What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So-called “safe spaces” supposedly protect students from the former but actually prevent the latter. Arbitrarily drawn bounds on acceptability are stunting societal progression through the shutting down of debate and freedoms are being senselessly curtailed in a pointless bid to protect young ears from reality. In Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May publicly denounced safe spaces; universities, she argued, should be places “where there is open debate which is challenged”. We must listen to May or else face a backward journey into the censorship of existence.
Hiding from the opinions of others does not prevent those opinions from being held – but they do prevent you from being able to challenge them. Poisonous ideas rarely spontaneously disappear of their own accord but when they are challenged their perpetrators are gradually brought around until the ideas as good as die out. The LGBT+ communities across much of the Western world today are able to live lives free of much of the hatred, discrimination and shame of the past because their forbearers stood up against their oppressors, challenging their views rather than running away.
The 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality, the 2003 repeal of Section 28, and the more recent 2013 passing of legislation acting to allow equal marriage, could not have occurred if the oppressed had simply hidden from debate. If oppression is still believed to exist then those who believe themselves to be oppressed, and their allies, must create discussion and debate, challenging norms to build a better world for all. The gay liberation movement in the United States was, in part, sparked by the 1969 Stonewall uprising, not some mass shielding of LGBT+ individuals from the homophobic views of the time.
Of the recent developments in the LGBT+ drive for equality, the 2003 repeal of Section 28 in England and Wales (Scotland revoked the law a few years earlier) is perhaps the most interesting. Section 28, which claimed to protect children through a ban on the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools, served to curb free speech and resulted in massive levels of unnecessary suffering as children felt unable to seek help and teachers felt unable to give it. This past curtailing of free speech served to make schools the “safe spaces” of their time. It now serves as a stark warning against allowing any group the power to determine what is, and what is not, “acceptable” speech. That is not to say that classrooms should become places where homophobia, racism and the suchlike are tolerated. When lessons, lectures, seminars, tutorials or any such institutions are in progress, teachers must take responsibility for keeping the class on topic.
In a 1987 speech to the Conservative Party Conference, Margaret Thatcher outlined her fears that the teaching of even Mathematics and English Language were being politicised. These days, much of the obtrusive bigotry in the classroom comes from students. Off-topic classroom interjections disrupt the due process of education. It thus makes sense to unofficially designate classrooms “spaces of education” in which on-topic debate and discussion are encouraged. Schools and universities should encourage students to challenge ideas. Classrooms and lecture theatres are no more appropriate venues for the prevention of debate than they are for the espousing of racist values. The teacher must take responsibility for encouraging the on-topic discussion of ideas.
Anyone who puts forth an idea must accept that their view is open to challenge. Safe spaces do not permit the challenging of ideas and, in that sense, they are not safe at all. It is one thing for students to have a quiet area to go to if they need time out, but another for rapidly expanding areas to prohibit the freedom of speech. Influential individuals and groups have much persuasive power; this power must not be exacerbated by enabling their determining of what is to be discussed full stop. There is no common consensus on what does and does not constitute acceptable speech and, as such, the decision regarding what speech should and should not be allowed on publicly-owned property, such as university campuses, should not be made at all.
Many claim that banning certain kinds of speech empowers minorities. It can just as easily act to take their power away. What one hard-left individual deems a deeply homophobic statement may be an LGBT+ individual’s idea of some good banter – they may feel empowered through self-deprecating humour – and who is anyone to prevent this? Universities should be “safe spaces” in that they should be areas in which individuals feel free to air their opinions. Nobody’s ability to air their views should be diminished by those unwilling to appreciate the importance of debate.
If nobody was allowed to say anything that might cause offence to another individual, the world would be mute. It is very hard for ideas to be shared and progress to be made in silence. Safe spaces will, in the long run, stem progress and do more harm to the individuals they “protect” than good. Universities should be places where ideas can be refined and debate encouraged, not stifled. Safe spaces are not saving anyone.