In her first interview as the vice chancellor of the University of Oxford earlier this month, former principal of St Andrews Louise Richardson boldly insisted that universities should remain places where even the most controversial or disturbing viewpoints can be openly expressed. She told the Daily Telegraph: “We need to expose our students to ideas that make them uncomfortable so that they can think about why it is that they feel uncomfortable and what it is about those ideas that they object to.” And while she recognizes that such a vision is “quite the opposite of the tendency towards safe spaces,” she “hope[s] that universities will continue to defend the imperative of allowing even objectionable ideas to be spoken.” In fact, at the time of the interview Oxford students involved in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign were busy calling for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, due to the history figure’s association with British imperialism. (Oxford has since announced that the statue will not be removed.)
The Rhodes Must Fall campaign is just one of many movements led by students around the world to turn universities into “safe spaces” by sterilizing them of upsetting images, words or ideas. At Princeton University in New Jersey, students demanded that the name of former US president Woodrow Wilson be removed from the university campus because his support of segregation in the federal workplace made even referring to him an act of “microaggression” – a small gesture that is unintentionally violent. At Christ Church College Oxford, a debate on abortion involving only male speakers was cancelled because, according to the student union treasurer, it posed a threat to “the safety – both physical and mental – of the students who live and work in Christ Church.” Here at St Andrews, the Union’s Friday club night “P.U.L.L.” was renamed after an online petition criticized its aggressive, sexual connotations and insisted it would create an unsafe atmosphere. And everywhere media is being stamped with “trigger warnings” that tell viewers to proceed with caution because something following might upset them.
In a Telegraph article, Nadine Strossen, former head of the American Civil Liberties Union, defined a safe space as one in which people are protected from “exposure to ideas that make them uncomfortable.” Giving greater consideration to the feelings of vulnerable people is undeniably a step in the right direction, but many worry that students have taken the concept of “safe spaces” a step too far. Our concern for emotional “safety” has been carried into the classroom and made us hypersensitive to anything that might be considered remotely “unsafe.” There are very few courses worth taking at university that do not deal with difficult or distressing subjects, and this reactionary mentality has made it difficult for many professors to tackle controversial issues without backlash. One American professor using a pseudonym published an article that was titled: “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.” The article went viral. Additionally, the free-speech activist Wendy Kaminer was publicly condemned by the Smith College Students Association when she suggested that classes on American history or classes that taught The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would have to mention the use of the “n-word.” She was baffled when she was called out for simply discussing the historical use of racist slurs and expressed her dismay that students “can’t distinguish between being racist and having discussions about race.” At some universities, professors are expected to issue “trigger warnings” when anything in their course might spark a painful reaction. Many feel obligated to tip-toe around important topics and censor what they say at the risk of being reprimanded, or even fired.
The issue is not that safe spaces and trigger warnings are bad ideas in and of themselves. In fact, there are many ways in which they are really valuable for victimized and vulnerable people. Many representatives of the St Andrews Students’ Association support safe spaces and trigger warnings as a means of actually increasing engagement, not censoring it. Miriam Chapell, the SRC Wellbeing Officer, clarified that “the purpose of safe spaces is not at all to inhibit discussion of sensitive issues, but rather to facilitate that very discussion in a supportive environment where those who may be personally affected are prepared.” She added: “Trigger warnings are just that – warnings.”
The president of the LGBT Society, Sigrid Jorgensen, also insisted that the backlash against safe spaces is based on a “fundamental misunderstanding of what a safe space is.” Rather than excluding unwelcome views, Ms Jorgenson feels that safe spaces should be defined as “workshops where people don’t judge others for their views and you can say what you want without fear of judgement.” She continues: “You should still still hear a range of opinions. Generally, it’s about facilitating an open conversation.” The LGBT Society recently initiated a program called “Open Door” in which staff members are “trained in active listening” and earn a rainbow triangle sticker that they can put on their door to sig- nify that students are welcome to come in and talk to them at any time. They are also able to put distressed students in contact with a designated person at Student Services. Regarding trigger warnings, Ms Jorgensen argues that they actually help victims to overcome their emotions. “It prepares them so that it’s a lot easier to handle immediate emotions that are triggered,” she said. “We oftentimes have this idea that there is victimization occurring when we mention trigger warnings. But if it’s not something I’m comfortable viewing I won’t, and if I do it’s a way to gain control.”
