Universities used to be a beacon of light for a value all Brits should be proud of: Freedom of Speech. The right to express and articulate ideas and opinions without fear of censorship has been the backbone of our society since the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. Free speech encourages higher standards of debate and learning, and that is why St Andreans should stand up against “safe spaces” – the biggest threat to freedom of speech at our universities today.
Safe spaces have been defined by the University of Manchester Students’ Association as a “space which is welcoming and safe and includes the prohibition of discriminatory language and actions.” To achieve this, members of the Students’ Union cannot say anything that is likely to incite hatred or create an intimidating environment. Most reasonable people would agree that the intentions behind “safe spaces” are sound; but in practice, the policy is vulnerable to manipulation by students who want to shut out debate.
One argument I hear when people are advocating safe spaces is that they protect minorities and the and oppressed. In safe spaces, people who feel oppressed can apparently share their experience and perspective with others who are in the same situation. This may be so, but what good will this do for these students once they leave The Bubble? Being comfortable in the short-term but not changing the status quo which makes you feel oppressed is going to achieve nothing. Why not share their oppression whilst questioning the status quo by speaking out? In the long-term, speaking out and debating, even though it may feel uncomfortable, will provide much more benefit for those who feel oppressed.
The best example of this is the Suffragettes. I bet they did not feel comfortable facing arrest for challenging the status quo, but their belief for the cause meant that they spoke out against it. If the Suffragettes had stayed within their safe space and only talked to like-minded individuals, then women might still be without the right to vote. Freedom of speech, not safe spaces, has brought about the advancement of rights and equality in the past century. Free speech challenges oppression. Safe spaces are simply an attempt to hide from it.
Another argument I have heard by people who advocate safe spaces is that “healing is more important than debate” – or in other words, that debating can cause some offence to the minority. I totally and utterly reject this premise, as it comes from a culture that encourages people to take offence. As a Tory from the central belt of Scotland, I know what it feels being the minority. Again and again I would be told I was heartless or “someone who has no moral compass.”
Did I take offence to this? No. And why should I? People were only questioning my morals because of my belief in the free market and social conservative values. I could have kept quiet and only talked about political beliefs in my safe space (my party’s local association) because I did not want to be called heartless anymore. I am worried that, if St Andrews were to adopt safe space culture, this is the route that I would be encouraged to choose.
At a young age however, I realised that this was not the right route to go down. I wanted to change opinion towards my party locally, so I got more proactive within my party in regards to campaigning. The more visibility I got locally, the more the abuse increased, but I just took it on the chin. Between 2011 and 2016, the Conservative share of the vote in my constituency increased by 10%. Of course that wasn’t just down to me; it was a real team effort, and everyone in that team faced offensive terms because we were challenging the status quo. If we took offence, we would not have changed the minds of nearly 4,000 people.
We need to create a culture in which freedom of speech is the beacon of our democracy once again. To do this, we need to realise that some offence will be caused because people are passionate. Shutting out arguments which some may find offensive is just regressive; encouraging people to be offended is just stupid and curbing freedom of speech is just dictatorial.
Freedom of speech is a great thing. Here in the UK it has brought forward women’s rights and the Chilcot Inquiry after the Iraq War. It has exposed the MPs’ expenses scandal and financial doping in FIFA. It is the bedrock which our Universities rest on. As students in a liberalised western country, we take freedom of speech for granted and it is this complacency that is creating the culture of safe spaces, which do free speech great harm. St Andreans should say goodbye to safe spaces and make The Bubble a safe space for freedom of speech.