Safe Spaces or Freedom of Speech?

The concept of ‘safe spaces’ is becoming increasingly relevant and important in many parts of the world. The highly controversial and somewhat ambiguous subject has seen been both supported and scrutinised, and with recent student protests at Yale University, is a matter well worth examining.

The administration of the leading American university circulated an advisory e-mail to students, reminding them to be considerate when choosing their Halloween costumes. They warned against costumes that might offend or upset others, such as Native American outfits, etc. In response, a faculty member of the university wrote an e-mail to the students pointing out that perhaps as students of a higher educational institution they should be able to make such decisions based on their own, educated judgement. Her letter (read the full letter here) subtly hinted that the University might be infringing on the students right to freedom of speech and encouraged them to ‘talk to each other.’ While she further argued that ‘free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society,’ students took it upon themselves to make sure that the lecturer resigned.

Their reason? She didn’t protect their safe space. The UK is also witnessing cases where the creation of safe spaces led to controversy. Such was the case when in February 2015 Goldsmith University had to cancel comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s show due to objections against her politics by a section of the student union.

But what exactly is a safe space? The concept originates from women’s movements in the 1980s and was further developed by LGBT movements from the 1990s onwards. The group Advocates for Youth described it as: A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age or physical or mental ability.

No doubt, the idea of an all-encompassing non-discriminatory space in society should be promoted, not only to eradicate hate crimes, discrimination and promote equality for all, but perhaps also to create a society where designation of such spaces isn’t needed anymore. Applied, however, the idea becomes somewhat problematic.

The fact that it is becoming an institutionalized concept, enforced from above, raises the question of whether or not it is perhaps getting awfully close to being a form of censure: Does this directly infringe on a person’s freedom of speech? When the concept is being used as an umbrella term to include the ban of any type of challenge to ones beliefs, it is also hard not to see it as the indoctrination of only one particular set of beliefs.

More importantly, however, it seems to create a ‘sweep-under-the-rug’ policy, whereby the space for debate is being replaced by the space for silence. Universities across the world are where minds should be challenged to think critically, not follow an imposed way of thinking. Not only does this not solve the problem, it creates further segmentation where dialogue between students with differing views becomes impossible. Shouldn’t opposed, repressive views be challenged, debated in an open sphere, instead of being forbidden and kept out of sight? Those who have achieved change in the past have all done the prior. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the Suffragettes might have all had different goals, but they used the same tools to achieve them: debates, free speech, challenging the repressors and empowering the repressed.

Achieving the goals originally set out by the idea of ‘safe spaces’ must most definitely be on the to-do list of each and every individual. However, perhaps it is even more important that it comes not from the top, but rather the ‘bottom’, in the form of challenging and not silencing. The student union of one UK university notes in their Safe Space Policy section that ‘each person is accountable for their own language and behaviour’. Could the way forward then be to allow people to become accountable for their language and behaviour instead of preventing them to use it in the first place? To change one’s or a group’s mentality is an incredibly difficult task and something that does not always result in success. But if one is to try, perhaps taking a direct, internal approach is where one should start?

Peter Bori

Peter is a graduate in International Relations and Development, with a strong interest in environmental issues, humanitarianism and fair and fact-based journalism.

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