Safe Spaces are Not Confined to University Campuses

Rather than castigate students for supporting the no-platforming policy, it would be more productive to ask what they think it achieves

The argument goes like this:

Universities are sacred places of learning, debate, critique and innovation. They offer a once in a lifetime chance for young adults to expand their horizons by engaging in provocative discussions with their peers and tutors. Public debates afford them the opportunity to enter into arguments with a diverse range of people.

But these noble aims are under threat from today’s students who are hell bent on excluding any and all -phobics from their safe spaces. It’s the epitome of liberal elitism to only defend free speech for certain people . No-platforming typifies generation snowflake’s obsession with identity politics. Its political correctness gone full blown fascist.

Sound familiar? As the forces of hard core neoliberal conservatism and right wing nationalism tighten their hold on the UK political scene, students have come to embody the “liberal elite” for their resentment of “ordinary” people. Brexit has crystallized the divide between what David Goodhart describes as the “anywheres” and the “somewheres”. Students fall firmly into the latter category because they tend to have less attachment to a particular culture or geographical area, and so can be described as belonging to the “global community”. For the “anywheres”, identity politics trumps the so-called big issues like international law, sovereignty or economics. Equality, inclusivity and tolerance are its watchwords and feature prominently in the policy literature of many student organisations like the National Union of Students.

The liberal elite are a particular bone of contention for The Spectator columnist Rod Liddle, who since the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory has been jumping for joy at the prospect of their imminent demise. “The liberal elite we talk about today”, he writes, “is beholden to a leftish cultural and political paradigm which predominates in all the non-elected institutions which run our lives…and which is utterly intolerant of dissent”. What this “paradigm” constitutes is hard to pin down, but Liddle’s last point regarding the intolerance of the left has gained a great deal of traction amongst the commentariat in recent years. The no-platforming of controversial speakers has become the de facto example of the liberal elite’s total contempt for those who hold opinions different from theirs.

The politics of trans has become a particularly vexatious topic in the free speech wars. Last year, the NUS’s LGBT representative, Fran Cowling, refused to participate in a debate with Peter Tatchell, the prominent human rights campaigner, for what she considered to be his endorsement of transphobic violence in his defence of free speech on campuses. In a similar vein, students at the University of Cardiff petitioned for the no-platforming of Germaine Greer because of her argument in The Whole Woman that a male cannot transition to a female through surgery.

These two cases gained attention because many, myself included, considered it an outrage for such revered and principled figures to be cast as bigots for expressing an opinion different from a consensus held by a group of students. This reaction is valid, but simply writing them off as snowflakes shuts down critical thought. Despite my conviction that an ambivalent attitude is a vital part of a rich educational experience, we risk making profoundly rash judgements on the motives underlying student’s demand for safe spaces if we don’t address where the vogue for no-platforming originates from.

Look at the BBC’s Question Time to see what an off campus safe space looks like: An incredibly rigid debating formula with speakers chosen from a small pool of think tanks, newspapers and political parties. Look also to the overwhelmingly right wing UK press, with editors like Paul Dacre, whose newspaper The Daily Mail is leading the campaign to quash any opposition to Brexit and, by implication, socially liberal and progressive political parties.

Then there’s The Institute of Ideas, a libertarian think tank for whom no-platforming has come to symbolise the new orthodoxy of liberal intolerance. Their annual conference, the portentously named The Battle of Ideas, is touted as the ultimate anti-echo chamber. Listen to any of their debates and you will see that this is bunkum.

The Institute of Ideas is one of several organisations that form a loose but expansive network established after the closure of the Living Marxism magazine in the mid-nineties, which includes Spiked Online and Debating Matters. The LM network consider free speech to be imperilled by the silencing of unpopular opinions by elitists who seek to control people’s lives rather than liberate them from conventional thinking. Identity politics is a particular bone of contention for regular speakers at The Battle of Ideas Joanna Williamson and Frank Furedi, and for the Institute of Ideas director, Claire Fox for its foregrounding of people’s lived experiences as a means of critiquing systems of power and authority. Questions concerning consent, women’s rights, race and sexual orientation are permanently couched in terms of the “nanny state”.

Despite its claims to radicalism, all of the positions adopted by the LM network are conterminous with the hard right of the Conservative party. For a group of people who claim to challenge orthodoxies they are enthusiastically attaching themselves to the nationalist ascendancy in the USA and Europe. It’s adherents denounce the left’s preference for insulting those they disagree with as racists, homophobes, and fascists rather than engaging in debate by labelling anyone who believes equality is a political imperative as generation snowflake, virtue signallers and liberal elitists. Feminism disempowers women but men’s rights activists are fighting against a feminised culture; welfare is the state’s way of controlling the poor but inequality guarantees freedom; people voted for Hillary Clinton because they wanted to maintain their status over the “demos” but no one who voted for Trump was or could possibly be a racist.

