Why safe spaces are destroying campus culture

Woman with her fingers in her ears
Image credit: www.damselsinsuccess.co.uk

A few years ago, the university campus was a very different place. Students came from vastly different backgrounds, bringing with them their personal experiences and world views which they held dear. The environment was a very unique blend of cultures that were difficult to encounter anywhere else. The students were under the impression that at university they could be true to themselves and mix with others who shared similar interests, no matter how niche they believed them to be. In the past, you’d find almost any combination of friendship groups because, in the end, they all shared one goal: to cultivate themselves, to grow as individuals and, dare I say it, to learn and discuss views with one another that they might disagree on. 

In recent years there has been a movement bubbling under the surface of university campuses. Initially, it started with trigger warnings (or, should I say, content warnings? The word ‘trigger’ has been deemed too triggering for some people). For instance, an academic, for the purposes of carrying out their lecture, might want to make reference to an incident of rape. If a student attending this lecture has experienced trauma relating to rape, either indirectly or directly, they have the right to be informed that the subject of rape will be raised. This is a form of a trigger warning, allowing the student to be prepared. The student might choose not to attend the lecture and instead, privately discuss the subject matter with the academic lecturer in a comfortable environment. Alternatively, the student might decide to attend the lecture and face their traumas with confidence, an experience that some people cannot properly comprehend and completely rule out.

After trigger warnings settled in, students went further, rallying for the complete removal of controversial topics such as rape from course syllabuses. This not only prevented the issue from being discussed but most importantly, prevented people who have not encountered such traumatic experiences to learn about what people have been through and better understand the mindset of the victims. The next step, were the so-called; “micro-aggressions.” Take for example, a room full of students from different backgrounds. The lecturer might be interested in starting a conversation and learning more about their students, so they ask a student with a white complexion where they are from. This action raises no concerns. However, when an Asian student in the room is asked the exact same question, the lecturer might be accused of committing what could be classed as a, “micro-aggression.” By asking, “Where are you from?” you are implying that the Asian student is not from the same country, perhaps the UK, and are deeming them as a foreigner. Therefore, you are indirectly oppressing, targeting and categorising them as a minority in the class.

As a result of these developments, the idea of “safe spaces” emerged. They were largely spearheaded by feminist and LGBTQ societies on university campuses who believed their emotions and well-being were not being taken into consideration within their environment. (I am not implying that these societies are wrong about this. In addition I am not stating that it is solely them who are in favour of safe spaces. You can find anyone from every sex, race, religion, etc. being involved in the promotion of safe spaces). 

Now, it is important to understand what I mean by a “safe space.” A “safe space” is an environment in which anyone can feel welcome and is able to express their view regardless of their sex, race, gender identity, religion etc. This seems like a very reasonable movement, so why am I considering them as disastrous for campus culture?

Well, quite often views such as, “Men have issues too” are deemed as “incorrect” or “bigoted” by those involved in “safe-spaces” and are immediately silenced in these environments. One example can be found on our very own campus. I am, of course, talking about the cancellation of International Men’s Day at the University of York.  International Men’s Day was created to raise awareness for neglected issues, such as the extremely high suicide rates of males and men being victims of domestic abuse. These are issues that “safe spaces” often disregard. This is largely due to the conception of “patriarchy”; the idea that males are too privileged to have issues and therefore, lead an easy life.

Anyone who dares to publicly speak against the views of “safe spaces” are quickly silenced and banned from campuses in an attempt to not offend those involved. An example of this being the cancelled talk at Manchester University late last year, titled, “From Liberation to Censorship: Does feminism have a problem with free speech?” This talk involved men’s rights activist, Milo Yiannopoulos and feminist speaker, Julie Bindel. However, both speakers were banned and accused of spreading hate speech. Since then, Julie Bindel has been labelled as “transphobic” and has even been compared to Hitler. Evidently, those who banned the event did not want the topic of the debate to be discussed because it challenged their views.

Now, the idea of “safe spaces” is starting to infiltrate our student unions, in particular, the NUS. Those with positions of influence have developed a no-platform system, preventing public speakers who hold opposing views to them to speak at universities nationwide. Even at an NUS event, audience members were told to refrain from clapping and were instead encouraged to use ‘jazz hands’ as “clapping can cause anxiety.”

This is causing a large shift in the culture around campus; the proponents of “safe spaces” are attempting to influence people into believing that “safe spaces” are essential. The people who support these “safe spaces” claim to be very supportive of freedom of speech, but it is clear that they are promoting the exact opposite. As a result, students on campus are reluctant to express a view that differs from what they are “supposed to have” because they fear they’ll be dubbed as bigots.

Recently, a black student on his way to a talk hosted by Yiannopoulos was threatened with physical violence by Black Lives Matter activists, for not having the ideology that they believed a black student ‘should’ have. The Black Lives Matter group have been strongly associated with the “safe space” movement yet, by using violent threats on a student, they exhibit the exact opposite of what these “safe spaces” are trying to achieve. Even if you are part of a minority these people seek to protect, you are not immune from their criticism. The NUS is now telling LGBT societies to remove their gay men’s representative because they are no longer ‘reasonably’ oppressed by society.

Gone is the rich culture of individual thought and exchange of ideas on campus. Instead it has been replaced by a horrendous mass who tower over you, saying “Your views are wrong!” ready to slander you with false accusations of maliciousness if you dare to say otherwise.

Thankfully, we are reaching the end of this dark time of campus culture, as people are starting to take notice of the disastrous effects of “safe spaces.” When you actually start to listen to the people involved, you begin to realise how shameful and ridiculous their actions are. I could list endless examples of this, such as Yale’s Halloween incident back in November to the more recent banning of chalk writing on certain campuses in America. This was due to people feeling threatened by certain words. It seems that these people have simply run out of things to complain about and yet, despite this, are making best efforts to keep this victim complex in place.

In the end, these people can only be perceived as bullies, desperately trying to convince themselves that they are a victim of society by kicking and screaming out into the world. When life doesn’t go according to their plan, they cite bigotry and oppression which they then pass onto the next generation and so, the cycle continues.

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Alexander Waudby

Technical Director of The Yorker. University of York Third Year Mathematics Student.