Earlier this year an Edinburgh university student was accused of violating safe space rules by raising her hand during a debate. This was the latest in a long line of similar incidents to spark statements bemoaning the stifling of free speech on university campuses. These have been met with equally ferocious columns defending students’ right to police debates in this way. British universities are increasingly becoming the battleground for argument around the limits of free speech.
Safe spaces are designated areas – which could cover an entire university – where discriminatory behaviour is not permitted. Similarly no-platforming involves denying a speaking engagement to any individual whose views are considered to be discriminative. Both policies aim to regulate debate and protect vulnerable groups.
There is immense power in language. Every day we see examples of how saying the right thing isn’t just a case of being polite, it has serious commercial and strategic implications. So could we see a future where policies similar to the likes of safe spaces and no-platforming begin to play a part in governing business relationships? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility: after all, the students involved are our future business leaders, journalists and politicians.
There are already signs that shifting ideas around debate and offence are beginning to seep into mainstream discourse. Last August a debate on transgender identity had to be abandoned by Newsnight after misinformation about its content led to vicious attacks on everyone involved via Twitter. It was later dubbed by one of the transgender panellists still keen for the discussion to go ahead as “the debate the transgender community refused to have”.
In a similar sign of shifting standards, the BBC recently placed a trigger warning – a note alerting readers to potentially offensive content – at the top of an article including a gory Caravaggio painting. Art critic Jonathan Jones described the warning as “daft yet also perceptive” for recognising the power of great art even while trying to censor it.
So are these measures a necessary part of facilitating inclusive communication, or a slippery slope towards censorship? The answer lies somewhere in between.
Safe spaces are designed to allow everyone, particularly vulnerable groups, to contribute meaningfully to discussion without being shouted down. They came into existence because for centuries university discourse was dominated by white, straight men and there was little room for anybody else to voice an opinion. Although things have improved, this is a problem which is by no means either solved or limited to university debating halls.
The issue is that somebody has to police the safe space, and rules governing them have become more and more draconian. As soon as you have one group – often, although by no means exclusively, the hard left – dictating who can speak and what they can say the whole exercise becomes somewhat self defeating. You end up simply replacing one form of aggressive silencing with another. Offence is very subjective, which makes trying to create an immovable definition of the ‘offensive’ problematic.
It’s everyone’s responsibility to challenge bigoted ideas and respect vulnerable groups. Examining the language we use, how we debate our views and the people we give platforms to is undoubtedly part of that, but subjective blanket bans are rarely a sensible option. Policies like safe spaces and no-platforming may have their place, but they need to be implemented thoughtfully and proportionally.
For those outside universities it’s tempting to simply dismiss these policies as hysterical, but to do so would be to ignore how the terms of debate are shifting. We need to take our own advice and meaningfully engage with the issues at stake. There is a middle ground to be sought, both within universities and outside them.