As universities across the U.K. roll out policies instituting safe spaces on campus, which enforce rules against any form of speech that is intolerant and insensitive, students have taken a hostile stance against them. Viewed as shutting down debate, dialogue, and discourse on topics of identity, beliefs, and culture, students have taken to the streets to push back against this institutional development.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic pond, students in the U.S. have adopted a similar attitude towards institutional designs to establish safe zones. This is the story of Columbia University junior Adam Shapiro. In an op-ed piece run by the Columbian Spectator, the flagship publication of the university, Adam said that college is both a space and time intended to nurture critical thought and reflection, not blind faith and dogmatism. He said that what drew him to Columbia was the liberal culture that prized free speech and rational thought above all – a kind of culture that would host Iran’s then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denied the Holocaust and questioned the existence of gay citizens in his country. While Shapiro maintains that no one should ever feel physically unsafe or subject to hate speech, a completely frank and open culture better counters bigotry while ensuring that all value systems are tested by all. It is this belief that led him to ignore a flyer that was slipped under his door inviting him to declare his room a safe space and instead put up a notice announcing it to be a ‘dangerous space’.
To begin, I must establish that I am a firm proponent of open dialogue and discourse. I believe that a free marketplace of ideas will serve us well, if it is truly free and fair by all. I acknowledge the power of rationality in changing views. But, like any other creation of the human mind, rational thought and discourse contain their own flaws. Allow me to illustrate why Adam Shapiro’s ‘dangerous space’, though perhaps well intended, is far more dangerous than he may realize.
“We need dangerous spaces where bad ideas can die and good ones can flourish” is what Adam expects of these spaces. The question that begs to be asked is who is to distinguish between bad and good? The history of humanity is a gargantuan textbook of examples demonstrating that we have struggled to understand and adjust to differences. In a society in which the majority outweigh the minority, and the crescendo of the vociferous extremists can prevail upon the silent moderates, violence can reign unchecked. One could argue that universities are structurally and culturally different and do not represent the dynamics of society, but here we run into that age-old predicament of generalizing our mythic expectations of a place of esoteric learning and the nature of an exceptional few to the masses, who tend to remain quiet and unaware. Universities in their natural state do represent society, for modern education does not always translate to social awareness. If one were to analyze any social justice movement, it is evident that stigmatized groups were never handed rights from the ether. Neither were they won through debate and discourse alone. Rather, these groups made their voices heard, and became a thorn in the side of institutions, thereby prompting structural change. Mainstream public opinion was perhaps the last to change. The suffragette movement and the LGBTQ+ movement stand as prime examples. If we were to consider the latter, when the first homophile movement was chartered at (ironically) Columbia University in 1967, the Columbian Spectator was overwhelmed with complaints by students deriding the institution’s decision to acknowledge a gay rights movement. These problems plague us to the present day, from the controversy that gripped all of Dartmouth in 2013 to the homophobia and transphobia that exists in college sports culture.
We must wonder, why do colleges buckle under pressure and institute such policies? Is it not to safeguard the personhood of those who have been victimized for far too long? My concern with dangerous spaces is that, despite the best of intentions, they can be subverted to cause more harm than good. When spaces do not contain any rules or safeguards, then the law of the jungle prevails. How do we break past the barriers that the victimized have erected due to years of oppression, if they know that they are offered no protection? How do we encourage those who live in the margins, the closets, and shadows to step into these circles and be authentic? How do we deal with those stubborn few who refuse to accept differences, who now are given free license to hurt and mar? How do we prevent celebrity status and social influence from granting some voices more power than others? There is a grave danger in these dangerous spaces for the voice of diversity to be stifled and only the mainstream rhetoric to be heard. For the sake of argument, let us disregard all of these concerns and assume a foolproof system that ensures that all are heard, and equally. What if the majority decide, through pure reason, that the minority is wrong? Does this mean that the identities, beliefs, values, and culture of a minority must fall prey to the whims of the collective? Even democracy, the bastion of collective rule, strives to avoid the trap of majoritarianism by instituting minority rights.
What is the alternative, you may ask? Embrace safe spaces is my response. Safe spaces and rational discourse are not mutually exclusive. In fact, we should do all that is in our power to facilitate discussion and debate within safe spaces, on the understanding that certain voices cannot be stifled. And this does not mean that everyone should be or will be well informed and in full agreement. These spaces should be a testing ground where we are unafraid to make mistakes in order to learn, and unafraid to disagree in order to realize that different does not mean danger. While imperfect, these spaces have the most potential to foster a culture of reason in its purest form, impervious to human failings.