February 14, 17:23 EST
Why was the concept of academic safe spaces designed?
The argument in their favour is that they seek to safeguard the rights of those who face significant societal disadvantages - those who are less likely to inhabit positions of privilege. People, whom, it is assumed, do not have the same access to the right of freedom of expression.
Yet, all too often at British and American universities, the concept of the safe space has morphed into something far removed from the original blue prints. In essence, these vacuous 'spaces', now ensure that uncomfortable and dissenting positions are disregarded, and that certain individuals are not given the freedom to advocate views deemed to be too dangerous to be given a public hearing.
This seems incompatible with the argument made in their favour, since to be coherent with the narrative they produce, the spaces should theoretically give all an equal right to express controversial ideas, especially since they are designed to promote the disenfranchised.
Look at the UC Berkeley Protestors, they were on campus holding protests, calling for “safe spaces” for transgendered people and “spaces of color” at the university. The protesters were caught on video harassing white students and preventing them from crossing a bridge that receives heavy foot traffic, only allowing for students of color to pass.
One white, male student on a bicycle tried, unsuccessfully, for several minutes to pass through the blocked bridge. One Hispanic or Middle Eastern-looking male protester could be seen and heard debating with him on video, saying, “When you walk into a class, what’s the majority in there?” implying that there should be less white students in classrooms. A black male student then stepped in and aggressively told the white male, “I’m telling you. This is bigger than you. This is about white [unintelligible]. We don’t care about you,” he said.
Colleges and universities across America responded to the shocking general election victory of President-elect Donald Trump in the only way they know how: by creating “safe spaces” for distressed students.
The multicultural center at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis encouraged students to stop by for a “space to process or reflect” on the election results.
“Election processing space,” a note taped to the door of the center read, The College Fix reported. “Feel free to come in and join the conversation.”
The Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor similarly offered itself as an “open space of support” for students dismayed by Mr. Trump’s electoral college victory.
And in an email to his classmates, George Mason University student body president Nathan Pittman recommended the services of a “healing space” on campus “in the wake of yesterday’s presidential election,” The Fix noted.
At the University of Michigan Flint, students were informed of counseling services in three separate emails over a span of five hours, and a “vigil” was reportedly in the works. Economics Professor Mark Perry wondered if those services would have been available in the event of a Hillary Clinton victory.
Consider the case of the University of Strathclyde. It's Student Association’s (USSA) last week decided to ban a pro-life student group from organising on campus, using their facilities, affiliating or enjoying the right to the equal opportunitiy of expression that the USSA claims so vehemently to practice.
The USSA argue that "allowing an anti-choice group to form would be a barrier to freedom, equality and body autonomy for those with uteruses on campus and therefore not only violate existing standing policy but also act against the interests of a large amount of the student population."
This is nonsense of the highest order. The notion that individuals freely arguing a point of view creates a barrier to freedom is simply bizarre. Especially when the path to 'freedom' entails silencing those deemed not worthy of its trappings.
But perhaps more importantly, is it not also dangerous to shield students from the harsh realities of life beyond the university barricades? A university community devoid of controversy and debate is not only foolish. It is also one totally unprepared for the real world.
According to Strathclyde's constitution, students of all creeds should be able to "access the same services and standards as any other, regardless of age, disability, gender, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation".
Such assurances seem completely at odds with safe spaces. Had those seeking to censor paused to mull over their own constitution, they might have considered whether banning pro-lifers was in fact in direct contravention of their own founding principles.
What if it is a student’s faith that considers abortion to be wrong? Why can they not organise on that basis? This idea - that all individuals should have their beliefs protected, and yet their agency denied simultaneously - is troubling in the extreme.
And what of the women, the "uteruses" to whom the safe space was gifted? Is it not infantilisation to claim that all woman on campus are pro-abortion, without first consulting them. Why are they not granted the ability to speak.
To suggest that women need protection from ideas is to commit two forms of terrible generalisation: that women cannot believe in abortion and believe in equal rights for women, or hold a position that forbids abortion but coherently promotes women’s rights.
In order to push this vote to its censorious conclusion, the USSA claimed that anti-choice groups "actively use intimidation and fear tactics to harass people entering abortion clinics". Is this not the complete abandonment of personal responsibility? To date, there is no evidence of women being harassed by any of the members of the pro-life group at Strathclyde. To suggest that all groups of a political belief act in the same way due to actions of individuals is poor at best.
This logic can be turned against anyone. Why are the Islamic Society allowed to meet when some Muslims commit acts of violence? Should university Labour clubs not be expunged for fear of anti semitism? To take the worst behaviour of a political movement and conflate it with all of its followers is a dangerous path on which to tread . And yet today, it is the one chosen with frightening regularity.
As safe spaces continue to grow in popularity, we must consider whether their original purpose has given way to something rather more sinister.
Do they facilitate free and open debate - a fundamental pillar of higher education - or are they merely a new tool with which to replace democracy for dogmatism?
The story was originally published on The Telegraph.