Academic Freedom, Part 1: The Debate Around Safe Spaces on Campus

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Dr Maren Thom on the timely issues of 'safe spaces' and academic freedom. Are they compatible?

The relatively new concept of ‘safe spaces’ is the practice of banning ideas and people from campus that are seen as ‘harmful’ to the wellbeing of students. As a policy it is often informed by notions of offence and the possibility of the subjective experience of harm through exposure to unwanted ideas.

The practice of safe spaces, however, has become a matter of dispute outside just student unions, and even outside universities. This was seen at the debate ‘The New Intolerance on Campus’, which took place in London on 17 February, where the writers Naomi Firsht, Ella Whelan, Siobhan Fenton and Abi Wilkinson framed the differing sides of the debate by posing the question ‘Safe Spaces: education or therapy?’

The debate was organised by online magazine Spiked which is running a series of discussions around the theme of academic freedom on campus. It also conducts the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR), which rank UK universities in terms of campus censorship. ‘The New Intolerance on Campus’ discussion was part of a greater debate on Academic Freedom and the emergence of a new censoriousness amongst student activists.

The debate was timely if inconclusive, which in itself seemed to highlight the ambiguous nature of the idea of safe spaces. The core of the debate revolved around the development of a culture that guards students from being confronted with ideas and personalities they find problematic.

The debate takes place in a context where the practical implementation of safe space policies, more often than not, results in a censorious climate. This includes the all too common tendency to no-platform speakers who are considered to hold unacceptable viewpoints (Relevant to QMUL in particular; outspoken feminist writer Julie Bindel was no-platformed from QM in 2014) as well as banning things that are seen to be dangerous (such as the pop song Blurred Lines, banned by QM in 2013).

On the one side of the argument were Siobhan Fenton and Abi Wilkinson who described that the implementation of safe spaces is a necessity for vulnerable students. They argued that safe spaces were a way for students to develop the confidence to speak out and develop their debating skills without the risk of being bullied by more dominant speakers. Moreover, they argued, safe spaces need to be implemented to protect oppressed groups such as women and minorities from being offended and made to feel unsafe. Abi Wilkinson also pointed out that the impact and size of safe spaces are not as big as assumed by their critics and their general impact on student life are nothing to be afraid of.

On the other side of the debate Naomi Firsht and Ella Whelan argued that the term ‘safe space’ is code for protecting students’ feelings through the censorship of others. They also asserted that the idea of safe spaces as a method to help minorities is a fallacy. Safe space as a practice, they argued, limits people’s interactions with one another and ultimately functions as a shelter from reality. Moreover, rather than enabling women and minorities, the safe space worldview sees them as inherently less capable with dealing with rigorous questioning or difficult ideas. Finally, they pointed out that a safe space that encompasses everything that could be hurtful provides only a safe space for those who share the same, accepted views. Summing up, Ella Whelan stated her argument against safe spaces by evoking the combative nature of rigorous academic debate, ‘if you feel safe at university you’re obviously doing something wrong.’

This is the problem at the heart of the idea of university safe space policies. How can a university extend knowledge and function properly if the world is viewed through the prism of offence and hurt feelings? If difficult questions, for instance about gender, are taboo how can research take place? If upset about words and ideas becomes the decisive factor in the education of students, how can literature or theory that contains language which may be found offensive be approached and taught fully?

Moreover, if certain groups are held to be fundamentally vulnerable by default, does this not dismiss and erase their ability at an individual level to make themselves into the person they could to be, placing them always at the mercy of the benevolent other?

The great risk is that, by making assumptions about a generalised, vulnerable student body, safe space policies rob students of their right to be treated as adults, capable of having, yet overcoming disorienting feelings, and learning to withstand and embrace the sort of robust debates often needed in the extension of knowledge and student life more generally.

That some students feel that safety is the most important thing to be implemented at university is bizarrely self-infantilising. Rather than rejecting paternalistic looking-after, students demand it. The call for safe spaces, albeit by a small but vocal minority, becomes a call to be shielded from ideas that make them uncomfortable. This is where the concept of safe space clashes with the principles of academic freedom; universities by their nature cannot be places of intellectual safety.

On the contrary, universities need to be intellectually dangerous to advance knowledge. New and strange ideas, often felt to be dangerous on first hearing, are the lifeblood of thought and debate. They push knowledge forward. Only by testing ideas in the confrontation of argument are we able to see if they hold up.

The refusal to confront ideas opposed to yours renders meaningful thought invalid. It is traditionally the role of the university to instil in students this notion. It is the danger of experiencing new ideas that students sign up for when they enter university.

This is part one of a two-part blog on current debates about academic freedom. The second blog will be a book review of Joanna Williamsnew book Academic Freedom in an age of Conformity, which situates the new climate of censorship within the current culture of academia and the general reluctance of academics to stand up for the enlightenment ideals which birthed the idea of academic practice in the first place.