If you are a university student, you’re likely to have been exposed to people who believe in the need for safe spaces and trigger warnings. The majority of staff, students and high-ranking figures in the NUS including its President, Malia Bouatt, support these policies. But despite the support of high-profile figures in academia for the policy of safe spaces, we must ask, do safe spaces infantilize students and are they used to shut down debate?
Let’s define our terms, being triggered is when a person feels distress or discomfort because of someone else saying something they find offensive or vehemently disagree with. Instead of coming back with reasoned arguments and having a debate about the issue, those who feel triggered demand that the insulter preface any ‘hostile speech’ with a trigger warning. Upon feeling triggered they may feel the need for a safe space, this is a place away from any outside trauma, where they can relax and go about their day without the terrible risk of someone triggering them. So basically, being triggered means that someone disagreed with you and your reaction was so emotional that you retreated to a fuzzy echo chamber where no one ever disagrees with your narrow world view. While it is, of course, wrong of us to confront people to the extent that they are emotionally distressed and it is entirely appropriate for the NUS and universities to have anti-bullying programmes, but do safe spaces cross that line and become echo chambers?
These policies have led to controversial figures being banned from speaking on university campuses. Milo Yiannopoulos and Nigel Farage are examples of those barred from speaking on university grounds. The argument made by Malia Bouatt and other supporters of the no platforming policy is that divisive speakers such as Yiannopoulos, are sometimes associated with hate groups such as Alt-Right racial realists. However, it isn’t just right-wingers who are no platformed. Notable second wave feminist, Germaine Greer, was the target of a campaign to no-platform last year, for expressing her view that trans women are still men. While we may agree or disagree with her, the trans issue wasn’t even going to be the subject of her talk, and likely wouldn’t have even been mentioned. Though Greer did eventually get to give her talk, the University of Cardiff did release the “We in no way condone discriminatory comments of any kind.” Milo had one of his talks cancelled recently for his support of Donald Trump and opposition to feminism. While Milo is a controversial figure, denying these figures an opportunity to speak, and students an opportunity to listen, is deeply authoritarian and just as intolerant as those the university students and staff wish to silence.
Supporters of safe spaces argue that university is a stressful enough place without students having to deal with the unnecessary hassle of ideological confrontation, which may verge on harassment or bullying. But while discussion should always be civil, the idea of safe spaces away from such debate is odious to the enlightenment values of plurality and discussion which lead to our democracy. Without clashing world views expressed through debate and sometimes heated argument, democracy can’t function. The concept of a safe space is nothing more than an echo chamber, a place where you can go to avoid being disagreed with; this is insane! Claiming that someone triggered you is an admission that you either couldn’t refute their point or that you simply refuse to acknowledge the validity of ideas that don’t correlate with your own worldview. This is immature behaviour, especially for people in higher education, who you would hope to be mature enough to handle dissenting opinions.
Avoiding opposition is natural, none of us wishes to be confronted or challenged on the values we hold dear, the argument made by those in favour of safe spaces is that we should be able to have a place where we can escape aggression or emotional distress. But isn’t this such poor preparation for the world outside academia. Upon leaving university, I fear that many of these people won’t be sufficiently prepared for dealing with adversity in the ‘real world’. Your employer isn’t going to offer you a safe space; they aren’t going to self-censor their speech just because you demand them to. I’m concerned that their time being pandered to in university and then the immediate exposure to the cold reality of life could lead to an increase in stress, anxiety and depression as they won’t be emotionally mature enough to step up to the challenges presented to them. South Park did a great job of demonstrating this point, showing that safe spaces are merely a way for insecure individuals to shield themselves from reality.
While this is a complex issue, in a democracy disagreement isn’t just a necessary evil but is actively good. University should be a place where you shape your opinions, not one where you are shielded from those of others. Only a child and a spoilt one at that thinks that they can go through life getting exactly what they want, not everyone has to agree with you, not everyone has to respect your opinions. As the American political commentator, Ben Shapiro says “Facts don’t care about your feelings”.