We need to preserve both safe spaces and academic freedom

Written by Zach Siddiqui, Opinions Editor

The right to free speech flirts with human progress the way peanut butter jives with strawberry jelly — they’re the “it couple.” At SFU, we all benefit from free speech; it’s a key component of higher learning. But I don’t support misusing it to spread hate on university campuses.

The scripted battle between ‘safe space’ and ‘academic freedom’ has been short, messy, and ongoing. Many authors have worried that the safe space is restricting academic discourse, and changing university education into something unrecognizably useless.

The origins of ‘safe space’ are diversely attributed: 60s–70s gay bars and women’s movements, psychologist Kurt Lewin’s sensitivity training for American corporate execs, even anti-military recruitment spaces. The common themes are resisting oppression and freedom to discuss controversy. Harvard University draws a dichotomy of “emotional safety” vs. “[safety in taking] intellectual risks and [exploring] any line of thought.”

However, the two can — must — work together. We can have a ‘safe’ university without impairing education. The argument against safe space frames it as political mob mentality, coddling and isolating its membership from intellectual challenge. It’s variably dismissed as “[quarantining] oneself” and “de facto cultural segregation,” But this view is incredibly narrow.

Yes, attending university implies agreeing to challenge your beliefs. If nobody challenges others’ ideologies, social progress becomes nigh impossible. So it’s preferable that people be open to argument, risking some emotional and intellectual discomfort.

That doesn’t mean we must debate at all hours of the day. Freedom of speech is the choice of how and what to express. That includes the choice not to speak, not to express, not to engage. Discrete safe spaces are temporary reprieves from stressors, and forums to discuss inequalities uninterrupted.

Regardless, these safe spaces aren’t what whole universities should be. ‘Safe’ universities don’t censor everything we dislike. They protect students from being treated as less-than for their identities.

One person might disagree with something they learn in a gender studies course, and debate it in good faith. Another person scrawls “this is utter shit” on their queer theory textbook, writing the entire field off, while their friends see using proper pronouns for non-binary classmates as beneath them.

This is the difference between intellectual challenge and bigotry. You are allowed to challenge my liberal views, even if I don’t agree with you. What you can’t do is completely deny a person’s identity and direct micro- and macro-aggressive hate at them.

You think safe spaces interfere with academic freedom? Lacking them does that a hundred times over. Without precautions to avoid a person’s ideas being discredited based on ad hominem prejudice, without measures to give the less privileged a platform to speak, without protecting people from having their lives destroyed before they ever get the chance to contribute to the world, there will never be full academic discourse.

American vice-president Mike Pence, a starkly anti-LGBTQ+ politician, spoke at the University of Notre Dame’s May 2017 commencement ceremony about the evils of “administration-sanctioned political correctness.” Many students elected to walk out and host their own ‘alternative’ ceremony in protest.

Student protest against controversial guest speakers is accused of stifling free speech. But defending speakers like Pence ignores what public demonstration and lecture actually does. It isn’t just to ‘educate,’ or to promote debate (a silly notion, actually: as this Huffington Post article points out, the organization of most commencement ceremonies and guest lectures doesn’t allow for actual debate).

These public figures are brought in as a symbol of their ideas — ideas that may advocate for incredibly harmful practices. (In case you’ve forgotten, Pence happens to believe that electroshock therapy is a proper ‘solution’ to non-heterosexuality.) When these ideas actively endanger others, validating them is a problem.

Another supposed barrier to academia is trigger warnings, notes about potentially sensitive content in a work designed to let trauma victims know in advance. They’re not about “[shielding students] from words and ideas that make [them] uncomfortable,” or “extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche,” as an article titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” puts it.

Think of it this way: you don’t require trigger warnings, your idea of ‘getting triggered’ is based on your experience of what it’s like to face an idea with which you disagree. That experience isn’t comparable to an actual panic- or anxiety-induced episode rooted in the recollection of a trauma.

That’s not to suggest that all sensitive material ever should be censored. For instance, Harvard law professors can’t exactly avoid teaching students about sexual assault law, and that there should be dedicated processes in place for addressing potential triggering. But those extreme cases are extremes, not reasons to eschew the trigger warning totally.

Growing up, we’re taught: “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” In Psychology Today, Boston College professor Peter Gray says that students don’t know how “to be called bad names by others and . . . respond without adult intervention.” Spiked editor Joanna Williams says we learn that we are “too vulnerable” and “too easily led.”

If I am told I don’t belong, addressed with slurs and disrespect, it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t dig into my flesh and burn me, my synapses don’t snap under some psychic pressure, and I have no reason to have my feelings hurt.

But your words incite legislation against me. Your words incite violence against me. Your words stoke the flame of an institutional inequality that punishes people like me every day of our lives.

Don’t pretend like academia is some sterile vacuum, detached from real life. We’re frequently commanded to separate ‘the personal’ from ‘the political.’ One Spiked article mocks how university student now learn that “words and images are powerful and can hurt or corrupt” — except that’s. . . very obviously exactly the case.

Words relegated many Canadians to ‘second-class’ under Bill C-24, a bill fueled by Islamophobic thought. Words spoken by the American president from the start of his campaign to now encouraged a massive jump in hate crimes following his election. Words spoken by a police officer in Georgia to console a white woman this week, “we only kill black people,” are a terrifying reminder of how little the lives of minorities have come to matter to the dominant regime.

People like UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh say that “we have no right to be safe from [ideas and statements],” It’s increasingly obvious that we do.

Someday, years from now, perhaps your children or your grandchildren will be part of some minority or social movement whose systemic oppression we can’t even conceive of or predict right now. They might be SFU students, like you are now.

Violent hate crime doesn’t come from nothing. It is fueled by ideology, and ideology spreads through words. Especially when you blindly protect all ideologies regardless of their content.

So, if some evil person punishes, or hurts, or murders your kids, because you placed the right to entertain damaging, wicked rhetoric in a classroom over the right to be alive — if, someday, you lose people precious to you because you cared too much about getting to slander whoever you like — will you then say that it was right for them to die for you?