Imposing a views blackout

Do students’ rising demands for ‘safe space’ reveal a reluctance to be challenged, or a new zeal for political engagement?

November 26, 2015
Candle burning in blacked-out room

The recent nationwide protests in the US against racism on campus have once again propelled the issue of “coddled students” into the headlines.

A national day of protest last week, identified by the Twitter hashtag #StudentBlackOut, was sparked by two incidents. One, reported by Times Higher Education, was the resignation of University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe in the wake of protests about his alleged failure to do enough to combat racism. This was followed by the victorious activists’ muscular refusal to allow an Asian student, working for the media network ESPN, to photograph the tent city they had set up on campus. (One protester tweeted: “It’s typically white media who don’t understand the importance of respecting black spaces.”)

The other flashpoint was student outrage at the suggestion by a Yale University expert in child development that an official Yale email urging students not to wear potentially racially offensive Halloween costumes, such as Native American headdresses, was misguided, as it relieved students of the responsibility of making their own judgements. When she was defended by her husband, the master of one of Yale’s colleges, both were subjected to insults and calls for them to be evicted from their college house.

Many US commentators were less than impressed. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, for instance, objected that “college is not supposed to be a ‘safe space’, as one Yale student demanded. It is supposed to be a provocative environment – broadening, not sheltering.”

Similar worries are often expressed in the UK. Students recently petitioned Cardiff University to cancel a lecture by the eminent feminist author Germaine Greer because of her statement that she does not consider transgender women to be women (the event eventually went ahead last week). In an opinion piece in this week’s Times Higher Education, Geraldine Van Bueren, professor of international human rights law at Queen Mary University of London, worries that such calls cross the “thin line between creating a safe space and restricting freedom of speech”.

One view would be that, far from offering proof that students are being coddled, no-platform campaigns and demands for so-called trigger warnings are evidence of a student body that is highly politically engaged, and empowered like never before – principally via the internet – to challenge the status quo (an argument that will be explored in greater depth in next week’s THE). But even so, many are concerned by what appears to be the growing trend for students to refuse even to listen to contrary views. Last week, the Daily Mail asked whether UK students are the “new fascists”.

In the end, the charge of coddling may be one that is best addressed on a case-by-case basis. In the wake of the latest terrorist attacks, few would defend the right of extremists to hold rallies in support of Islamic State, even were it legal. But if we accept that no-platforming is sometimes appropriate, the question is where we should draw the line.

The answer is always likely to be difficult to reach and bruising to defend, but if critical thinking remains key to universities’ missions, the best approach is surely to err on the side of permissiveness and engagement. Students may be at an impressionable age, but if they cannot be trusted to listen to the argument and form their own conclusions about controversial views, then what does that say about the efficacy of higher education?

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