Are safe spaces a threat to free speech?

May 30, 2016

Safe spaces?


Safe spaces are receiving a lot of discussion lately. Universities, for example, are encouraged to be, or to have, ‘safe spaces’ for students: places where students – particularly LGBT students – can feel safe from being persecuted, harassed, and so on.


However, ‘safe spaces’ are increasingly being seen as a threat to free speech. For example, when Maryam Namazie, an ex-Muslim critic of Islam, spoke at Goldsmith’s College University of London, her event was disrupted by some Muslim students who shouted ‘Safe space!’ – they believed that their University should protect them from such speech. Many, myself included, thought this was a ridiculous abuse of the concept of safe space.


So where does acceptable safe space end and unacceptable  threats to freedom of speech begin? Here are a few useful key distinctions:


Freedom of behaviour vs freedom of thought and expression


Universities should not tolerate certain forms of behaviour, such as the prevention of black people, women, gays, Jews, Muslims, etc. and so from accessing certain venues and services. Universities should be ‘safe spaces’ for students in the sense that they should protect students from that kind of discrimination.


[Of course, the devil is in the detail: what about a men-only club? Is that unacceptable? If so, why isn’t a women-only club unacceptable? Because women, as a matter of fact, have and continue to suffer much greater discrimination?]


While certain forms of discriminatory behaviour are unacceptable and should certainly be banned from University campuses, that’s not to say freedom of expression should be similarly restricted. I can’t drive at more than 70mph down a motorway legally. But of course I am free to claim that I should be allowed to drive down a motorway at more than 70mph legally. But then while we should prevent, say, people discriminating against women on campus, should we also prevent people from saying that women should be subject to such discriminatory behaviour? In my view, no. Many religious folk believe women should be treated differently, and I have no problem with them expressing that view in public, even while I would want to prevent them acting on it in the public space. Similarly, I have no problem in principle with people expressing racist views, though I would certainly want to prevent them acting on them.


Abusive and hate speech vs. satire, robust criticism, etc.


None of this is to say I think anything goes so far as speech is concerned. It is unacceptable for women, or Jews, or gay people, for example, to be subjected to a torrent of bullying and abusive speech from other students when they walk around the campus. ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’ is untrue – words can be very hurtful indeed and can succeed in making a person’s a life a living hell.


But, on the other hand, I would not want to see anyone prevented from expressing, in a debate or class, the view that black people or women should be denied the vote, that gay relationships are morally unacceptable, and so on. Such claims are in my opinion not just false, but hateful. Still, I believe that if people hold such views, then they should be able to express them. Some will not want to hear such views expressed, and it’s their right not to attend events where they are likely to be aired. But none of us have a right to have the views of others removed from public discourse, no matter how abhorrent we may find them.


Some justifications


The reason it’s important to protect individuals from discriminatory behaviour and torrents of abusive speech is that we all have a right to move about the public space freely and to be treated with a certain level of respect. Without that basic right, our lives are likely to go very badly. This is a level of respect we all desire and that we should be prepared to extend to others.


There are many reasons why, at the same time, free speech should be protected.  Here are a few:


1. If we say ‘You can’t say that!’ when someone expresses a point of view we find morally repugnant, effectively silencing such opinions, we then open the door to those who will say ‘Me too! I find this other view morally repugnant, so you can’t express that view either.’ Soon, no one will be able to express any opinion that someone else finds, or even claims to find, offensive.


But what of, say, deeply held religious beliefs, including beliefs people are even prepared to die for? Shouldn’t at least they be given some form of protection? No. There are secular beliefs I am prepared to die for. There are people whom I hold very dear, and whom I would find it deeply offensive were they lampooned or ridiculed. But I do not insist that those beliefs and individuals should be placed off-limits so far as robust criticism, satire, and so on are concerned. The mere fact that someone’s most deeply held beliefs happen to be religious is no reason for privileging them in this way. The conscience and moral sensibility of the religious person does not deserve greater respect than that of the non-religious person.


2. A University should be a marketplace of ideas. We should be prepared to see our beliefs tested in that marketplace, subjected to critical scrutiny, insulted, and even la
mpooned and laughed at. As John Stuart Mill points out, it’s only after our beliefs have been subjected to that sort of test that we’re entitled to have much confidence in them ourselves.


3. While it can be very tempting to censor views of which we disapprove, we then run the risk of driving such opinions underground, of making those who hold them feel like they are the ones being oppressed, with the result that we create a potentially explosive pressure cooker of resentment. Better, in many cases, to allow steam to be let off in open, public debate.


4. Young people need to develop some intellectual and emotional maturity and resilience. They are going out into a world filled with an extraordinary range of beliefs, from the sublime to the depraved. If they have spent their entire youth having their own beliefs protected from criticism, satire, etc. and have never been presented with or had to defend their beliefs against a highly hostile critic, well then I would not want to call them well-educated. Learning how to negotiate and discuss with those holding very different opinions to your own is an important life skill you can only really acquire through practice.


I will be talking about this topic on a forthcoming edition of the BBC World Service programme The Why Factor on Safe Spaces.