cancelling debates and invitations to speakers whose ideas might be unpleasant to hear. This authoritarian measure is a scandalous attempt to cleanse the sphere of debate, forcefully removing unpopular opinions that may “cause offence.” Far from keeping discussions civilised, regulation has moved on to policing thoughts and theories, letting some in and kicking out others.

Furthermore, some safe space policies seem to think that a comfortable space is a space where disagreement should be as minimal as possible. In Edinburgh, one student was almost asked to leave a meeting for raising her hand, falling foul of a safe space policy that specifically proscribes hand gestures of disagreement. Hand gestures of disagreement? Are they really that terrifying? I understand the need to ensure everyone feels welcome, but regulating conduct to such a thorough extent baffles me for both unnecessarily infantilising safe space residents and obscuring the real world, a place where hand gestures and disagreement are rather common.

It’s ironic that the safe space was created so that people were not turned away, but these days some of its proponents are keeping it safe by, um, turning people away.

A growing number of commentators, in particular American conservative pundits, think the safe space is a squeeze on freedom of speech, thought and expression. This is undoubtedly something that will provoke heated debate on campus. But the safe space is also celebrated for its focus on the welfare of vulnerable students and the importance of protecting them from terrible abuse that has caused some individuals to fall into depression, drop out of university or even take their own lives.

For the safety of the safe space, the concept needs rethinking. It isn’t outlandish – people want a place of calmness and comfort when they are going about their daily lives on the campus. But my understanding of a safe space is an environment where people aren’t angered or upset, rather than a place where certain ideas are banned lest they cause offence.

Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to stop ideas being offensive, because they will always cause offence as long as there is someone who disagrees with them; but we can at least ensure that people concentrate on ideas over personalities in a dialogue and put their views across in a civil manner. In intellectual debate, to focus more on a debater’s skin colour or background instead of his argument is poor debating etiquette. Asking someone to stop calling their debating opponent ‘ugly’ or ‘stupid’ isn’t restricting their freedom of speech; it’s asking them to behave like adults.

If you were to come to a safe space in, let’s say, ‘Harveygrad’, you would find that there are no rules on the door barring entry to particular people or groups. An environment of free expression, thought and speech is the only environment in which intellectual and societal ideas can be challenged, improved or defeated. Someone has to have the freedom to have a controversial opinion, in order for someone else to challenge it. Letting a half-baked opinion be ridiculed is the appropriate democratic way of defeating it; having it banned is the authoritarian measure.

If you were to strike up a debate in my space, however, you would have to do so pleasantly, censoring your rhetoric for swearing, rudeness and libel. It’s not the ideas that need disciplining in this atmosphere but the way in which they are delivered. Unfortunately in this space, I cannot guarantee that it is ‘safe’ – that is to say that I cannot promise that someone who is the space with you will not suddenly be critical of your gender, class, etc. because I cannot control people’s thoughts and feelings like that. But I can ask that people treat it as a sophisticated and civil space where personal criticisms are improper.