The Coordinator of the Feminist Society, Jo Boon, agrees that trigger warnings are an important means of preparing people to engage in difficult topics, especially in the case of sexual violence. “Rather than preventing conversations taking place,” she says, “trigger warnings just flag up where they are happening and actually allow for more and healthier discussions because people are comfortable with them.” She argues: “If it helps even a few people then I think it’s worth it. The risk of not including one and triggering a painful memory, a relapse into an eating disorder or even a panic attack – to cite just a few examples – is far more important to me than the risk of sheltering people too much.”
The problem, some say, is that this preoccupation with things like safe spaces and trigger warnings has produced a broader mentality that makes it difficult to face harsh truths in the classroom and daily life. Our generation has become so extremely sensitive to political incorrectness and un-progressive views that we frequently stand accused of “self-infantilization.” Many people find the idea of “safe spaces” fundamentally childish. A widely-read article in the Atlantic referred to our preoccupation with emotion safety as the “coddling of the American mind.” A headline in the New York Times chastised today’s university students for “running away from scary ideas.” Even President Obama, acting as the concerned father that he is, stepped in to tell students that they should not be “coddled and protected from different points of view” because “that’s not the way we learn.” After the Paris attacks last fall, American journalist Judith Miller was perturbed enough to tweet: “Now maybe the winning adolescents at our universities can concentrate on something other than their need for ‘safe’ spaces…” Miller’s comment was widely condemned as horrifically inappropriate and insensitive, a means of politicizing tragedy to advance her own agenda. However, some safe spaces do have a striking resemble to preschool. At Brown University in Rhode Island, an organized debate concerning campus sexual assault prompted the Sexual Assault Task Force on campus to set up a more extreme interpretation of a literal “safe space” where traumatized students could physically remove themselves from the university environment and curl up with a blanket, listen to lullabies, watch videos of frolicking puppies, eat cookies and play with Play-Doh. One can understand, in this instance, why some would argue that American students are being coddled and catered to in a way that may be more harmful than helpful.
Many people argue that the best way to facilitate a thorough and reward- ing university education is to make students feel like they are in a safe space where they can engage with difficult issues and express ideas without fear. This is especially true for the students that have been marginalized by universities in the past on the basis of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. However, this approach could backfire if it ultimately limits the number of issues and opinions students are willing to acknowledge and engage with.
One of the most pressing issues today, for example, is the rise of extremist ideology and terrorism around the world. Speakers with strong views on both sides of the issue have recently been barred from a number of British universities. At Goldsmiths University, the Iranian-born spokesperson for the Council of ex-Muslims and campaigner against Muslim extremism Maryam Namazie was invited to speak on religious extremism in the age of ISIS, but protesters from University’s Islamic Society prevented her from talking by heckling her, shutting down her projector, and shouting “Safe Space! Safe Space! Intimidation!”
On the other hand, six universities are now facing penalties for allowing the radical Islamist human rights group Cage to express extremist views on campus because doing so contradicted the government’s anti-terrorism program Prevent, which calls upon universities to stop the spread of radicalization. Louise Richardson, who is herself an expert on terrorism, opposes this policy. When asked by the Telegraph if groups like Cage should be allowed on campus, she replied, “Provided that they can be countered, I think that we should let them be heard. In that way we model to our students how you counter ideas you find objectionable.” By refusing to hear speakers on both sides of a controversial issue out of fear for the “safety” of university students, important academic and societal debates are effectively stifled on campus.
University is meant to equip us with the tools and the understanding to con- front difficult truths in the real world. The real world is not a safe space. If we want to be forces of positive change, we need to learn how to face our fears and challenge ideas that we think are harmful.
Louise Richardson strongly promotes this vision of university education. “Education is not meant to be comfortable,” she said. “Education should be about confronting ideas you find really objectionable. That isn’t a comfortable experience, but it is a very educational one.” This leaves us with an important question to consider: should university be a “safe space”, or an ideological battleground?