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.