“Universities should be places that open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged.”
They were the words of the then universities minister Jo Johnson on Boxing Day 2017. A lot has changed since then. For one he’s no longer universities minister, instead being slid across to the transport department. But one thing that hasn’t changed is how much those words strike a chord.
We are all different. Even when we are young we are frequently told by our parents that no two people are the same, that every one of us is unique. We all have thoughts, hopes and dreams of our own and our own beliefs, both spiritual and political. We should live and die (not literally) by those beliefs but the current system of safe spaces at many universities in the UK and across the pond in America is stopping that from happening.
Ostensibly designed to prevent hate speech, safe spaces and their natural product of no-platforming speakers or groups who have controversial views are not helpful. Now, don’t confuse what I’m saying. Hate speech is not acceptable and never will be acceptable. But, and this is a big but, hate speech will exist. As unique individuals there are things that separate all of us. As a 5 foot 7 male I’m fully aware that most men are taller than me, and by the standards of this university, a lot of women too. There are people of different ethnic origin to me, different socio-economic backgrounds to me, different religious backgrounds to me. I’m able to appreciate the things I have in common with my friends and acquaintances at this University but also those differences.
But not everyone does.Not everybody is accepting of people being “different” or out with the “norm” and for as long as we are all different and not a race of androids, hate speech will exist. Whether it stems from personal insecurities, perceived injustices or just plain nastiness, the things that make us unique will be seen pejoratively by some people and used negatively. Whether universities have safe spaces or not, or prevent people from saying things that might offend some of the student body, those people are still out there.
As young people, we should be having passionate discussions about abortion, same-sex adoption, the social issues facing Britain, Brexit and a whole host of other things without taking away one side of the discussion. Yes you may not like what the opposing side has to say, and their tone or opinions may offend you, but does that mean they don’t have the right to have an opinion of their own.
We should be able to sit comfortably and make rational, intelligent arguments about things whilst being in full possession of the facts, having heard out both sides of the debate. If you have a stand on a particular topic or strong feelings about an issue, you should be able to defend them and be able to present them to others in a way that challenges their thinking. Not arguments wrapped in feelings and emotions, which when ripped back are entirely hollow and meaningless. By no-platforming speakers, as some UK universities have done, there is no debate and the institutions that we hold so dear are making the problem worse.
Now, it may sound like I’m extrapolating the issue. But bear with me. Eventually this generation of politicians will be replaced, albeit at varying speeds, by our generation and ones that follow. A cursory glance at the House of Commons will show you that the path to a political career almost certainly comes through university. I’m not saying that’s the way it should be, but that’s the state we find ourselves in now. If our generation of university students aren’t even having the discussions or being exposed to the same multitude of opinions and views that the previous generation were, how can we hope to build a brighter, more inclusive future?
By introducing restrictions into universities on who can and can’t speak, we are trying to force everyone to conform to one set of beliefs. That will only encourage more people to rebel against the perceived orthodoxy and fight back against the “PC brigade.” It will also force those people with extreme views even further towards the periphery. And if that’s the lasting legacy of this current incarnation of liberalism, then we’re just as bad as the repressive regimes of the past that we’ve tried so hard to learn from.
Universities should be places that open minds, than enable discussion and debate, that force us to develop our arguments and beliefs rigorously, not ones that shroud us from views and opinions that still exist outside of the confines of the campus.