Safe Spaces and Student Protest

by Juliet Butcher. Box by Alex Waygood.

In many ways, iconography campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) tie in with a broader, global movement. Predominantly centred around university campuses, this movement seeks to create and protect ‘safe spaces’. The idea behind this is that everyone, regardless of identity and background, is entitled to an environment in which they feel respected and accepted. As such, any views which might cause harm or upset to members of a community cannot be aired at public, institution-organised events.

This safe space movement is, in theory, highly commendable. It purports to protect the most vulnerable members of a community and to respect their individual identities and experiences. Therefore, to dismiss safe spaces as simply another part of ‘Generation Snowflake’, and as the behaviour of a whiny generation unable to face reality, is a mistake. The respect and compassion for others that the movement encourages is extremely commendable. And, as Donald Trump bans refugees from several Muslim countries this very minute, this empathy is clearly vital in a time of growing intolerance. As American academic Roxane Gay says‘Those who mock the idea of safe space are most likely the same people who are able to take safety for granted. That’s what makes discussions of safety and safe space so difficult. We are talking about privilege. As with everything else in life, there is no equality when it comes to safety.’ Different students experience varying levels of safety and this demands appreciation and consideration.

Free speech at threat? Recent Incidents at British Universities

In February 2015, feminist standup comedian Kate Smurthwaite had a show at Goldsmiths, University of London cancelled at the last minute because of her opinions on prostitution.

In September 2015, Warwick University Student Union banned anti-sharia activist Maryam Namazie from speaking for fears that she could ‘incite hatred’. The decision was later reversed by the union president.

In October 2015, lesbian feminist campaigner Julie Bindel was banned from a debate on censorship at Manchester University due to alleged transphobia. (See here for her opinion piece.)

At Cardiff University, 3,000 students petitioned to prevent second-wave feminist Germaine Greer from lecturing on 18 November 2015 due to alleged transphobia. (The lecture was held after Cardiff guaranteed Greer her safety.) After defending Greer’s right to speak, Peter Tatchell found himself no-platformed in turn by the NUS in February 2016.

In October 2016, Bristol Student Union attempted to block a lecture by Roger Scruton due to alleged homophobia. (See here and here.)

However, the introduction and promotion of safe spaces has been highly controversial. Many argue that banning speakers whose ideas are viewed as threatening to some students’ safety also compromises freedom of speech. In addition to refusing to give a platform to obviously offensive organisations like the BNP, speakers such as Kate Smurthwaite and Julie Bindel have also been banned from speaking at campuses due to statements that they have previously made about prostitution and transgenderism. In my mind, it is in regards to speakers such as these–speakers who are controversial in some areas, but admirable and interesting in others–that the difficulty arises.

Does inviting Germaine Greer to speak on women in Shakespeare also endorse her ideas about transgender women? Does giving someone a platform for one opinion legitimise their others? And is it better to refuse them a platform, or to openly challenge and debate these controversial ideas? These are tricky questions, but it seems clear that while we must empathise with and respect all members of a community, there is significant value in exposing students to a variety of opinions and giving them the chance to challenge and tackle ones with which they fundamentally disagree.

Furthermore, there have been incidents in which the ‘safe spaces’ seem to have been taken too far. Writer and editor Alan Johnson’s speech at Galway University, in which he argued against a boycott of Israel, was drowned out by shouts of ‘Zionist f***ing pricks … get the f*** off our campus’. The idea that his opinion on the matter–an extremely divisive and controversial issue–should not even be aired seems foolish. This is not to say that all no-platform incidents have been like this, but merely to note that the line between freedom of speech and safe spaces must be carefully negotiated. I suggest that as long as students are given a clear opportunity to challenge and respond to problematic opinions, safe spaces and freedom of speech can perhaps coexist.

Lord Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, saw the RMF campaign as very much in line with this safe spaces movement. He argued that in petitioning for the removal of the statue, students were not celebrating the values of freedom of speech and thought. RMF, on the other hand, argued that they were doing the exact opposite. They stated that in fact, by campaigning, they were encouraging debate and giving a chance for marginalised members of the community to be heard.

To me, it seems that perhaps neither side is approaching the matter quite appropriately. The argument for safe spaces is not the same as the RMF campaign in that, namely, I do not believe RMF really involves the issue of freedom of speech. The statue of Cecil Rhodes is not an expression of the students of Oriel College’s beliefs nor is it a statement that they are consciously or willingly making. Rather, the issue runs deeper and involves the questions of whether getting rid of the statue is revisionist or whether it simply distracts from the greater problems of racism at Oxford.

References for this feature are included in-line, and are also included in the report’s Complete Bibliography.

All links operational at time of publication. The Poor Print takes no responsibility for the accuracy of content on other sites, but every effort has been made to find reputable sources.

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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