For the LM network and many other figures on the right, the new nationalism represents the revolt against liberal tyranny that they argue has gripped western democracies for decades and as such represents the new radical centre. The new right are not interested in pluralism but in masquerading as either radicals or representatives of “ordinary” people.

Universities are a prime target of their criticism for the ostensive control the liberal elite has over education policies. Yet the principles of neoliberal economics conservatives and libertarians champion dominate academia.

This will be my seventh year working in Higher Education. During all of that time I cannot name a single occasion when students and the HE sector featured on the news unless it was about money, the “de-radicalisation” of Muslims or safe spaces. Consequently, the general public remain incredibly ill-informed about the culture of university campuses and the impact government policies have on student behaviour.

The Prevent strategy, for example, compels all university staff to spot signs of radicalisation as part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. Superficially aimed at all students, Prevent  disproportionately targets Muslims. Legislating to monitor what students read and discuss treats all Muslims as potential dangers and inhibits their ability to ask difficult questions for fear of being interrogated.

The economics of Higher Education are another factor. The corporatisation of universities through tuition fees and privately financed research encourages students to think of themselves as consumers rather than as learners. The knowledge gained through a degree is sold to young people as a consumable to be bought and not earned through academic rigour. Tutors are continually told to “support” students but little is said of how we should challenge them. Any failure is a failure of the institution or the lecturer , not of the individual. In fact, failure is impermissible for students now. The customer is, after all, always right. The relentless focus on career prospects has skewed the merits of intellectual discourse into by-product of Higher Education.

The most pernicious effect of the customer-ification of students lies in their determination to control every aspect of campus life. At the same time, clickbait figures like Milo Yiannopolous, Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins are invited onto campuses to represent a “diverse range of views”. These are people who consider public humiliation and harassment as the most effective way of defeating their opponent’s argument; intellectual deliberation is for the little people. The safety some students crave through no-platforming might be considered justified when Yiannopolous can show a picture of a transgender student and invite the audience to attack them as a mentally ill pervert.

But no-platforming and safe spaces are not the same thing. Indeed, whilst the National Union of Students maintains a no platform policy, they have discontinued the use of the term “safe space” for its implication that the outside world is inherently dangerous. Supporters of no-platforming often explain its purpose as increasing minority representation rather than in terms of safety.

In her defence of no-platforming Mariya Hussain writes that excluding white male students from an event held at Goldsmiths for BME students was necessary so the debate would not to be “derailed by those whose voices are already amplified”. Her assumption that white men could not make any useful contribution to the discussion is revealing of Hussain’s belief that all speakers and attendees hold a consensus view on the dominance of white privilege prevalent on campuses and white men don’t. But the argument regarding the existence of white privilege is worth taking seriously. A recent report by the Guardian  revealed there are no BME academics in senior positions at any UK university. The under representation of minorities is present in virtually all spheres of UK public life, whether that be the police, the judiciary, directors of FTSE 100 companies, or the government, not just in academia.

A more complex issue is raised by Hussain when she says “white, euro-centric curriculums” stifle free speech in their exclusion of BME and minority voices. No-platforming in this context can be interpreted as an assertion of power from groups who are far less likely to be in positions of authority during their careers, but does excluding people from meetings not risk replicating the exclusionary system students claim to be fighting against?

Transgender politics sparks such fierce debate because of its discursive and sometimes contradictory orthodoxies. The use of the term “cis”, for instance, to denote one who remains in the gender they were born into, fails to address the inequalities within that group. If such a thing as cis culture is the mainstream then it is presumably the same “white, euro-centric culture” Mariya Hussain criticizes. This type of language defames the struggles of gay people, women and people of colour. The voices of racial or sexual minorities who are not trans risks being diminished if we don’t recognise the diversity of experiences and tensions within these groups.

Moreover, identity politics is not the preserve of non-white males. Our power rests in treating our biases as an expression of the natural order and so do not need to be categorised as outside mainstream opinion. Men need to learn to speak about why we feel compelled to perform normative masculinity for the entertainment of other men if we are to ever understand why violence  seem endemic to the male psyche and so many of us tragically commit suicide compared to women. Having this conversation in concert with women and trans people is vital if we are to understand these are societal problems and cannot be resolved by individuals alone.

Ours is not a culture committed to free speech for everyone, but for what we consider to be those who address topics corresponding to a limited spectrum of opinion. No platforming does not challenge authority by excluding its representatives or represent a method of effectuating change. Neither is it an illogical response to the intolerance of the organs of our government and media.

For all their talk of free speech and tolerance of difference, many critics of no platforming have no appreciation for how their control of political discourse impacts on student behaviour. Their demands for students to tolerate all opinions, no matter how deliberately offensive or insulting, is a deeply hypocritical position given their attempts to silence those who contest the prejudices minorities experience everyday by belittling their concerns as narcissistic irrelevancies. It’s just no-platforming by another name. If we don’t want students to retreat to their echo chambers then it’s time all centres of authority to reappraise their own impulse to censor those who do not conform to their notions of what a reasonable, well-adjusted person behaves like by excluding them from the public debate.