Clash of Comments – Should the University let “safe-spaces” spread?

YES – Abbie Hettle

The movement among universities worldwide in implementing a ‘safe spaces’ policy, to safeguard accessible and respectful environments for student involvement, has been met with widespread criticism. Among the cries of “repression of free speech” and “undermining open debate” we should reconsider our understanding of the term and remember that ‘safe spaces’ are a necessity for ensuring useful discussion.

Campuses are inherently diverse and, thus, conflicted places. The coming together of people from all over the world makes it an exciting, lively environment to learn and discuss. But this diversity also creates difficulties. One must be attentive and mindful to the differences intrinsic to diversity. Conflicts in opinion and experience are bound to happen and therefore so is the potential to offend.

The current state of the UK campus is one full of hierarchies. We would be foolish to think that, even now, academic institutes are not rife with stigma and stereotypes involving anything from the course you take to your gender. Therefore, open debate and discussion is far from the safe space it should be. The self-entitlement of some students alongside cases of male chauvinism are symptomatic of a culture that stifles cohesive and useful debate.

‘Safe spaces’ should be understood as an environment that protects the honest, open discussion that students seek in higher education. The culture of learning as it exists now prevents this at a fundamental level.

Let’s look at a seminar setting. We can all recognise the kind of discussions that occur there. Someone will say something controversial and heated argument will break out. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. The problem arises when we cause offense, ignore politeness and forget that we are students in a classroom. These distract from the discussion at hand and only serve to quash the arguments made.

Students calling for ‘safe spaces’ do not want to suppress freedom of speech or contentious debate. Instead, they seek consideration and a respectful attitude from their peers. If we approach open debates with the maturity that they require, then there would be no demand for ‘safe spaces’.

The movement for ‘safe spaces’ needs to be engaged with, not just branded an incursion on the privilege afforded to us by higher education. We can either mollycoddle those who feel they are entitled to fruitless, unbridled debate, or make it accessible and useful.

NO – Ciaran Morrissey

A safe space is an area in which discussion and debate is monitored to create an atmosphere in which members of disprivelleged groups do not feel victimised. It can take the form of a space that’s only open to members of the LGBTQ community, a place for women only, or anything along those lines. It’s a wonderful thing that York doesn’t have them.

We’re told that these spaces are there to shield the downtrodden and unfortunate from hearing ideas that may cause them mental anguish. We can’t, with a straight face, claim that women, or the LGBTQ community, or whoever, are incapable of hearing views they disagree with. It makes those groups look over-emotional, irrational, and on a lower level than the rest of us.

When we introduce a safe space policy, we invite certain segments of the student body to drop out of the debate entirely. We tell them their views can’t be challenged, that they can run away from ‘harmful’ ideas when they are raised. We both put them on a pedestal and portray them as children who can’t hack a proper debate.

Campus isn’t representative of society as a whole. It’s already a lot more inclusive and a lot more inclined to acknowledge and cater to the needs of members of the student body. If we go one step further, and sanitise the views allowed on campus, we’re setting them up for an even larger culture shock once they leave. Social movements have always come up against heavy opposition, and today is no exception. In inviting members of marginalised groups to ignore other views, we’re removing their ability to respond to this opposition.

It speaks volumes that there are those on campus who would claim the discussion was closed and that the validity of safe spaces should not be questioned. This is a university. Everything is up for question. Are we here to learn, engage, and form beliefs to carry with us throughout our lives, or to invent the new orthodoxy and make sure everyone else marches in lock-step with it? By allowing groups of students to drop out of the debate, and placing their ideas in a sacred box so they can’t be criticised, how can we claim to be preparing them for life in the big, bad world?

Meeting people who believe stupid and offensive things that make you angry is an unavoidable part of life, and of living in a free society. If, upon graduating, a student is unable to articulate their views or hear and respond to criticism of their beliefs, then the University has failed in its job. Safe spaces will only encourage this.

3 comments

  1. Perhaps instead of safe spaces we have refrigerated spaces where they can go. Yknow, so the special snowflakes don’t melt under the fact that not everyone in the world agrees with them and arguments and debates can get heated.

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  2. Abbie seems to be describing safe spaces as places where you try not to hurt anyone’s feelings or cause offence – which, if you’re a decent person, is pretty much everywhere already. Nobody is going to be tolerated if they’re outright insulting people or aiming to offend; this is common sense. Obviously, we should try to avoid offending people. But what if someone is offended by someone else’s opinion? The space becomes unsafe, does it not? But you can’t possibly shut down that opinion and still claim that the debate is free.

    Safe spaces as I understand them are not just places where people try and be nice to each other, but where individuals who (for example) may have suffered emotional trauma, or LGBTQ people who feel they can’t ‘be themselves’ in everyday life, can go and feel safe. This is great, but it almost invariably involves people not wanting to broach certain issues or not wanting to hear certain opinions lest their anxiety be ‘triggered’. This means that truly ‘safe’ spaces and truly open debate simply cannot coexist, and it’s impossible to claim that a debate in a safe space is a free debate.

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  3. The two sides here are describing different conceptualisations of ‘safe space’. Both are valid, but I agree that only Abbie’s should be campus-wide. Ciaran describes a space that should be localised and opt-in.

    The difference here is that the Yes article talks about safety from offensiveness and insensitivity, which is obviously desirable. A lack of safe spaces often means silencing oppressed voices, which is not conducive to debate.

    Ciaran describes a rule meaning you cannot disagree with the prevailing opinion. That’s not what it’s about, but an easy misconception to make when you have no need for safe spaces yourself.

    Triggers are not something that the social justice movement has created; they are a valid psychological term for something that will set off distressing mental health responses like anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts or dysphoria.

    It should be noted that safe spaces at this university, such as those active in WomCom, LGBTQ and FemSoc, do not forbid the discussion of potentially triggering topics. The policy is to add trigger warnings, so that it is possible to avoid personally unhealthy topics. Ciaran conflates this practice with the practice of banning people who disregard this policy, which a campus-wide safe space policy would not be able to enact anyway.

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