Safe space would seem to mean that ‘space x is safe’ or if it is yet to be safe, ‘space x ought to be safe’. What is a safe space in the university context? The NUS’ Vice President Richard Brookes gives a definition. He explains safe space as follows: ‘Essentially this is another policy that is democratically decided, which ensures that marginalised voices can debate free from intimidation.’ However, I think it is beneficial to look at another policy. The other policy is no platform. He explains as follows: ‘A very specific and narrow policy that NUS has had since the 1970s which is democratically decided by National Conference every year. It contains just six fascist and racist organisations, and is meant to enfranchise freedom of speech and keep students safe.’
Now there is a plethora of articles detailing different and contradicting views on recent events that have raised the question: Do students have a problem with free speech? Political viewpoints aside, I think a safe space is a good thing. Students should not be subject to violence. Furthermore, students ought not to feel that their university is a dangerous place to be. Universities and their unions ought to be welcoming environments which foster memorable experiences and an enrichment of oneself; whether that be intellectual enrichment or physically.
A university which nurtures 20,000 plus human beings may run into some trouble. The worry that one is not doing well in one’s studies causes undue pressure, this is in due part to the financial implications that a student takes on upon deciding that they wish to enrich themselves intellectually. The consequence is an unprecedented rise in mental health issues which ought to be given the same respect physical health issues warrant. This takes me to the first part of why a safe space is needed.
First example: a student mental health group which decides to do a discussion on self-harm and depression. The students who attend may be personally suffering from depression or they may self-harm. If the students of that discussion say that the room they are in is a safe space, then it is a safe space. There will be an implicit and explicit knowledge that experiences or questions will be raised of a sensitive nature and they ought to be treated with care. If an experience is shared and the student is visibly upset, it would be rude and insensitive to mock that student (I would hope such an event didn’t occur, but this example is based on the possibility of a student attending that discussion with malicious intentions). The other members of that group are well within their right to ask the university representatives or student union representatives to ask the student to leave as they are not conducive to the purpose of that meeting.
Second example: a meeting is called to discuss issues surround pregnancy. Prior to the meeting, the organisers say that this is a female only event and it is a safe space. As with the previous example, if a student turned up with malicious intentions then the representatives of the university/union may ask said individual to leave as they are contravening the safe space that their discussion is.
Now aside from these two examples, the issue becomes somewhat more difficult when a guest speaker is invited who is deemed to be controversial. Maryam Namazie (Iranian-born Namazie is spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims and campaigns for secularism, feminism, and freedom of expression and against Islamist extremism) is an example of safe space being used incorrectly which subsequently undermines the idea of safe spaces.
The Goldsmiths affair: Namazie had been invited to Goldsmiths by the college’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASH) to speak on the subject of blasphemy and apostasy in the age of Isis. The President of ASH received an email from the head of the Islamic Society (Isoc) during the deliberation stage of this event: “We feel having her present will be a violation to our safe space,” it read, “a policy which Goldsmiths SU adheres to strictly, and my society feels that all she will do is incite hatred and bigotry, at a very sensitive time for Muslims in the light of a huge rise in Islamophobic attacks.” The event went ahead. There is a video of what took place on YouTube. Namazie is heckled, and is subject to a prolonged campaign of disruption by a group of students from the Isoc. They shout out, get up and sit down, walk around the room, laugh when she refers to Bangladeshi bloggers being hacked to death, and at one stage shut down her overhead projector when it displays a [British webcomic] Jesus and Mo cartoon.
The video of the event should be enough to point one to who was right in this argument. However, the words of the ASH president make it explicitly clear, “In regards to the external speaker policy, there needs to be a clear distinction between people who condemn the personhood of a religious group and a criticism of religion as ideology like any other. And these are often conflated. So you can get people barred for criticising your ideology on the grounds that they’re discriminating against your race. It’s a dangerous conflation because it leads to this toxic atmosphere of identity politics.”
This is a clear example of safe speech and no platform being conflated. The latter being justified because of the safe speech policy. If the safe space policy is supposed to represent marginalised voices, events like these ought to go ahead and safe space applied to guest speakers should rarely be used. The defence of this point comes from a woman from 15:08-15:25 in the video who says ‘I’m Muslim and I feel bad, I read the Qur’an, pray five times a day and I have to put up with you guys who put constantly put a bad name to Islam.’ There is a discourse in Islam that needs to be challenged. Trying to prevent Islamophobia by the action of stifling Namazie only continues to allow voices that ought to be jettisoned from the dialogue going on regarding Islam in the 21st century. Both Namazie and the woman who appears 15:25 are trying to prevent Islamophobia, but I assume this irony is lost on those ISOC members who disrupted the speech (supposing their intentions were to protect safety and not more nefarious intentions).
A similar example of safe space being used incorrectly comes from the University of Edinburgh. Imogen Wilson was subject to a “safe space complaint” over her supposedly “inappropriate hand gestures” during a student council meeting. The policy includes “refraining from hand gestures which denote disagreement”, or “in any other way indicating disagreement with a point or points being made”. Now the implicit assumption when one enters into a meeting is that there will be a multiplicity of views and by the acknowledgement and challenging of alternative views, there will come to be a congruence that one view is the way to go.
Thus in light of the above, one would not be criticised for sharing the sentiment behind Schopenhauer who thought that there is no ultimate purpose to ‘‘this battle-ground of tormented and agonised beings, [with] constant struggle, bellum omnium [the war of all against all], everything a hunter and everything hunted. . . . this world of constantly needy creatures who continue for a time merely by devouring one another, pass their existence in anxiety and want, and often endure terrible afflictions, until they fall at last into the arms of death.”
However, I would like to conclude contra Schopenhauer with Nietzsche (despite a group dedicated to reading his books being banned due to safe space policy) who led a more optimistic view in regards to life: “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across, but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!”