Universities Minister Jo Johnson recently warned about the dangers of so called “safe spaces” in universities when he stated that “universities should be places that open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged”. Safe spaces are a modern movement that many universities in the UK, as well as the US have adopted. According to Oxford Dictionaries a safe space is “a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm”. Given that definition, I agree that hate speech and discriminating language should always be challenged and excluded from both university and workplaces. Discriminating and racist language is unlawful should not be defended under the guise of free speech.
However, I believe that legitimate discussion and debate that comes about from opposing views can only benefit university students. University is usually for most people the last step before entering the world of full-time work and it is one of few places that brings together students not only from around the country, but also around the world. With this in mind, it would be counter-productive to always walk around with fingers in both ears. Politics is something that I believe everyone has a stake in and opinion on. To be exposed to a wider range of views allows for self-development and provides security through being able to defend one’s own beliefs against the views of another. I believe in equality between speakers of both the left and the right persuasion, unless the speaker is peddling hate speech or harassment – no one should have to deal with this. The art of debate allows for the respectful challenge of ideas and this should be encouraged on every university campus. However, what is dangerous is that Jo Johnson (and many of his Tory contemporaries, including our current prime minister) are arguing against the “no platforming” policy which prevents racists and other hate speakers spreading their toxic ideologies.
The contradiction in Jo Johnson’s comments came as he stated that “young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions”. If young people are gathering in their thousands to sign a petition to prevent a specific speaker from having a platform at their university, then it is, of course, an example of young people “challenging controversial opinions”. The power should be in the hands of the students. It would be a different case if the NUS was taking it upon themselves to decide which speakers were appropriate and which weren’t. However, students are making their voices heard when they say they do not want, for example, the BNP speaking at their universities. Johnson’s policy of of imposing fines on universities that exclude certain speakers is dangerous as it rakes the power away from the students and into the hands of old Conservatives.
Words: Guled Yaqub
Image: Spiked Online