On 23 January 2016 I took part in a debate about free speech on campus at the University of California Irvine, during the conference “What Cannot Be Said.” These were my opening remarks.
The most striking thing about Safe Spaces on campus is how unsafe they are. How hostile and even violent they are towards anyone who has unpopular views, or who simply believes people should have the right to express unpopular views.
Safe Spaces are spreading across campuses in the US and the UK. They’re presented as happy-clappy therapeutic zones in which students, especially minority students, should not be subjected to gruff words or prejudicial ideas.
As one student union in Britain puts it, they’re spaces in which students must be “free from intimidation or judgement” and should always “feel comfortable”. These spaces are justified in inoffensive, Oprah-like language: it’s all about providing a space in which people can be themselves without fear of ridicule.
But in practice, Safe Spaces are ugly, authoritarian places. They’re propped up by menace. They’re fortified by a simmering threat of force against any transgressors of the new cult of psychic safety and moral conformism.
Consider some recent examples from Britain, where students have built what they call Safe Spaces but which look to me more like Unsafe Spaces for those judged to hold the wrong views or to have the wrong attitudes.
Last week at King’s College London, a meeting of pro-Israel students was invaded by anti- Israel activists. They smashed windows, set off a fire alarm, threw chairs around. They chanted “Nazis!” at the attendees of the meeting. Oh, the irony of activists shutting down a meeting of largely Jewish students while shouting “Nazis”: a serious self-awareness failure.
A key justification given by student radicals for shouting down pro-Israel meetings is that such events are “offensive” or “distressing” to certain students. That is, they violate the Safe Space. So in the name of maintaining safety on campus, certain events can be violently interrupted. It’s Orwellian: war is peace, freedom is slavery, violence is safety.
On two campuses in Britain —Cambridge and Goldsmith’s —feminist students have burnt the literature of far-left groups whom they accuse of rape apologism and of contributing to a hostile climate for female students. That is, these far-left groups make women feel unsafe and therefore their pamphlets must be publicly burnt. The use of fascistic menace to make students feel comfortable —the Orwellianism continues.
At a London university last year, the Iranian secularist Maryam Namazie was harassed by members of the Islamic Society who shouted at her: “You are violating our Safe Space!”
Namazie is a stinging critic of Islamism. Some big Islamist guys turned up to her talk and hectored her, switched off her powerpoint, and created what could really be described as a hostile environment. And their justification was that they were maintaining their Safe Space against someone with problematic views. We have the Kafkaesque situation where a bunch of blokes can physically intimidate a woman in the name of saving students from feelings of intellectual intimidation.
In 2014, I was prevented from taking part in a debate about abortion at Oxford, on the basis that I am a “person without a uterus” and therefore have no right to discuss women’s bodies. As it happens, I was due to make the pro-choice case, to say that officialdom has no business limiting a woman’s sovereignty over herself.
More than 300 feminist students said the discussion would harm their “mental safety”, so they threatened to turn up to the debate “with instruments” to disrupt it. They couldn’t see the dark, twisted irony of threatening the physical safety of a campus debate in the name of defending students’ mental safety. Shamefully, the Oxford administration caved to the students’ demands and banned the meeting.
And on it goes. Things are burnt, people are harassed, and books, newspapers and songs are banned in the name of “safety”. Menace, fire and threats are used to create “safety”. Discomfort is deployed in the name of comfort. Intimidation is used to tackle alleged intimidation. Violence is safety.
Student unions in Britain have crushed all sorts of things in the name of safety. Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” has been banned on more than 30 campuses because it apparently makes female students feel unsafe. Mexican hats are banned on some campuses because they create a hostile environment for Latinos. Some unions have banned the making of sexual noises in the student bar, because it makes women feel unsafe.
On American campuses we have seen professors being screamed at and journalists being manhandled by mobs of students rallying under the banner of the Safe Space. “You make us feel unsafe and therefore we will destroy you” —that is the perverted rallying cry of today’s student radicals.
That Safe Spaces can generate so much unsafety is revealing. It exposes the iron fist of authoritarianism that lurks within the velvet glove of the self-esteem movement. It exposes the dark side to the cult of therapy and the idea that an individual’s feeling of self-worth should override other people’s right to express themselves as they see fit.
The motor of campus censorship is a profound feeling of psychic vulnerability among students. They see everything as a threat to their mental security. Statues of old dead white men, novels that feature sexual violence, pop songs… everything is considered potentially wounding.
This is best summed up in the idea of microaggressions, where even innocent, everyday conversation is reframed as a peril. The Oxford students currently trying to have a statue of Cecil Rhodes taken down describe the statue as an “environmental microaggression”. Even inanimate objects are experienced as an attack on the self.
This extreme psychic vulnerability confirms that we’re entering a new and quite terrifying era of censorship. Once we had ideological censorship, designed to elevate a particular political outlook by suppressing others. We had religious censorship, designed to protect a certain belief system through crushing blasphemy. Now we have therapeutic censorship —censorship which aspires to squash or at least demonise anything that any individual finds aggressive, uncomfortable, or wounding to their worth. It is a tyranny of self-regard.
This censorship is more insidious than the old censorships. It is vast and unwieldy and can turn its attention to almost anything: magazines, clothing, monuments, jokes, conversational blunders. It’s as if students feel they deserve their own personal blasphemy law to protect them from scurrilous comments or images or objects. We have a generation of little Jesuses, threatening menaces against anyone who says something that stings their psychic health.
Campus censors can’t be held entirely responsible for this therapeutic censorship. In fact, in many ways they are the products of a culture that has been growing for decades: a culture of diminished moral autonomy; a culture which sees individuals as fragile and incapable of coping without therapeutic assistance; a culture which treats individual self-esteem as more important than the right to be offensive; a culture that was developed by older generations —in fact by the fortysomethings and fiftysomethings now mocking campus censors as infantile and ridiculous.
Yes, we should mock these little tyrants who fantasise that their feelings should trump other people’s freedom. But we must go further than that. We must remake the case for robust individualism and the virtue of moral autonomy against the fashion for fragility; against the misanthropic view of people as objects shaped and damaged by speech rather than as active subjects who can independently imbibe, judge and make decisions about the speech they hear.
The Safe Space is a terrible trap. It grants you temporary relief from ideas you don’t like, but at the expense of your individuality, your soul even. If you try to silence unpopular ideas, you do an injustice both to those who hold those unpopular views, and also to yourself, through depriving yourself of the right and the joy of arguing back, taking on your opponents, and in the process strengthening your own mental and moral muscles. Liberate yourself —destroy the Safe Space.